ACT III – Scene.vii
(Back at the heath)
The information Cornwall received from Edmund concerning the invasion by the
French army is passed on to Goneril with the assumption that the Duke of Albany will command the English forces. Cornwall then orders that the traitor Gloucester is to be captured and Regan urges that he be
hanged, but the crueler Goneril suggests that eyes be plucked out. Cornwall advises Edmund that he should not be present when his father is caught and punished.
Oswald, Goneril’s steward, reports that the Earl of Gloucester arranged for
Lear to be transported to Dover. Gloucester is captured and brought before Cornwall. Regan humiliates the old man by plucking his beard and when questioned, Gloucester freely admits that he had arranged
Lear’s transport to Dover in order to save him from the cruelty of his daughters. Cornwall removes one of Gloucester’s eyes and crushes it on the floor with his foot. One of Cornwall’s own servants
pleads with his master to stop this cruelty and comes to Gloucester’s defense.
The servant draws his sword and wounds Cornwall, but he is slain by Regan. Cornwall then removes Gloucester’s other eye, and in his anguish, the old man cries out for Edmund. The cruel Regan informs Gloucester that it was Edmund who has betrayed him. Realizing his folly, Gloucester prays for forgiveness and hopes that his true son Edgar will be spared. Gloucester is banished from the castle.
Cornwall leaves, bleeding profusely from the wound he received from his
Some of the servants who have witnessed this scene are horrified and they
follow after Gloucester in order to assist him. Poor Tom (Edgar in disguise) takes over the care of his father, but does not reveal his identity.
Arguably, this scene is one of the most appalling to be found in dramatic
literature. Its impact may have been more severe had Shakespeare not prepared his audience well in advance. We have an inkling of what the various characters are capable of and they do not disappoint us.
When Gloucester is asked why he arranged for Lear to be sent to Dover he
replies to Regan, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails pluck out his poor old eyes; not thy fierce sister in his anointed flesh still boarish fangs.” Cornwall then has Gloucester held in a chair and
he says, “Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot '' Out, vile jelly! Where is thy luster now?”
Gloucester responds, “Where’s my son Edmund? '' to quit this horrid act.” As well as being tortured physically by Cornwall, Regan mentally tortures the old man by revealing Edmund’s treachery.
Even the modern day audience will be appalled at this scene, but it is true
to say that the Shakespearean audience also had the same appetite for violence, but even by his standards Shakespeare outreaches himself in this scene.
We see that this clique of evil characters have usurped the old values of
love for parents, respect for the aged and sympathy for those less fortunate, and replaced these by a brutal regime, hungry for power and possessions.
In particular there is a strong prejudice shown against the older characters by their children and their partners. When insulting Gloucester particular reference is made to his age and looks, his withered arms and white beard that Regan plucks.
We now see Gloucester in his true light as loyal subject to King Lear and he
honestly admits that he aided Lear in his escape to Dover, considering this to be a noble act.
Again there is further reference to sight or the lack of it.
Gloucester’s inability to see Edmund’s treachery is reinforced by the removal of his eyes. He realizes that he has grossly misjudged Edgar, and although he knows there is no hope of receiving forgiveness from his first-born son, he does pray for Edgar’s safety. The defiant Gloucester, before losing his sight, does give the audience a glimmer of hope by saying, “But I shall see the winged vengeance overtake such children.” This prompts Cornwall to follow Goneril’s instructions to remove Gloucester’s eyes so that his prophecy cannot come true.
The importance of this scene and its impact can only be fully appreciated by
viewing this spectacle on stage. Some of the drama is lost when just reading the text. Its success depends much on the acting ability of the players.
In the earlier scenes we have noted Cornwall’s eloquent speech, which
bolsters the fa'ade of civility that hides the beast that lies beneath this veneer of respectability. In this scene we see the beast breaking through this thin skin of civilization and it is the manifestation
of evil that we witness. Cornwall does not attempt to restrain himself; his cruelty is fully vented against poor Gloucester.
Many of the ‘good’ characters have called upon the gods to assist them, but
up until now, evil has prevailed. Although both Lear and Gloucester have made many errors between them, the injustice they have suffered is disproportionate, and the audience must wonder when these brutal and
cruel acts will cease so that good can prevail.
We also obtain an insight into how the common people react to this
situation. There are at least three servants witnessing this episode.
One is moved to protect Gloucester by stabbing Cornwall, the other two pass comment on the proceedings at the end of the scene when the main characters exit.
This scene is also notable for the fact that it shows the only human aspect
in the character of Regan when she shows sympathy for Cornwall’s wounding.