Previously in King Lear:
- Edmund framing Edgar for conspiring against and Gloucester and attacking the bastard
- first Goneril disrespecting Lear and denigrating his followers, then Regan taking her side
- Oswald and Cornwall punishing Kent
By the end of the second act, those clouds have opened up into a terrible storm.
Act Three, Scene One takes us onto the heath in the storm. In the mere lines since their exit in Act Two, Lear, the Fool, and Kent have become separated. The disguised Kent runs into another of Lear’s gentlemen, who knows only that that King and the Fool are “contending with the fretful elements” (III.i.4). Kent tells the gentleman that he knows of “division” (III.i.11) between Albany and Cornwall, the husbands of Lear’s oldest two daughters. How does he know this? French “spies” (III.i.16) who have been working as servants in the houses, have given hints not only of the dukes’ dealings but also “the hard rein which both of them hath borne // Against the old kind king” (III.i.19-20). Kent gives the gentleman a purse with something else that he wants delivered to Cordelia if the gentleman should see her, saying “Fear not but you shall” (III.i.26): a ring which will reveal Kent’s identity to her, which she will then reveal to the gentleman. And with that, they go their separate ways in an attempt to find Lear.
The second scene of the act takes place elsewhere on the heath, with Lear and the Fool wandering in the storm. The old king curses the storm, and he has no illusions to what he has become: “A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (III.ii.20). Even as such he calls upon the storm to attack his “two pernicious daughters” (III.ii.22). Kent finds Lear and the Fool, but this does nothing to stop the king’s rant. Calling out the “wretch[es]” (III.ii.52) of the world, guilty of so many crimes, Lear finds himself “more sinned against than sinning” (III.ii.60). When Kent tells Lear of a hovel nearby, Lear begins to show pity for his fool, showing not only concern (“How dost, my boy?” [III.ii.69]), but also empathy (“Art cold? // I am cold myself” [III.ii.69-70]). It’s almost as if Lear’s words–”My wits begin to turn” (III.ii.68)–are more than just wishful thinking. And the trio exits to the hovel.
In Act Three, Scene Three, Gloucester confesses to Edmund that he is feeling sympathy for the old king, and misgivings for conveying these feelings to Regan and Cornwall:
When Edmund voices sympathy, Gloucester counsels him to say nothing. Gloucester, too, has heard of “division between the dukes” (III.iii.8-9), as well as a foreign “power already footed” (III.iii.13) in England to revenge the king’s hardships. He has learned this via a letter that he has locked away in his room. Gloucester has decided to side with the king, and will go look for him; in the meantime, he counsels Edmund to “maintain talk with the duke” (III.iii.15). Gloucester may not care for his own life (which is “threatened” [III.iii.17] by his actions), but he wants his son to “be careful” (III.iii.19).
Once Gloucester leaves, Edmund in soliloquy tells us that he going to immediately tell Cornwall what he knows, and show him the letter, too. After all, he says, “The younger rises when the old doth fall” (III.iii.24).
Act Three, Scene Four, takes us back to the heath, where Lear, the Fool, and Kent have found the hovel. Kent tries to convince Lear to enter, but Lear demurs, saying that the storm isn’t affecting him as much as “the tempest in [his] mind // Doth from [his] senses take all feeling else” (III.iv.12-3) except for his emotions toward his daughters. Even that, though, he tries to bury as, “that way madness lies” (III.iv.21). Lear sends the Fool into the shelter of the hovel, then speaks of his growing connection to others, “to feel what wretches feel” (III.iv.34).
This introspective moment is cut short, however, by a different voice within the hovel: Edgar’s ramblings as the Bedlam beggar (Poor Tom), and the Fool’s fearful response. The two emerge, Edgar bemoaning “the foul fiend” (III.iv.46) that follows him. If Lear had seemed to be gaining lucidity before, it now slips from him again, as he asks Edgar, “Didst thou give all to thy daughters, // And art thou come to this? … Couldst thou save nothing? Wouldst thou give ‘em all?” (III.iv.49-50,64). Empathy, maybe. Still fixated on his own problem? Most definitely. The Fool punctures the moment with some comedy/stage direction, though: “Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we would have all been shamed” (III.iv.65-6). So Edgar is naked save for the blanket.
Lear still tries to tie Poor Tom’s fate to “unkind daughters” (III.iv.71). Lear also sees Poor Tom as the essence of man: “Thou art the thing itself” (III.iv.106), and thus begins to take off his own clothing to become one with the Bedlam beggar. It is into this scene that Gloucester enters, called a dancing devil, “foul Flibbertigibbet” (III.iv.114), by Edgar. Does he recognize his father? There is no definitive answer via aside or soliloquy.
Gloucester wants to take Lear into the hovel (one imagines for safe-keeping, or at least out of the storm), but the king is more interested into talking with “this philosopher…this same learned Theban” (III.iv.152, 155), Poor Tom. While the two talk to each other, apart from the rest, Gloucester laments the state of things, especially his and Lear’s torment at the hands of their children, ironically telling Kent (who, remember, is in disguise), “Ah, that good Kent, // He said it would be thus, poor banished man!” (III.iv.161-62). Lear relents and the group enters Poor Tom’s hovel.
The short fifth scene of the act takes us back to Gloucester’s castle, where Cornwall–having heard of Gloucester’s treacherous support for Lear–rails against the old man to the bastard son Edmund, even going so far as to say, “It was not altogether your brother’s evil disposition made him seek (Gloucester’s) death, but a provoking merit set awork by a reprovable badness” (III.v.6-8) in Gloucester. Cornwall tells Edmund that his father’s actions and Edmund’s loyalty “hath made [Edmund] Earl of Gloucester” (III.v.18).
Act Three, Scene Six takes place in the hovel, where, according to Kent, “all the power of [Lear’s] wits have given way” (III.vi.4). Gloucester leaves to find help for the king, who begins another rant and a kind of verbal trial against his daughters. Kent convinces Lear to rest; Lear asks for quiet for his nap and says, “We’ll go to supper i’ th’ morning” (III.vi.44), to which the Fool says, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (III.vi.45).
Why do I mention this seemingly throwaway line? Because this is the last we’ll hear from or see the Fool. Like Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, the Fool simply vanishes from the play.
Gloucester returns with news that there is “a plot of death upon” (III.vi.49) Lear, and they need to get him to safety. Gloucester tells Kent to take the king to Dover, “where [they] shalt meet // Both welcome and protection” (III.vi.51-2). Dover’s at the sea, one of the nearest points of the English coastline to the French mainland. Any bets who that “welcome and protection” will be? [Can you say “Cordelia”? I knew you could.] The scene ends with them bearing the sleeping Lear away.
The seventh and final scene of the third act is back at Gloucester’s castle. Cornwall, Regan, Goneril, Edmund and others learn that “the army of France is landed” (III.vii.2) in England, and Cornwall orders some servants to “seek out the traitor Gloucester” (III.vii.3). What will they do with him? Regan wants to “hang him instantly” (III.vii.4), while Goneril votes for “pluck[ing] out his eyes” (III.vii.5). Cornwall, as if sensing how unpleasant it must be for Edmund to hear this, tells Edmund to escort Goneril back to her castle, especially since “the revenges … upon [his] traitorous father are not fit for [his] beholding” (III.vii.8). Off go Goneril and Edmund.
Well, that didn’t take long.
Within a half-dozen lines, servants bring in the captured Gloucester. Cornwall has him bound, and Regan and her husband hurl insults and accusations at the old man. Regan, in a show of major disrespect, even plucks at Gloucester’s beard. They demand to know where he has sent the king, and Gloucester tells them the truth (Dover), explaining why he did so:
Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs.
But I shall see
The wingèd vengeance overtake such children.
- III.vii.55-57, 64-65
If you’re counting, that’s two “pluck out” eyes references in this scene alone. And we’re not done.
Cornwall says that Gloucester will not live to see vengeance upon the daughters: “Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot” (III.vii.68), and he puts out one of Gloucester’s eyes. This act brings out the worst and best in those who see it (no pun intended):
- Regan says that “One side [of Gloucester’s face] will mock another; th’ other [eye] too” (III.vii.70) should be removed;
- a nameless servant stands up for Gloucester to Cornwall.
The servant wounds Cornwall before Regan kills the servant. Cornwall puts out Gloucester’s other eye.
Gloucester life is now “all dark and comfortless” (III.vii.84), and he bemoans the absence of Edmund who he’s sure would avenge this cruel act. Regan tells Gloucester that it was Edmund who told them of Gloucester’s “treasons” (III.vii.88). It is only now that Gloucester realizes his “follies,” and that “Edgar was abused” (both III.vii.90). He prays to the gods to forgive him and to allow Edgar to “prosper” (III.vii.91).
Regan has Gloucester kicked out of the castle, then learns that Cornwall’s injuries are worse than originally thought: he “bleed[s] apace” (III.vii.97) and must receive first aid.
And with that bloody scene, Act Three ends.