King Lear Act Four plot synopsis: reunions (you could end it here…please, end it here)

Previously in King Lear:

While Act One was filled with mistakes made and bad behavior, Act Two was all about the dark clouds rising-–the ratcheting up pressure against those characters that we care about (Edgar, Lear and Kent all facing tribulations). Act Three brought more tribulations to these three (putting them together in the storm), then added another victim into mix, and made it even worse for him: Gloucester, betrayed by his bastard son Edmund, had his eyes put out by Cornwall (though the duke was injured doing so).

Act Four begins on the heath, with Edgar still using his Poor Tom o’Bedlam identity. Alone, he soliloquizes on his lowly state, but reveling in it: “To be worst, // The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, // Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear” (IV.i.2-4). Had he been a king, had power, he would live in fear; from his state, though, things can only get better, he can only “return…to laughter” (IV.i.6).

Or so he thinks.

It can get worse, and it does.

He sees his father being led by an old man. Gloucester wants the old man to leave him, fearing that any help the old man gives him “may hurt” (IV.i.17) the old man. The old man refuses to leave him because he cannot see his way; Gloucester responds, “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes. // I stumbled when I saw” (IV.i.18-9). He laments his state but hopes to “see [Edgar] in [his] touch” (IV.i.23), to which Edgar can only say in aside, “Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst”? // I am worse than e’er I was…And worse I may be yet. The worst is not // So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” (IV.i.25-26, 27-28). This could well be the moral of the rest of the story of this play.

When the old man recognizes Edgar as Poor Tom and calls him a madman, Gloucester remembers seeing him the night before, though ironically admits, “My son // Came into my mind, and yet my mind // Was then scarce friends with him” (IV.i.33-35). Gloucester again asks the old man to leave him, now to leave him with the naked beggar. The old man agrees, and leaves to bring Tom better clothes.

Gloucester gives Poor Tom a purse with money, asking him to take him to Dover, and promises that if he brings Gloucester to the “very brim” (IV.i.70), he’ll give Poor Tom a greater reward, and “from that place // [Gloucester] shall no leading need” (IV.i.72-73), implying that he will commit suicide. Edgar agrees, and they head off.

Act Four, Scene Two, takes us to Goneril and Albany’s castle where Goneril and Edmund are greeted by Oswald who informs Goneril that Albany is a “changed” (IV.ii.3) man. He had smiled when informed of the invading army, said Goneril’s arrival was “worse” (IV.ii.6), and when told about “Gloucester’s treachery // And of [Edmund’s] loyal service” (IV.ii.6-7) tells Oswald that the steward has got the story backwards.

Goneril tells Edmund that he shouldn’t be there, and sends him back to Regan, with directions for Cornwall to prepare for war. She means to take over the martial role of her house and to “give the distaff // Into [her] husband’s hands” (IV.ii.17); she will become the man of the house. She kisses Edmund before he leaves, and he pledges that he is hers “in the ranks of death” (IV.ii.25).

When Albany enters, he has no such pledge for her, instead telling her, “You are not worth the dust which the rude wind // Blows in your face” (IV.ii.31-2). As they continue to trade insults, a messenger arrives with news: “the Duke of Cornwall’s dead” (IV.ii.38). When Albany hears the whole story (Gloucester’s eyes, the servant protecting him), he praises divine justice in punishing Cornwall. Goneril exits after admitting in an aside, “[Regan] being widow, and my Gloucester with her, // May all the building in my fancy plug // Upon my hateful life” (IV.ii.52-4). So, Goneril fancies a future with Edmund and now fears that Regan, being a legitimate widow (see what I did there?), will have the upper hand with the bastard, and ruin Goneril’s fantasy. When Albany learns that it was Edmund who brought about Gloucester’s torture, Albany vows revenge for now blind old man.

In the short Act Four, Scene Three, the French army arrives, led by Cordelia. She has seen (or has received reports of) her father wandering in the fields, “mad as the vexed sea” (IV.iii.2), and crowned with weeds. She sends out men to find her father. She receives additional news the the English army is marching toward her position, but she says that she was expecting this. She says that she is there in England not because of “blown ambition…but love, dear love” (IV.iii.26, 27) of her father.

Act Four, Scene Four takes us back to Gloucester’s house where Regan receives information from Goneril’s steward, Oswald. While Albany is leading Goneril’s army, Oswald says that Goneril “is the better soldier” (IV.iv.4). Oswald has a letter to give to Edmund, but he’s not there. Regan has realized that it was a mistake to “let [Gloucester] live” (IV.iv.11), and she “thinks” (IV.iv.12) Edmund has gone, “in pity of his misery, to dispatch // His nighted life” (IV.iv.13-14). If this is true, Edmund is a real bastard (colloquial, not literal…though that, too).

The battle is about to happen, and Regan tells Oswald to stay with her, but he says he must deliver Goneril’s letter to Edmund, so Regan gives him a message for Edmund from herself. She tells Oswald,

I know your lady does not love her husband
She gave strange oeillades and most speaking looks
To noble Edmund… [but]
My lord is dead. Edmund and I have talked
And more convenient is he for my hand
Than for your lady’s.
  • IV.iv.25, 27-28, 32-34

She also tells Oswald to kill “that blind traitor” (IV.iv.39) as she will reward whoever does it. As he exits, he says he hopes to meet Gloucester so that he can “show // What party [he does] follow” (IV.iv.41-2).

To begin Act Four, Scene Five, Edgar (now wearing clothes of a peasant, presumably a present from the old man from the act’s first scene) leads Gloucester. Edgar tells Gloucester that they are climbing toward the cliffs of Dover, but Gloucester feels “the ground is even” (IV.v.3). Gloucester is suspicious: the ground’s even, he can’t hear the sea Edgar speaks of, and even Edgar’s voice “is altered, and [he] speak’st // In better phrase and matter than thou didst” (IV.v.7-8). To distract him from the truth, Edgar stands Gloucester at what he claims is the “extreme verge” (IV.v.26) of the cliff.

Gloucester kneels and “renounce[s]” (IV.v.35) the world, and in what he thinks will be his final words calls for the gods to “bless” (IV.v.40) Edgar. Gloucester falls forward, and Edgar speaks to him in a new and different voice as if he has just found the blind man on the beach. Gloucester wants to be left alone to die, but this new Edgar says that he watched Gloucester fall, and that survival is what was meant to be, as “[Gloucester’s] life’s a miracle” (IV.v.55).

Into this reunion comes another old man–Lear, mad, crowned with weeds, and speaking gibberish. Gloucester recognizes the voice, asking, “Is’t not the king?” to which Lear answers, “Ay, every inch a king” (both IV.v.107). Lear then launches into a madly bawdy speech about adultery and sex. The ensuing conversation between the blind and the mad “breaks” (IV.v.140) Edgar’s heart. And after all the “matter and impertinency mixed” (IV.v.172), Lear recognizes Gloucester.

A gentleman with attendants enters and attempts to take Lear into custody, but the old man runs off. Only they were part of Cordelia’s army, not those meaning to do him harm. The attendants chase Lear, leaving the gentleman to tell Edgar of the impending battle before he too leaves.

The meeting with Lear seems to have helped Gloucester, who no longer wants to die. As the still (and newly) disguised Edgar begins to take Gloucester to safety, Oswald enters and states his intention to “destroy” (IV.v.228) Gloucester. Edgar intervenes and ends up mortally wounding Oswald. Before the steward dies though, he asks Edgar to deliver the letters in his possession to Edmund.

Edgar reads the letter from Goneril, and discovers her plot to have Edmund kill Albany to save her from being a “prisoner, and [Albany’s] bed is [her] jail” (IV.v.263). Edgar vows to deliver the letter to Albany, then leads his father to safety (and though he continually calls Gloucester “father,” it’s assumed that this is just a term of endearment and that he has not revealed himself to his father…yet).

The sixth and final scene of Act Four takes us back to the French camp where Cordelia thanks Kent (still disguised, but she knows who he is) for his “goodness” ( to the king. Kent will not reveal his identity to the rest of the world until later, he says, “till time and [he] think[s] meet” ( The captured but now sleeping Lear is brought in, and Cordelia marvels at him and how he’s suffered. When he wakes, she speaks to him. At first, he thinks she is a “spirit” (, but he slowly comes around to recognizing both Cordelia and Kent.

When Cordelia cries with joy, Lear misinterprets the gesture, and begs for a chance to make it right:

If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause; they have not.

His raging madness is gone, and father and daughter are reunited.

And you could end the play there, reasonably happily (as many productions did for the next two centuries, but more on that in the weeks to come), but that ain’t the way Willy Shakes ended it.

Remember that it’s The Tragedy of King Lear that we’re reading. So “happily ended” is not in our future. Our Act Five is much much darker…

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