King Lear Act Two plot synopsis: dark clouds rising

Previously in King Lear:

Act One was filled with mistakes made (Lear exiling both his youngest daughter Cordelia and his adviser Kent for speaking truth–or at least what Lear didn’t want to hear–and Gloucester believing his bastard son Edmund’s story that legitimate son Edgar was plotting against the old man’s life) and bad behavior (of Lear’s knights [offstage], the Fool, Lear himself, Kent, Oswald and most definitely Goneril who demands that Lear release half of his knights, prompting Lear to leave for Regan).

Act Two, Scene One takes us back to Gloucester’s house, and news that Regan and husband Cornwall are heading there for a visit, with rumors–”whispered…ear-kissing arguments” (II.i.7,8)–in the air regarding a possible war between Cornwall and Goneril’s husband Albany. Edmund in soliloquy sees the impending visit as something to incorporate into his plot, his “business” (II.i.15).

Mnemonic device: Edgar (with a G) is the Good brother; Edmund (with an M) is the Malevolent one. Just sayin’.

When Edgar appears, Edmund goes into overdrive with his plot. He tells Edgar that his father is out looking for him and that Edgar must “fly this place” (II.i.20). He also asks if Edgar has spoken out against Cornwall as Cornwall and Regan are coming. Technically, there’s quite a bit of truth to what Edmund says (methinks he took the online Iago equivocation course), but we know this is all part of the plot. He goes on to tell his brother to draw his weapon, so he will look to have defended himself. Why? you may ask. [go ahead, ask] I don’t know…except that maybe the G in Edgar is really for Gullible rather than Good.

Edgar flies, sword in hand, and Edmund wounds himself. His father Gloucester arrives to find the bastard Edmund bleeding and the legitimate gone. Edmund goes on to say that Edgar tried to kill him when he wouldn’t be “persuade[d]…to the murder of [Gloucester]” (II.i.43). Gloucester announces that with Cornwall’s help, he will have Edgar hunted down. In the meantime, Gloucester will “work the means // To make [Edmund] capable [of inheriting Gloucester’s lands and title]” (II.i.83-4).

Cornwall and Regan arrive. They are dismayed by the actions of Edgar, Lear’s own “godson” (II.i.90). Regan asks if Edgar was “not companion to the riotous knights // That tended upon [her] father” (II.i.93-4). Gloucester doesn’t know but Edmund say it’s so, linking bad Edgar to Lear. Again, why? I don’t know. Regardless, Regan and Cornwall heap praise on Edmund, and Gloucester is one proud daddy.

Elsewhere in Gloucester’s castle, both Kent and Oswald arrive separately, having already delivered their respective letters to Regan. Oswald doesn’t recognize Kent from their earlier meeting, but Kent has no such problem, and he is relentless in his insults of Oswald:

A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deny’st the least syllable of thy addition.
  • II.ii.14-23

And that, my friends, is how you insult in Shakespearean. When Oswald does deny, Kent draws his sword to give him the promised beating.

Which is precisely the moment when Cornwall, Regan, Gloucester and the Bastard (my text’s words, not mine) enter. After some entertaining back-and-forth (including Cornwall’s distrust of “plainness” [II.ii.100] and Kent’s response “out of [his] dialect” [II.ii.108], in flowery verse), Kent is found to be guilty in the eyes of Cornwall, and is put in the stocks. Cornwall pronounces the punishment to last until noon, but Regan demands, “Till night…and all night too” (II.ii.134).

Left alone in the stocks, Kent has time to read a letter he has received…from Cordelia “who hath most fortunately been informed” (II.ii.162) of Kent’s disguise and further loyalty to the king, a letter that intimates that she will return, “seeking to give // Losses their remedies’ (II.ii.164-5).

Act Two, Scene Three is a short soliloquy by Edgar, who tells us of his plan: to evade the hunt by disguising himself both physically and behaviorally as a “Bedlam beggar” (II.iii.14), a former patient of London’s Bedlam insane asylum.

He used to be the heir to nobility. Now, he says, “Edgar I nothing am” (II.iii.21).

Act Two, Scene Four takes us back to Gloucester’s castle, where Lear and the Fool arrive to find Kent in the stocks. When Kent tells Lear who put him in the stocks, the old king is incredulous; and after Kent explains what has happened, Lear exits to find his daughter and her husband. Kent and the Fool have a little banter, and Lear returns–but not with Regan and Cornwall, but rather with Gloucester who tries to explain that they have refused to see him.

Lear cannot believe this slight, railing against the insulting treatment to a king. He sends Gloucester to bring Regan and Cornwall, which he does. Kent is set free, and Regan voices her “glad[ness]” (II.iv.119) see her father. He tells her that he believes her, otherwise he’d have to say her mother’s tomb holds “an adult’ress” (II.iv.123). Her sister, he continues, is filled with “sharp-toothed unkindness like a vulture” (II.iv.126). When Lear tries to tell her of his perceived indignities, Regan cuts him short: “You less know how to value her desert // Than she to scant her duty” (II.iv.130-1). What she means by this is that he doesn’t appreciate Goneril’s words and actions any more than Goneril knows how to shirk her duty as a daughter.

Lear cannot abide by Regan’s interpretation that Goneril was right in the actions she took to “restrain…the riots of [his] followers” (II.iv.134), but Regan tells him to return to Goneril and “ask her forgiveness” (II.iv.143). Lear refuses, again raining curses upon her. Regan asks if he would ever curse her so, but Lear says that he wouldn’t because she would never do to him what Goneril has.

Then Goneril arrives, and is welcomed warmly by Regan, who again tells her father what to do:

If till the expiration of your month
You will return and sojourn with my sister,
Dismissing half your train, come then to me.
I am now from home and out of that provision
Which shall be needful for your entertainment.
  • II.iv.194-98

Lear refuses. Again. First claiming he would rather “abjure all roofs” (II.iv.200), he then changes his mind saying he’ll stay with Regan with his “hundred knights” (II.iv.223). Regan again says that she’s not prepared for him, but she may take him in if he “bring[s] but five-and-twenty” (II.iv.241) knights. At that, he says he’ll go with Goneril and his fifty knights, but within mere lines, the daughters question the need for even a single knight.

He rails against his daughters, calling them “unnatural hags” (II.iv.271), promising “such revenges on [them] both” (II.iv.272), and lamenting, “O fool, I shall go mad” (II.iv.279). Is it foreshadowing when it’s already happening? Anyway, with that he leaves with Kent and the Fool.

Even with a storm coming, the daughters promise that neither will take in the old king if he has even a single follower.

Lear heads into the storm…and Act Three.

2 Replies to “King Lear Act Two plot synopsis: dark clouds rising”

  1. I think that in the final paragraph of your synopsis of Act 2, Scene 2, you twice write “Gloucester” when you mean to write “Kent”.

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