BB: King Lear, Act IV

Artwork - Leigh MacRae
Artwork – Leigh MacRae

After a week off for the long Easter weekend, welcome Brawlers to act IV of Shakespeare’s bleak masterpiece, King Lear!

Listen to or download the podcast.

Also, How awesome is all of this artwork, right?

If act III is the height of the storm, then act IV of King Lear takes us on walk through the devastation after the hurricane winds have begun to let up… sort of.

In the last act, Lear was cast out into the wilderness by his daughters. Gloucester was betrayed by his son Edmund and blinded by the cruel Cornwall and Regan. As for the fool? He’s wandered off-stage, never to be seen again.

In act IV scene 1, Edgar – still in disguise as Tom O’Bedlam – encounters his blinded father by the heath where he had previously taken shelter with Lear, Kent and the fool. When Edgar sees what has become of his father, he is moved to pity but somehow manages to keep up his disguise and offers to serve as his eyes. Gloucester pays Edgar to lead him to the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester’s intention is plain: he means to jump to his death.

It seems that Kent’s message made it to Cordelia and she is headed for England with an army from France and intends to reclaims the kingdom from her sisters and rescue Lear. Goneril, Edmund and Oswald are discussing the preparations for war at the start of scene 2. However, it seems that not everybody is equally committed to defend this territory from Cordelia’s armies. Albany appears to be all too happy that Goneril and Regan’s control of England is being threatened and appears to have very little intention of fighting. Fearing that she cannot trust her “Milk-liver’d man” Albany, Goneril places Edmund in charge of her forces. Additionally, she gives him some token of her affection to indicate that she has no love for Albany. of course, moments later Albany himself shows up to answer these charges of cowardice and instead accuse her of being cruel and heartless. When he hears that Gloucester has lost his eyes, he vows to avenge him.

By scene 3, the French forces has landed at Dover and made contact with Kent. We learn that the King of France has not accompanied this army as some pressing business called him back to France. We also learn that Cordelia was genuinely moved by Kent’s letters about her father. Surprise, surprise: she’s Lear’s good daughter. Kent informs them that Lear is in Dover and he leaves to bring him back to Cordelia.

The next scene is a short exchange between Cordelia and the doctor. He also sends out more men to find lear and bring him back. Cordelia asks him; can Lear be cured? The doctor appears confident that he can do so. Towards the end, a messenger arrives to inform Cordelia that the English forces are marching. She is ready to meet them and confesses that she is not here to conquer England but because she loves her father.

Oswald has made his way to Regan’s castle in scene 5. She asks about whether or not Albany’s forces has joined the battle on their side. Oswald says yes, but that Goneril is a better soldier as she is more committed to the cause. Regan also asks Oswald about a letter Goneril is asking him to deliver to Edmund. A jealous Regan asks about the contents of the letter but Oswald denies any knowledge of the contents. Regan does not seem convinced. She tells him to put Goneril on guard: she wants Edmund for herself and seeing as Cornwall is dead (did we miss something?), she’s a better match than she is. She also gives him a note to deliver to Edmund.

Edgar has lead Gloucester to the fields near Dover in scene 6 but he has no intention of letting his father commit suicide. Instead, Edgar vividly describes the imagined view from the cliffs of Dover to convince his father that they are at the right spot and then tells him to jump. However, Gloucester only falls a few feet and is greeted ‘at the bottom of the cliff’ by Edgar posing as some random passer-by. He acts amazed and tells Gloucester that his life has been miraculously saved when he flew down the cliff instead of falling. Edgar also describes how he appears to have jumped and escaped some devilish influence personified by the deamon-hunted Tom O’Bedlam.

That’s a really interesting scene. So much of Shakespeare’s theatre is descriptive. We’re not really used to this. Motion pictures can – and do – show us everything. If we were to depict this in a movie, there’s a good chance that we would see Edgar and Gloucester in what could pass for the fields outside Dover. Maybe Gloucester is standing on a small rise in the field – just high enough so he can feel like he’s falling for just a second before hitting the ground when he jumps. Perhaps we can actually hear the sound of the cliffs in the distance – or something that could pass for it. However, the whole point of this scene is that there’s nothing like that. It’s entirely dependant on Edgar’s description for its effect.

In some ways, maybe our eyes are getting in the way? Gloucester seems to think so.

Shakespeare often embeds these descriptive moments in his plays: he’ll tell us what time of day it is, have dialogue about where the action is supposed to be taking place, or even tell us what the weather is like. But really, it never happens on stage, it’s all in our minds just like Gloucester’s attempted suicide happens only in his mind.

And yet, in the same way that Gloucester’s make-belive miracle has made him stop thinking about suicide, these made-up scenes have lead us to think about suicide, suffering, infirmity, old age and madness. This scene is an elaborate argument in defense of the power of literature and storytelling.

Very meta. Very Shakespeare.

After this moment, King Lear wanders on stage. He is rambling about how he is the rightful king and how that is a title his daughters cannot take away from him. In fact, part of the evidence he points to is that his face is the mark of legal tender: it shows up on British money. Gloucester and Lear recognise one another and spend some time commiserating. Cordelia and Kent’s people find Lear and bring him off-stage towards Cordelia’s camp. Edgar and Gloucester remain behind. Oswald arrives on the scene and remembering what Regan told him earlier – that she wished she’s killed Gloucester after they blinded him – decides to kill Gloucester. Edgar interposed himself and stats speaking in a funny Eastern European or evil Bond villain accent.

They fight and Edgar kills Oswald. With his dying breath, he tells Edgar that if he’s looking to advance his station, he should deliver the letters Oswald is carrying to Edmond.

Why does he tell him this? Who the hell knows.

However, it’s just what you would expect at this point: the scene where the villain’s evil plot is completely revealed to the hero and the audience, thereby giving them the tools they need to oppose the villain. We learn that Edmund has made deals with both sisters and that the two sisters are planing on betraying one another for his sake. Edgar keeps the letters as evidence. He also finally reveals his identity to his father.

At long last, Lear and Cordelia are reunited in scene 7. It seems that the doctor has successfully cured him of whatever madness had possessed him. Cordelia thanks Kent for his loyal service and offers to proclaim his part in keeping Lear safe but Kent asks her not to, explaining that he still needs to keep his disguise for a while longer. After a few moments, Lear awakens. He is confused by the clean clothes he has on and believes himself to be dead for a few moments. He tells Cordelia that if she wants to be rid of him, he will gladly kill himself but she reassures him and they walk out together. Kent confirms Regan’s earlier statement: seems that Cornwall was killed but it’s not clear how he died… And I’m sure that Regan had absolutely nothing to do with that.

What’s going to happen next? I won’t give you any specifics, but I bet you’re not going to like it.

Tune in next week for the dramatic conclusion of King Lear! (And I can assure you that it will be dramatic!)

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean)

Bonus sonnet 52 read by Stephanie.

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