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Free Study Guide-King Lear by William Shakespeare-Free Online Book Notes
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ACT II, SCENE 4

Summary

It is the evening of the same day. An exhausted Lear arrives at Gloucester Castle accompanied by the Fool and a Gentleman. The King is already upset over the treatment meted out to him by Goneril. He is further shocked at the sight of his messenger in the stocks and finds it hard to believe that his daughter and son-in-law could have inflicted such shame. Kent relates to him his dismal reception at Regan's castle, his journey to Gloucester Castle, and his fight with Oswald. Lear feels so disgraced that he acts almost irrationally, hinting of a future breakdown. Instructing his two companions to remain there, he runs into the castle, which is off stage. He soon returns with Gloucester, who conveys a message from Regan and Cornwall. They are not feeling well enough to come out and meet Lear. Despite Gloucester's attempt to soothe him, Lear finds himself unable to bear this discourteous treatment. He is sure that neither his daughter nor her husband is truly indisposed.

Lear has Kent freed and sends him into the castle with a message to Regan and Cornwall, insisting that they come out to greet him. When the couple relents and emerges, their greeting is cold and distant, causing Lear further pain. In spite of the treatment he receives, the King believes that Regan is loyal to him; therefore, he vents his grief over Goneril's behavior towards him. Regan, already aware of what has transpired, meets her father's complaints with a cold politeness. She openly questions Lear, saying she cannot believe that her sister would behave as he has described. She even goes so far as to suggest that perhaps Lear has wronged Goneril. Finally, Regan dares to say that her father should return to Goneril to make things right with her.

Lear flies into a temper at the mention of Goneril's name. He can never forgive her for halving his number of knights and for lashing out at him with unkind words. In a full fury, he rants and raves and finally curses Goneril with Heaven's vengeance. Regan stops her father by crying out that his wrath is making her ill. Brought back to reality, Lear's anger subsides. He then plies Regan with kind words, attempting to pacify her.

In the midst of the scene, Goneril arrives at Gloucester to see Regan. Lear is stunned by her sudden appearance and shocked by the affection shared between the two sisters. Suddenly it dawns upon him that these two daughters are united in this conspiracy against him. Together the girls demand that Lear further reduce his retinue, from fifty to twenty-five. They then decide he really only needs to be attended by their servants and dismiss the rest of the king's men. Suddenly Lear finds himself divested of all his power; he no longer has an army, which is always a symbol of royalty, and he is no longer the supreme ruler of the country. Even though he protests to Regan and Goneril, his words fall on deaf ears. They have accomplished just what they intended. As a result, Lear's cup of sorrow is full; he feels stripped naked. Nearly pushed to the breaking point by his unappreciative and cruel daughters, Lear prays to the gods to give him patience and noble anger. But in his heart, there is deadly hatred and terrible desire for vengeance against his two oldest offspring.


The muted roar of a storm is heard as Lear, followed by the Fool and Kent, rushes out into the wild, dark night. As the storm builds up, the two merciless daughters comment heartlessly over the desperate situation in which they have placed their helpless father. Goneril justifies their acts by placing the blame on Lear's behavior. Regan agrees with her sister and adds that she would give shelter to their father but not to a single follower of his. As Gloucester comes to them with the news that the king is "in high rage," Goneril replies that no appeasement ought to be made. When Gloucester speaks of the rising fury of the stormy winds into which Lear has gone, she mercilessly asserts that the willfulness of the king alone has led to his predicament. With cruelty, Goneril and Cornwall instruct Gloucester to shut the castle doors; Lear is left to the fury of the elements, forced to wander about broken-hearten and desolate.

Notes

This scene is powerful in its presentation of a varied set of emotions that the King experiences and its link to the first scene of the play in which Lear, all powerful and imperious, exiles his most beloved daughter, wrongly accusing her of infidelity. By the end of this scene, the King finds himself outcast and powerless. Because of his foolish attempt to divest himself of responsibility yet retain the crown, Lear has contributed to his own demise.

Lear arrives at Gloucester Castle, seeking refuge from Goneril's cruelty and expecting a warm greeting from Regan. Instead, he finds himself ignored and his trusted messenger, Kent, in stocks. Totally humiliated, he sees this treatment as a "violent outrage" that is "worse than murder." He demands that Regan and Cornwall come out and greet him, but when they emerge, they receive the King coldly. Lear tries to contain his anger and to ingratiate himself to his daughter. He does not even mention Kent being put in stocks. Instead, he tells an already knowledgeable Regan about the treatment he has received from Goneril. Regan feigns disbelief, saying her sister is incapable of such behavior and suggests that Lear has provoked her. Lear, unable to contain himself any longer, explodes in anger and openly curses Goneril. He calls her "a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, / In my corrupted blood."

The King admits to himself that he has wrongly rejected his one virtuous daughter and is grieved by the error. He also tries to convince himself that he still has some power left, even though he no longer has an army and Regan and Goneril are in control. In spite of his pitiful condition, he is fighting to remain calm and retain his sanity. When Goneril arrives on the scene, however, his patience is tried to the maximum, especially when he realizes that the two sisters are conspiring together against him. Together they push their father to the brink when they tell him they will no longer allow him to have any on his own men. Lear cries out, "O! How this mother swells up toward my heart; /Hysterica passion! Down, thy climbing sorrow! /Thy element's brow."

Lear runs out of the castle into the midst of a violent storm raging outside. The miserable weather is a clear reflection of the King's inner turmoil. The storm also allows Regan to display her full cruelty. She closes the castle doors against her own father, locking him out in the storm. Gloucester does nothing to help Lear, proving himself to be weak and ineffectual. Cornwall and Goneril openly support Regan's treatment of Lear. Only the Fool and Kent have the moral courage to stand by the King; but they will be unable to help Lear withstand the storms of his own torments.

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