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Free Study Guide-King Lear by William Shakespeare-Free Online Book Notes
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ACT IV, SCENE 1

Summary

Still disguised as the filthy beggar Tom, Edgar tries to be optimistic and cheerful. He says that it is better to be openly despised than to be openly flattered and secretly despised. In his beggar's garb, he is no longer troubled by the contempt that society heaps on him. Then an old man leads Gloucester in front of Edgar. At the sight of his blinded father, Edgar's optimism breaks down. He feels tremendous pity for his father and knows that his own misfortunes are nothing in comparison to Gloucester's anguish. Still ignorant of the beggar's true identity, Gloucester asks Edgar to lead him to a cliff in Dover. Edgar agrees, and the two set out, a beggar leading a blind man.

Notes

In his soliloquy, Edgar is presented as a model of patience and endurance in the face of adversity. He believes that he has suffered the worst that fate has in store for him and adopts a cheerful attitude for his circumstances. His optimism is quickly dashed, however, when the "blinded and bloody" Gloucester is led before him.


Gloucester, driven to the edge of sanity, states, "I stumbled when I saw." It is a reference to his figurative blindness when he could actually see; he was unable to view the truth of his sons' hearts and misjudged them both foolishly. His figurative blindness led him to stumble--to make the mistake of accepting Edmund and banishing Edgar. Now that he is literally blind, he longs for Edgar, not realizing he is at hand. He dreams of touching his son once again and says, "Might I but live to see thee in my touch, I'd say I have eyes again." Gloucester's pain and misery is great, just like the pain and misery felt by Lear, who also misjudged his offspring.

Gloucester is embittered by his fate and says, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/They kill us for their sport." But in his misery, Gloucester has a new identification with humanity, much like Lear. Still unaware that the beggar is his son, he hands over his purse to him in generosity.

Critics have often questioned why Shakespeare does not allow Edgar to reveal himself to Gloucester at this point. The answer seems to be that Gloucester must hit rock bottom, going far beyond ordinary human suffering, before he can be spiritually redeemed.

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