Study Guide

King Lear Act 2, Scene 4

By William Shakespeare

Act 2, Scene 4

  • Lear and his entourage arrived at Regan's to find her and Cornwall gone. As they wander around the town, Lear finds Kent (whom Lear still thinks is Caius) in the stocks. 
  • He's shocked when Kent says it was Regan and Cornwall who put him there. Lear can't believe they would respect him so little as to punish his messenger and representative.
  • Lear finally asks Kent how this all came to pass. Kent explains he went to the house of Regan and Cornwall bringing the message of Lear's imminent arrival. Once Kent got there, he tried to deliver the news, but was interrupted by Goneril's messenger, who had just arrived.
  • Regan and Cornwall read Goneril's messages first, and then immediately called up their house servants, got on their horses, and ordered Kent to follow them.
  • They all acted rather coldly towards Kent, and once he arrived at Gloucester's house and saw Oswald, he realized that Goneril's message had turned Regan and Cornwall against him.
  • Because of this, the mere sight of Oswald put Kent into a passion, which is why he, Kent, challenged him to a fight, which made Oswald cry out, which raised a ruckus and provided Regan and Cornwall an excuse to lock up Lear's messenger and ignore his message.
  • Lear is furious and says something rather odd: "O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow, thy elements below."
  • Translation: Lear refers to his sorrow and outrage as "hysteria" (a.k.a. "the mother," a.k.a. "hysterica passio"), a disease that was thought to afflict women. What the heck's that mean? Let's turn to one of our favorite scholars, shall we? 
  • In an article called "The Absent Mother in King Lear," literary critic Coppélia Kahn explains that "From ancient times through the nineteenth century, women suffering variously from choking, feelings of suffocation, partial paralysis, convulsions similar to those of epilepsy, aphasia, numbness, and lethargy were said to be ill of hysteria, caused by a wandering womb." 
  • In other words, Lear compares himself to a woman whose uterus is "wandering" around inside her body. Want to know why? Check out "Quotes" for "Gender"... but then come right back.
  • After a rather dramatic reaction to Regan's behavior, Lear decides he will go inside and talk to Regan and Cornwall right away to straighten everything out. He leaves Kent with the Fool and one of Lear's gentlemen.
  • Kent notices that most of the members of Lear's entourage have disappeared.
  • The Fool explains that the knights could sense that the Lear ship was sinking, so they bailed out. Only those too foolish to put their own wellbeing first have stuck around with the aging King.
  • A fuming Lear reenters with Gloucester. Apparently Regan and Cornwall refuse to talk to Lear, coming up with a bunch of weak excuses about being too tired and sick to talk.
  • Lear, who is not used to being turned down, demands that Gloucester bring him a better answer from Regan and Cornwall.
  • As Gloucester presses on that Cornwall has a tendency to be stubborn, Lear hesitates—perhaps the Duke really is sick, and in that case, his absence is justified. Lear knows better than anyone that when a person is ill, they don't always behave rationally.
  • But, when Lear looks back at Caius (who is actually Kent), he flies into a passion again.
  • This audacious action of imprisoning Lear's messenger convinces him that sickness is only an excuse; clearly there's something deeper going on against him with Cornwall and Regan.
  • Threatening to knock down Regan and Cornwall's door if they do not come out, Lear sends Gloucester back inside to fetch them.
  • Regan and Cornwall emerge at last. They release Kent from the stocks without further discussion.
  • When Regan says she's glad to see her father, Lear says something like "You better be, otherwise, you're not my daughter and I'll just have to assume your mom had an affair with the mailman."
  • Lear then complains to Regan about Goneril. He's so swept up in anger with that ungrateful she-devil that, at least at first, he doesn't fly off the handle about Regan's behavior.
  • Regan suggests that Lear is an old and feeble man and ought to go back to Goneril for nurturing.
  • Lear refuses, declaring he's not about to apologize to her, especially for being old. In fact, he hopes Goneril gets hit in the face with lightning.
  • Lear then turns to praising Regan in a grand style, as presumably his newfound hatred for Goneril has put things into perspective.
  • Lear prattles that surely Regan understands the concept of duty to one's father.
  • A trumpet sounds: Goneril has arrived at Gloucester's house. The stage is set for the big confrontation.
  • When Goneril enters, Regan takes her by the hand. The battle lines are drawn.
  • Regan pressures Lear to reduce the number of knights in his entourage and to go back to Goneril's house.
  • What ensues is a spat over the logistics of Lear's unwelcome stay with either daughter: Regan urges Lear to return to Goneril's house with fifty of his knights.
  • Fat chance, says Lear, which prompts Goneril to say, "At your choice, sir."
  • Lear goes off on Goneril, insisting that she's more like a "disease that's in [his] flesh" than a daughter (his "flesh and blood"). Goneril, he insists, is "a boil, a plague-sore," a nasty little "carbuncle" and so on. (In other words, Goneril, whose name sounds a lot like "gonorrhea," is kind of like a venereal disease.)
  • Even though we've already heard that Lear's knight numbers may have dwindled of their own accord, Lear says he and his one hundred knights will go ahead and stay with Regan.
  • Not so fast, says Regan; she thinks twenty-five knights is plenty. (The numbers clash is a bit of poetic justice, as Lear once asked his daughters to quantify his love for him, and now they're bickering over the quantity of men Lear keeps about him, which is a reflection of his power diminishing.)
  • The girls complain that it's a lot of people to have in one house, that it's hard to keep so many men under a roof where there are two in command (one being the master of the house, and the other being Lear).
  • Finally, the sisters say that Lear doesn't need anyone in his command, as their servants will tend to him.
  • Lear is incredulous that his daughters would strip him of everything and points out that even the lowliest of beggars have a little something more than the bare minimum.
  • He declares them to be unnatural hags, and promises to do something to them that's so bad he hasn't even thought it up yet. FYI: This line is sort of famous for being the official battle cry of parents who are so angry at their kids that they can hardly speak or decide what to do. (You may have heard something like this after you crashed the family minivan into the garage door after taking the mom-mobile for a little spin without your parents' permission.) So, it's worth repeating here: "I will do such things—/ What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be/ The terrors of the earth!"
  • Thunder rumbles ominously behind Lear's promise of revenge.
  • Lear says he knows his daughters expect him to cry, but he won't. His heart would have to break into a thousand pieces before he'd let himself weep. Of course, he does call out, "O Fool, I shall go mad!" as he rushes off into the storm. (Might be a better idea to just sit down and have a good cry, buddy.)
  • Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril chat about the weather, paying no mind to their father running in a fit out into the storm as a self-proclaimed madman.
  • Gloucester follows Lear and then returns, reporting that the King has ordered a horse and seems to be planning on running away, although who knows where he's going.
  • Gloucester is worried; the night's brewing thunderstorm is not nice weather to be running away in, and there's no cover for miles.
  • Lear's children refuse to go after him. Regan and Goneril agree that Lear needs to learn his lesson, even if he does get hit in the face by lightning.
  • Then, to make matters worse, Cornwall orders Gloucester to shut his doors so that Lear can't come back inside even if he wants to.
  • She claims to be concerned that the men who have gone with Lear might influence him into further craziness—he might be swayed to do something awful to Gloucester's house and his daughters.
  • Cornwall repeats this order about locking the door, and Gloucester, shocked, is forced to obey.

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