Edgar has thought of a sneaky way to deal with Gloucester's plan to commit suicide by jumping off the cliffs of Dover: he'll take advantage of the poor man's blindness.
He tells blind Gloucester that they are hiking up the cliffs of Dover, as he requested. In reality, however, the father and son are walking across a level surface. "Methinks the ground is even," Gloucester says uncertainly. No, it's "horribly steep," Edgar reassures him.
Edgar stops and tells Gloucester they're at the edge of the cliff and then describes the view of the sea below in vivid and completely false detail.
Gloucester pays off his son—who he thinks is a homeless madman—and tells him to go away.
When he thinks he is alone, Gloucester calls on the gods to witness his misery, pleads for blessings on Edgar, and leaps—about two feet—only to fall flat on his face.
Edgar hurries over, worried that his father might have died from the shock of the fall, even though he only plummeted about two feet.
Gloucester is alive, and can't tell if he's actually fallen off a cliff or not. Edgar puts on a different accent (pretending to be a different man) and tells Gloucester that he saw him fall from the top of the massive cliff—and somehow survive. "Thy life's a miracle!" Edgar tells him.
Edgar wants Gloucester to believe that the gods themselves preserved him so that he'll stop considering suicide. This new guy-at-bottom-of-cliff (Edgar) asks after what manner of creature led Gloucester to the cliff's edge, and then describes a monstrous creature that could only have been a demon. Thus he concludes that Poor Tom must have been a devil trying to lead Gloucester astray. (We can't decide if Edgar's behavior is loving and loyal or completely sadistic. What do you think?)
Gloucester promises to trust in the gods and not try to take his life again, because it's a sin.
Now Lear, still totally nuts, wanders in. Instead of a crown, he's wearing a wreath of weeds and wildflowers. (Yep, that's symbolic of Lear's mental deterioration alright, so check out "Symbols" if you're interested in our take on this.)
Lear keeps up a constant patter of talk—some of it totally crazy, some of it bitter and insightful.
As well as trying to feed a mouse a piece of cheese, he demands a password from Edgar. When Edgar exclaims "Sweet marjoram," which is kind of like "Holy cow," Lear says, "That's it!"
Lear rants about power and its abuses. Now that he's no longer in charge, Lear realizes that his authority was just image and spin—none of it was real.
Gloucester recognizes Lear's voice and asks if it's the King he hears. Lear answers him with a rant about sex and how there should be more of it in the world, especially considering that Gloucester's son Edmund, conceived out of wedlock, proved much kinder than Lear's daughters, who were conceived legitimately. (He's a little behind on his facts, but hey—he's mad, what do you expect?) He goes on to say that women often appear virtuous, but from the waist down they do the Devil's work.
Gloucester asks Lear if he recognizes him and Lear says his eyes are familiar. (Ouch.) He then addresses Gloucester as Cupid, who was often presented as blind. Edgar and Gloucester are both horrified at Lear's transformation, and Edgar says he wouldn't believe Lear had gotten this bad if he weren't witnessing it for himself.
Edgar can barely cope with what he's seeing. Only weeks ago, Lear and his father were powerful, successful men who led the kingdom.
Now Gloucester is sitting on the ground with blood trickling from his empty eye sockets, and Lear, his white hair topped with weeds, doesn't even recognize his old colleague.
Edgar says he wouldn't believe this scene if he heard of it, but now that he sees it, "it is, and [his] heart breaks at it."
Lear rants that justice is a sham. He says there's no real difference between the thief and the judge who sentences him, or between the prostitute and the officer who whips a prostitute's back for her crimes, when really he'd like to commit those crimes with her.
Then he tells Gloucester, "Get the glass eyes / and like a scurvy politician seem / To see the things thou dost not."
Gloucester starts sobbing helplessly as he listens to Lear's babbling.
Seeing Gloucester's grief seems to bring Lear back to his senses. "If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes," he says. "I know thee well enough—thy name is Gloucester."
For a moment, Lear's madness lifts him to the level of pure philosophy. "Thou must be patient," he tells Gloucester. "When we are born we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools."
What he's saying here is first, that of course he recognizes Gloucester, and second, that it's natural to cry when you see the world for the first time, like a newborn. (The idea is that babies cry when they're born, and men cry again later when they realize the truth of the world.)
Then Lear slips back to crazy town, telling Gloucester he likes his hat ("good block,") and that if Lear made horseshoes for his horses out of the same felt used in Gloucester's hat, he'd be able to sneak up on his sons-in-law and kill them.
A Gentleman arrives and tells one of his attendants to take hold of Lear. They say they've come from his daughter, but it's not immediately clear which one.
Lear seems to calmly accept that he is a prisoner—but then dashes away like a five-year-old, calling back to the soldiers something along the lines of "You'll have to catch me first!"
The soldiers, who turn out to be sent by Cordelia, chase after the crazy old man.
Edgar and Gloucester are alone again until Oswald shows up, determined to kill Gloucester and get his reward.
Edgar steps between Oswald and Gloucester and puts on an intense peasant's accent so that Oswald won't recognize him. When Oswald tries to attack Gloucester, Edgar fights him off and kills him. As Oswald dies, he asks Edgar to deliver the letters he's carrying to Edmund.
Edgar looks at the letter, though he feels a little sneaky about doing it. Turns out it's a letter from Goneril to Edmund, asking Edmund to kill her husband so they can be together. This is the first time Edgar realizes that his brother is actually a bad guy.
Edgar, thinking the letter might come in handy, takes it with him and promises to escort Gloucester to a friend's place.