In the French camp, Cordelia speaks with Kent. She knows his real identity, but he wishes it to remain a secret to everyone else. Lear, who has been sleeping, is brought in to Cordelia. He only partially recognizes her. He says that he knows now that he is senile and not in his right mind, and he assumes that Cordelia hates him and wants to kill him, just as her sisters do. Cordelia tells him that she forgives him for banishing her.
Meanwhile, the news of Cornwall’s death is repeated in the camp, and we learn that Edmund is now leading Cornwall’s troops. The battle between France and England rapidly approaches.Read a translation of Act 4, scene 7 →
Besides moving the physical action of the play along, these scenes forward the play’s psychological action. The strange, marvelous scene of Gloucester’s supposed fall over the nonexistent cliffs of Dover, Lear’s mad speeches to Gloucester and Edgar in the wilderness, and the redemptive reconciliation between Cordelia and her not-quite-sane father all set the stage for the resolution of the play’s emotional movement in Act 5.
The psychological motivations behind Gloucester’s attempted suicide and Edgar’s manipulation of it are complicated and ambiguous. Gloucester’s death wish, which reflects his own despair at the cruel, uncaring universe—and perhaps the play’s despair as well—would surely have been troubling to the self-consciously Christian society of Renaissance England. Shakespeare gets around much of the problem by setting King Lear in a pagan past; despite the fact that the play is full of Christian symbols and allusions, its characters pray only to the gods and never to the Christian God.
Clearly, Edgar wants his father to live. He refuses to share in Gloucester’s despair and still seeks a just and happy resolution to the events of the play. In letting Gloucester think that he has attempted suicide, Edgar manipulates Gloucester’s understanding of divine will: he says to Gloucester after the latter’s supposed fall and rebirth, “Thy life’s a miracle. . . . / . . . / The clearest gods . . . / . . . have preserved thee” (4.6.55, 73–74). Edgar not only stops Gloucester’s suicidal thoughts but also shocks him into a rebirth. He tells his father that he should “bear free and patient thoughts”: his life has been given back to him and he should take better care of it from now on (4.6.80).
In these scenes, King Lear’s madness brings forth some of his strangest and most interesting speeches. As Edgar notes, Lear’s apparent ramblings are “matter and impertinency mixed! / Reason in madness!” (4.6.168–169). This description is similar to Polonius’s muttering behind Hamlet’s back in Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Hamlet, 2.2.203–204). Some of Lear’s rambling does indeed seem to be meaningless babble, as when he talks about mice, cheese, and giants. But Lear swiftly moves on to talk of more relevant things. He finally understands that his older daughters, in Act 1, scene 1, and before, were sweet-talking him: “They flattered me like a dog. . . . To say ‘aye’ and ‘no’ to everything that I said!” (4.6.95–98).