page 2 of 2
Lear also continues to show a deepening sensitivity to other people, a trait missing from his character at the beginning of the play and an interesting side effect of his increasing madness and exposure to human cruelty. After he sends his Fool into the hovel to take shelter, he kneels in prayer—the first time we have seen him do so in the play. He does not pray for himself; instead, he asks the gods to help “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” (3.4.29–30). Reproaching himself for his heartlessness, Lear urges himself to “expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” (3.4.35). This self-criticism and newfound sympathy for the plight of others mark the continuing humanization of Lear.
Lear’s obsessive contemplation of his own humanity and of his place in relation to nature and to the gods is heightened still further after he meets Edgar, who is clad only in rags. Lear’s wandering mind turns to his own fine clothing, and he asks, addressing Edgar’s largely uncovered body, “Is man no more than this? Consider him well” (3.4.95–96). As a king in fact as well as in name, with servants and subjects and seemingly loyal daughters, Lear could be confident of his place in the universe; indeed, the universe seemed to revolve around him. Now, as his humility grows, he becomes conscious of his real relationship to nature. He is frightened to see himself as little more than a “bare, forked animal,” stripped of everything that made him secure and powerful (3.4.99–100).
The destruction of Lear’s pride leads him to question the social order that clothes kings in rich garments and beggars in rags. He realizes that each person, underneath his or her clothing, is naked and therefore weak. He sees too that clothing offers no protection against the forces of the elements or of the gods. When he tries to remove his own clothing, his companions restrain him. But Lear’s attempt to bare himself is a sign that he has seen the similarities between himself and Edgar: only the flimsy surface of garments marks the difference between a king and a beggar. Each must face the cruelty of an uncaring world.
The many names that Edgar uses for the demons that pester him seem to have been taken by Shakespeare from a single source—Samuel Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostors, which describes demons in wild and outlandish language to ridicule the exorcisms performed by Catholic priests. Edgar uses similarly strange and haunting language to describe his demons. The audience assumes that he is only feigning madness; after all, we have seen him deliberately decide to pose as a crazed beggar in order to escape capture by his brother and father. But Edgar’s ravings are so convincing, and the storm-wracked heath such a bizarre environment, that the line between pretending to be mad and actually being mad seems to blur.
Take a Study Break!