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King Lear

by: William Shakespeare

Act 3, scenes 6–7

Gloucester calls out for his son Edmund to help him, but Regan triumphantly tells him that it was Edmund who betrayed him to Cornwall in the first place. Gloucester, realizing immediately that Edgar was the son who really loved him, laments his folly and prays to the gods to help Edgar. Regan and Cornwall order that Gloucester be thrown out of the house to “smell / His way to Dover” (3.7.96–97). Cornwall, realizing that his wound is bleeding heavily, exits with Regan’s aid.

Left alone with Gloucester, Cornwall’s and Regan’s servants express their shock and horror at what has just happened. They decide to treat Gloucester’s bleeding face and hand him over to the mad beggar to lead Gloucester where he will.

Read a translation of Act 3, scene 7 →

Analysis: Act 3, scenes 6–7

In these scenes, Shakespeare continues to develop Lear’s madness. Lear rages on against his daughters and is encouraged by comments that Edgar and the Fool make. We may interpret the Fool’s remark “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf” as referring to Lear’s folly in trusting his two wolflike daughters (3.6.16). Edgar, for his part, speaks like a madman who sees demons everywhere; since Lear has started to hallucinate that he sees his daughters, the two madmen get along well. For instance, when Lear accosts his absent daughters (“Now, you she foxes!”), Edgar scolds them likewise (3.6.20). Animal imagery will be applied to Goneril and Regan again later in Lear’s mock trial of his daughters: “The little dogs and all, / Tray, Blanch, and Sweet-heart, see, they bark at me” (3.6.57–58). Having reduced his sense of himself to a “bare, forked animal,” he now makes his vicious daughters animals as well—but they, of course, seem like predatory, disloyal creatures to him (3.4.99–100).

Act 3, scene 6, is the Fool’s last scene, and Edgar continues to take over the Fool’s function by answering Lear’s mad words and jingles. When Lear declares, “We’ll go to supper i’ the morning” (3.6.77), thus echoing the confusion of the natural order in the play, the Fool answers, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (3.6.78). This line is the last we hear from him in the play. One can argue that since Lear is sliding into madness, he can no longer understand the nonsense of the Fool, who actually is sane, but rather can relate only to Edgar, who pretends to be mad. One can also argue that Lear has internalized the Fool’s criticisms of his own errors, and thus he no longer needs to hear them from an outside source. In any case, the Fool, having served Shakespeare’s purpose, has become expendable.

Edgar’s speech at the end of Act 3, scene 6, in which he leaves off babbling and addresses the audience, gives us a needed reminder that, despite appearances, he is not actually insane. We are also reminded, yet again, of the similarities between his situation and Lear’s. “He childed as I fathered,” says Edgar, suggesting that just as Lear’s ungrateful daughters put Lear where he is now, so Gloucester, too willing to believe the evil words of Edmund, did the same to Edgar (3.6.103).

The shocking violence of Act 3, scene 7, is one of the bloodiest onstage actions in all of Shakespeare. Typically, especially in Shakespeare’s later plays, murders and mutilations take place offstage. Here, however, the violence happens right before our eyes, with Cornwall’s snarl “Out, vile jelly!” as a ghastly complement to the action (3.7.86). (How graphic our view of the violence is depends on how it is staged.) The horror of Gloucester’s blinding marks a turning point in the play: cruelty, betrayal, and even madness may be reversible, but blinding is not. It becomes evident at this point that the chaos and cruelty permeating the play have reached a point of no return.