Still disguised, Edgar leads Gloucester toward Dover. Edgar pretends to take Gloucester to the cliff, telling him that they are going up steep ground and that they can hear the sea. Finally, he tells Gloucester that they are at the top of the cliff and that looking down from the great height gives him vertigo. He waits quietly nearby as Gloucester prays to the gods to forgive him. Gloucester can no longer bear his suffering and intends to commit suicide. He falls to the ground, fainting.
Edgar wakes Gloucester up. He no longer pretends to be Poor Tom but now acts like an ordinary gentleman, although he still doesn’t tell Gloucester that he is his son. Edgar says that he saw him fall all the way from the cliffs of Dover and that it is a miracle that he is still alive. Clearly, Edgar states, the gods do not want Gloucester to die just yet. Edgar also informs Gloucester that he saw the creature who had been with him at the top of the cliff and that this creature was not a human being but a devil. Gloucester accepts Edgar’s explanation that the gods have preserved him and resolves to endure his sufferings patiently.
Lear, wandering across the plain, stumbles upon Edgar and Gloucester. Crowned with wild flowers, he is clearly mad. He babbles to Edgar and Gloucester, speaking both irrationally and with a strange perceptiveness. He recognizes Gloucester, alluding to Gloucester’s sin and source of shame—his adultery. Lear pardons Gloucester for this crime, but his thoughts then follow a chain of associations from adultery to copulation to womankind, culminating in a tirade against women and sexuality in general. Lear’s disgust carries him to the point of incoherence, as he deserts iambic pentameter (the verse form in which his speeches are written) and spits out the words “Fie, fie, fie! pah! pah!” (4.6.126).
Cordelia’s people enter seeking King Lear. Relieved to find him at last, they try to take him into custody to bring him to Cordelia. When Lear runs away, Cordelia’s men follow him.
Oswald comes across Edgar and Gloucester on the plain. He does not recognize Edgar, but he plans to kill Gloucester and collect the reward from Regan. Edgar adopts yet another persona, imitating the dialect of a peasant from the west of England. He defends Gloucester and kills Oswald with a cudgel. As he dies, Oswald entrusts Edgar with his letters.
Gloucester is disappointed not to have been killed. Edgar reads with interest the letter that Oswald carries to Edmund. In the letter, Goneril urges Edmund to kill Albany if he gets the opportunity, so that Edmund and Goneril can be together. Edgar is outraged; he decides to keep the letter and show it to Albany when the time is right. Meanwhile, he buries Oswald nearby and leads Gloucester off to temporary safety.
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.
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).
Lear has realized, despite what flatterers have told him and he has believed, that he is as vulnerable to the forces of nature as any human being. He cannot command the rain and thunder and is not immune to colds and fever (the “ague” of 4.6.103). Just as, during the storm, he recognizes that beneath each man’s clothing is “a poor, bare, forked animal” (3.4.99–100), Lear now understands that no amount of flattery and praise can make a king different from anyone else: “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all” (4.6.158–159).
Armed with this knowledge, Lear can finally reunite with Cordelia and express his newfound humility and beg repentance. “I am a very foolish fond old man” (4.7.61), he tells her sadly, and he admits that she has “some cause” to hate him (4.7.76). Cordelia’s moving response (“No cause, no, cause”) seals their reconciliation (4.7.77). Love and forgiveness, embodied in Lear’s best daughter, join with humility and repentance, and, for a brief time, happiness prevails. But the forces that Lear’s initial error unleashed—Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, with all their ambition and appetite for destruction—remain at large. We thus turn from happy reconciliation to conflict, as Cordelia leads her troops against the evil that her father’s folly has set loose in Britain.