Kent leads Lear through the storm to the hovel. He tries to get him to go inside, but Lear resists, saying that his own mental anguish makes him hardly feel the storm. He sends his Fool inside to take shelter and then kneels and prays. He reflects that, as king, he took too little care of the wretched and homeless, who have scant protection from storms such as this one.
The Fool runs out of the hovel, claiming that there is a spirit inside. The spirit turns out to be Edgar in his disguise as Tom O’Bedlam. Edgar plays the part of the madman by complaining that he is being chased by a devil. He adds that fiends possess and inhabit his body. Lear, whose grip on reality is loosening, sees nothing strange about these statements. He sympathizes with Edgar, asking him whether bad daughters have been the ruin of him as well.
Lear asks the disguised Edgar what he used to be before he went mad and became a beggar. Edgar replies that he was once a wealthy courtier who spent his days having sex with many women and drinking wine. Observing Edgar’s nakedness, Lear tears off his own clothes in sympathy.
Gloucester, carrying a torch, comes looking for the king. He is unimpressed by Lear’s companions and tries to bring Lear back inside the castle with him, despite the possibility of evoking Regan and Goneril’s anger. Kent and Gloucester finally convince Lear to go with Gloucester, but Lear insists on bringing the disguised Edgar, whom he has begun to like, with him.
Inside Gloucester’s castle, Cornwall vows revenge against Gloucester, whom Edmund has betrayed by showing Cornwall a letter that proves Gloucester’s secret support of a French invasion. Edmund pretends to be horrified at the discovery of his father’s “treason,” but he is actually delighted, since the powerful Cornwall, now his ally, confers upon him the title of earl of Gloucester (3.5.10). Cornwall sends Edmund to find Gloucester, and Edmund reasons to himself that if he can catch his father in the act of helping Lear, Cornwall’s suspicions will be confirmed.
When Kent asks Lear to enter the hovel at the beginning of Act 3, scene 4, Lear’s reply demonstrates that part of his mind is still lucid and that the symbolic connection between the storm outside and Lear’s own mental disturbance is significant. Lear explains to Kent that although the storm may be very uncomfortable for Kent, Lear himself hardly notices it: “The tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else” (3.4.13–14). Lear’s sensitivity to the storm is blocked out by his mental and emotional anguish and by his obsession with his treacherous daughters. The only thing that he can think of is their “filial ingratitude” (3.4.15).
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.