Gloucester, Kent, Lear, and the Fool take shelter in a small building (perhaps a shed or farmhouse) on Gloucester’s property. Gloucester leaves to find provisions for the king. Lear, whose mind is wandering ever more widely, holds a mock trial of his wicked daughters, with Edgar, Kent, and the Fool presiding. Both Edgar and the Fool speak like madmen, and the trial is an exercise in hallucination and eccentricity.
Gloucester hurries back in to tell Kent that he has overheard a plot to kill Lear. Gloucester begs Kent to quickly transport Lear toward Dover, in the south of England, where allies will be waiting for him. Gloucester, Kent, and the Fool leave. Edgar remains behind for a moment and speaks in his own, undisguised voice about how much less important his own suffering feels now that he has seen Lear’s far worse suffering.
Back in Gloucester’s castle, Cornwall gives Goneril the treasonous letter concerning the French army at Dover and tells her to take it and show it to her husband, Albany. He then sends his servants to apprehend Gloucester so that Gloucester can be punished. He orders Edmund to go with Goneril to Albany’s palace so that Edmund will not have to witness the violent punishment of his father.
Oswald brings word that Gloucester has helped Lear escape to Dover. Gloucester is found and brought before Regan and Cornwall. They treat him cruelly, tying him up like a thief, insulting him, and pulling his white beard. Cornwall remarks to himself that he cannot put Gloucester to death without holding a formal trial but that he can still punish him brutally and get away with it.
Admitting that he helped Lear escape, Gloucester swears that he will see Lear’s wrongs avenged. Cornwall replies, “See ’t shalt thou never,” and proceeds to dig out one of Gloucester’s eyes, throw it on the floor, and step on it (3.7.68). Gloucester screams, and Regan demands that Cornwall put out the other eye too.
One of Gloucester’s servants suddenly steps in, saying that he cannot stand by and let this outrage happen. Cornwall draws his sword and the two fight. The servant wounds Cornwall, but Regan grabs a sword from another servant and kills the first servant before he can injure Cornwall further. Irate, the wounded Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s remaining eye.
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.
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.
Indeed, it is hard to overestimate the sheer cruelty that Regan and Cornwall perpetrate, in ways both obvious and subtle, against Gloucester. From Cornwall’s order to “pinion him like a thief” (3.7.23) and Regan’s exhortation to tie his arms “hard, hard” (3.7.32)—a disgraceful way to handle a nobleman—to Regan’s astonishing rudeness in yanking on Gloucester’s white beard after he is tied down, the two seem intent on hurting and humiliating Gloucester. Once again, the social order is inverted: the young are cruel to the old; loyalty to the old king is punished as treachery to the new rulers; Regan and Cornwall, guests within Gloucester’s house, thoroughly violate the age-old conventions of respect and politeness. Cornwall does not have the authority to kill or punish Gloucester without a trial, but he decides to ignore that rule because he can: “Our power / Shall do a courtesy to our wrath, which men / May blame, but not control” (3.7.25–27).
This violence is mitigated slightly by the unexpected display of humanity on the part of Cornwall’s servants. Just as Cornwall and Regan violate a range of social norms, so too do the servants, by challenging their masters. One servant gives his life trying to save Gloucester; others help the injured Gloucester and bring him to the disguised Edgar. Even amid the increasing chaos, some human compassion remains.