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.