Shakespeare’s play King Lear shows Kings Lear’s decent into madness but also his growth in spiritual awareness, and in a sense the suffering that Lear goes through in the play is redemptive, and helps him to become Lear the man, rather than Lear the king. Therefore Act 3 scene 4 is very important to the play as in this scene we see Lear’s madness and his growth in spiritual awareness and his new understanding of the world, often at the same time.
In this scene 4 major incidents occur, firstly lear refuses to take shelter from the storm and then tells his servants to go in before him, he then meets Edgar disguised as mad beggar poor tom and finally lear dramatically sheds himself of his clothes. Lear’s actions during these incidents are open to interpretation by the audience as often lear is presented as many things I.e. stubborn, childish, mad or considerate and understanding, at the same time. These incidents and the way in which lear is presented in them are very important to the play as a whole.
In this scene we see Lear’s decent into madness, which is brought on by many different things, one of the reasons for Lear’s deepening madness could be that now lear is no longer king he can no longer get everything that he wants “who is it who can tell me who I am (1.4)” in a way lear feels that he has lost his sense of identity however throughout this scene lear comes to realise that perhaps loosing his identity as king is helping him to find his identity as lear the man.
Lear is also increasingly feeling guilty about his mistreatment of Cordelia “I did her wrong(1.5)” and this too could be contributing to his madness. Arguably, one of the main factors for Lear’s madness is the rejection and increasing cruelty from his daughters Regan and Goneril. After choosing to leave both of their homes, rather than relent to their control, lear flees into the storm ” is it not as this mouth should tear this hand” lear believes that his daughters betrayal is like a body betraying itself, this shows how strongly lear feels about his daughters betrayal and feels it is like an attack from within. ” I will punish home” this shows us that lear is angry and still wants revenge.
At the start of this act we see lear refusing to take shelter, preferring to stay outside and endure the storm. The storm itself is very symbolic as it not only shows the chaos and disorder in the natural world but also the chaos and disorder in Lear’s world. The storm is first heard in 2.4, before lear has left the castle. In a sense the storm may mark the beginning of Lear’s transformation as before it appears lear has not yet begun to change from the old king lear to lear the man “I will have such revenges on you both” lear is still set in revenging his daughters betrayal, however lear may be starting to realise that after giving away his kingdom he has no power to do so “I will do such things-what they are, yet I know not”.
However as the storm progresses, its obvious lear is beginning to change. “the tempest in my mind Doth from my senses take all feeling else” this shows that lear is not only being challenged by the physical storm but also the storm inside his own mind. Lear would rather endure the storm and use it as a type of distraction than think about the problems in his own mind. Lear may also view the storm as a way of taking back control of his own destiny “such a night to shut me out! Pour on, I will endure” lear would rather be out in storm than relent to the control of his daughters, although “I will endure” could be an example of lear growing more patient, and perhaps he is beginning to realise that he has no control over the storm, and the problems in his life, so he will just have to put up with it. Lear also may be using the storm as a way of challenging those who want to control him, and also a way of challenging himself.
In this act Lear’s actions are often presented as being mad, stubborn and often childish, however it also obvious that lear is also starting to develop a new understanding of the things that are happening around him and he is becoming more considerate to other people. Firstly lear tells his servants to go into the shelter before him “go in thyself; seek thine own ease” and this is one of the first acts of selflessness and compassion that we see from him. Although Lear’s behaviour may seem like the actions of a mad man we can see that he is becoming more sympathetic towards others and thinking new thoughts “o I have taken to little care of this! Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” now Lear is poor and homeless he is realising that people truly live this way and it is a huge shock for him, he realises he should have helped them when he was king, and perhaps he now wants to suffer for his mistakes.
Lear is now starting to reflect on his own experiences and realise that they are therapeutic for him. At the start of the play Lear is isolated and often talks to himself, but when he goes onto the plain and joins the beggars in the hovel he is perhaps joining the real world, which he had never experienced before.
Lear then meets Edgar disguised as the mad beggar poor tom, this is very ironic as lear has just been talking about homeless beggars, it is also ironic as just as lear is perhaps starting to come to his senses he meets ‘mad’ poor tom, which could make his situation worse. Lear immediately assumes that just like him toms madness and situation is due to cruel daughters and Lear identifies and sympathises with this, however this could also be a sign that lear is going back to his obsession for revenge on his daughters. Poor tom often talks about the devil trying to get him to commit suicide “whom the foul fiend hath led through fire” “hath laid knives under his pillow” this could mean that lear befriends poor tom because he is worried that this is how he will eventually become.
Lear’s friendship with poor tom is another example of lear becoming more sympathetic and considerate to others, however it may also show that lear can relate to toms madness because he is truly mad himself. Although poor tom mostly speaks in outbursts and repeats words to make himself seems more mad there is also some sense in his ramblings “commit not with man’s sworn spouse” here edgar is commenting on his fathers adultery which we know has caused him many problems. The meeting of poor tom and lear also marks the coming together of the main plot and the sub plot in the play. In this scene poor toms behaviour could be compared to Lear’s in act 4 scene 6, in this poor tom appears to be talking randomly, however when we look deeper into it we can see that he is infact, making sense and this is like lear is 4.6 “none does offend” this is a very wise thing for lear today, he has now realised that people cannot be punished for their sins as everyone sins, this may also be a biblical reference as it is like Jesus’ quote “he who has not sinned may cast the first stone. Therefore, lear meeting poor tom, although it is only Edgar disguised, may also be a way of informing the audience that this is how lear will become.
Arguably, one of the most symbolic incidents in this scene is where lear dramatically sheds himself of all his clothes, this represents the shedding of the old king lear and the progression towards lear the man. We already know from his conflict with Regan and goneril in act 2 that lear sees clothes as just a way of showing off and hiding who you truly are so this means that by taking off his clothes lear is exposing his true self. Lear may also see shedding his clothes as a way of shedding the restraints on him and becoming free as it links with Lear’s final part in the play, before he dies “pray you, undo this button” which has been said to symbolise Lear’s need to be free from the stresses bearing down on him.
By removing his clothes Lear may also want to go back to the real essence of a man “is a man no more than this” he is starting to realise that his wealth and power have brought him nothing and wants to strip himself of everything that has caused him problems.
There is already considerably dramatic tension in this scene, and then this is heightened by the arrival of Gloucester. Edgar immediately acts more mad so that his father does not recognize him. The arrival of Gloucester also brings the main plot and the sub plot together even further, both lear and Gloucester are having problems with their children “I am almost mad myself” and this is very ironic. Also edgar overhears this and it makes him more determined to hide himself from his father.
In conclusion lear is presented as being many things in the scene, mad, stubborn and often as being very child-like with Kent as the concerned parent “no words, no words: hush”. However in this scene we also start to see that lear is forming a new understanding and growing in spiritual awareness and is starting his transformation from lear the king to lear the man. Also in Grigori Kozintsev’s Russian production of King Lear there is an interval after he leaves the castle, this is perhaps a way of emphasizing the change between the old and the new Lear. This scene is the starting point for Lear’s growth in spiritual awareness but also his growth in madness. Apart from the mock trial in 3.6 lear isn’t present in the play until 4.7 where his madness reaches its climax, however through this lear is perhaps seeing the world in a new, more knowledgeable and understanding way.