'King Lear': Act 3 Analysis: The Torture of Gloucester

Analysis of 'King Lear', Act 3 (Scenes 5-7) including the Torture of Gloucester

The Madness of King Lear
The Madness of King Lear. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

We continue our study guide to Act 3 with analysis of scenes five to seven. This includes one of the most shocking and violent scenes from Shakespeare: the torture of Gloucester.

Analysis: King Lear, Act 3, Scene 5

Cornwall has received a letter about the French invasion. Cornwall wants to punish Gloucester for treachery. He asks Edmund to find his father. Edmund pretends to be torn between loyalty to his father and to his country but believes he will find Gloucester with King Lear, thus letting Cornwall know that Gloucester has betrayed him regarding helping Lear.

Cornwall now seeks Gloucester’s death.

Analysis: King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6

Gloucester leaves the hovel with the intention of returning with provisions. The Fool taunts Lear with more home truths and ‘Poor Tom’ rails about the devil. Lear is lost in his own madness.

Lear is vengeful and resolves to put his daughters on trial. Lear asks The Fool and ‘Poor Tom’ to be justices on the bench. Lear madly imagines that Goneril has escaped from the courtroom and screams for her to be apprehended. Edgar is in tears for Lear as he sinks further into lunacy. Lear continues with ‘the trial’ and asks Regan why she has such a hard heart. Kent tries to placate Lear throughout. Finally Lear agrees to rest.

Gloucester returns with news that there is a plot to kill Lear. He must be transported to safety. Gloucester has arranged for Lear to be transported to Dover where he will be met by the French forces; his allies.

Analysis: King Lear, Act 3, Scene 7

Cornwall tells Goneril to show Albany Gloucester’s letter about the French invasion. Cornwall expects Albany to join forces with him to fight the French. Cornwall orders his servants to find Gloucester, Regan orders that he be hanged. More viciously Goneril suggests that Gloucester be tortured by plucking out his eyes.

Edmund is sent home with Goneril but addressed as ‘My lord of Gloucester’ (line 14), defining his position on his father’s death. Gloucester is not expected to survive his torture. Oswald brings news that Gloucester has helped Lear escape to Dover and Cornwall passes sentence on Gloucester without trial.

The Torture of Gloucester

Gloucester is brought in; Regan plucks his beard as an introduction to his forthcoming degradation. Gloucester is tied to a chair. He says he sent Lear to Dover because he could not see him tortured by Goneril and Regan. He talks of Lear’s suffering out on the heath and that he hoped to see vengeance on them for this treatment of their father. Cornwall gouges out one of Gloucester’s eyes and Regan urges her husband to pluck out the other.

The scene that follows is regarded by many to be the most appalling in dramatic literature. When Gloucester is asked why he arranged for Lear to be sent to Dover he replies:

GLOUCESTER

Because I would not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs.
The sea, with such a storm as his bare head
In hell-black night endured, would have buoy'd up,
And quench'd the stelled fires:
Yet, poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain.
If wolves had at thy gate howl'd that stern time,
Thou shouldst have said 'Good porter, turn the key,'
All cruels else subscribed: but I shall see
The winged vengeance overtake such children.

Cornwall’s servant begs him to stop, the men draw their swords. Cornwall is wounded. Regan gets a sword and kills the servant. Cornwall then puts out Gloucester’s remaining eye and mocks him. Gloucester hopes that Edmund will come to his defence. Regan tells Gloucester that his son hates him. Gloucester realises that he has been betrayed by Edmund and calls upon the gods to protect Edgar and forgive him his treatment of him.

Regan orders her servant to thrust Gloucester out of the gates in order that he can smell his way back to Dover, she then exits the stage assisting her husband. Two servants come to Gloucester’s aid and resolve to take him to ‘Poor Tom’ who can act as his guide.