Lear’s coach pulled up in front of Gloucester’s castle, where the cart on which Kent sat, his legs secured in the stocks, stood. The King had gone to Cornwall’s castle and found that they were not there. So he had decided to go to Gloucester. One of his knights had gone before to let Gloucester know that he was coming and he came out now to tell Lear what was happening.
‘It’s strange that they should leave home like that and not send my messenger back to tell me,’ said Lear.
‘As I understand it,’ said the knight, ‘they had no intention of going anywhere the evening before.’
Lear got out and began walking towards the castle doors.
‘Greetings, noble master,’ called Kent as the King passed him.
Lear was taken aback as he recognised his servant. ‘Ha!’ he exclaimed, ‘is this humiliation habitual with you?’
‘No, my lord,’ said Kent.
The fool giggled. ‘He’s wearing constricting garters. Horses are tied by their heads, dogs and bears by their necks, monkeys by the waist and men by the legs. When a man gets out of hand then he has to wear wooden stockings.’
‘Who has so mistaken your position that he has placed you here?’ said Lear.
‘It is both he and she,’ said Kent. ‘Your son and your daughter.’
‘No, I say!
‘I say aye!’
‘No, no, they wouldn’t!’
‘Yes, yes, they have.’
‘By Jupiter, I swear no!’
‘By Jupiter, I swear aye.’
‘They wouldn’t dare do it,’ said Lear. ‘They could not – would not – do it. It’s worse than murder to do such outrageous violence to the King’s man. Tell me briefly what you did to deserve, or how they could have imposed, this treatment coming, as you did, from me.’
‘My lord, when I delivered your Highness’ letters to them at their home, no sooner had I risen from my knees than a stinking messenger, anxious in his haste, half breathless, came panting out salutations from his mistress, Goneril. Ignoring the fact that I was in the middle of business with them he delivered some letters, which they immediately read. Acting on their contents they summoned their servants and mounted their horses without delay. They ordered me to follow and await an answer whenever it suited them to give one, and gave me cold looks. So when I met the other messenger here – whose welcome, I could see, had poisoned mine – I recognised him as that same fellow who recently behaved so insolently towards your Highness. Having more courage than sense I drew. He woke the whole household with his loud, cowardly cries. Your son and daughter found this offence worthy of the shame I’m now suffering.’
‘Winter isn’t over if the wild geese fly that way,’ said the fool.
Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind,
But fathers that bear bags
Shall see their children kind.
Fortune, that arrant whore,
Ne’er turns the key to the poor
But in spite of that you’ll have more income from your daughters than you can count in one year.’
Lear put his hand up to his throat. ‘Oh how this smothering sensation wells up towards my heart,’ he moaned. ‘This choking! Down, you climbing sorrow – your place is down below. Where is this daughter?’
‘With the Earl, sir. Indoors.’
‘Don’t follow me,’ said Lear, starting towards the doors. ‘Wait here.’
‘Did you commit no other offences than the one you mentioned?’ said the knight.
‘None. But why has the king got so few with him?’
The fool laughed. ‘If you’d been put in the stocks for that question you’d have well deserved it.’
‘Why, Fool?’ said Kent.
‘We’ll have to send you to school with the ant,’ said the fool. ‘To teach you that you can’t gain by working for a lost cause. All who follow their noses are guided by their eyes except blind men, and there’s not a nose among twenty of them that can’t smell a man who stinks. Let go of a huge wheel when it’s running down a hill lest you break your neck trying to keep up with it. Let it draw you when it’s going upwards, though. When a wise man gives you better advice give me mine back again. I wouldn’t want anyone except knaves to follow it, since a fool gives it.
That man who serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in a storm.
But I will tarry: the Fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly.
The knave turns fool that runs away:
The fool no knave: perdy!’
‘Where did you learn this, Fool?’ said Kent.
The fool grinned. ‘Not in the stocks.’
Lear came striding towards them, followed by a fawning Gloucester. ‘Refused to speak to me!’ exclaimed Lear. ‘They are sick? They’re tired? They’ve travelled all night? Mere excuses, the symptoms of revolt and abandonment. Bring me a better answer.’
‘My dear lord,’ said Gloucester. ‘You know the fiery temperament of the Duke – how obstinate and determined he is about having his own way.’
Lear threw his head back and roared: ‘Vengeance! Plague! Death! Confusion! “Fiery!” What do you mean “temperament”? I wish to talk to the Duke of Cornwall and his wife!’
‘Well my good lord,’ said Gloucester, ‘I have informed them of that.’
‘Informed them! Do you understand me, man?’
‘Yes, my good lord.’
Lear went close to Gloucester and spoke slowly, right into his face. ‘The King wishes to speak to Cornwall. The dear father wishes to speak to his daughter – insists on her obedience. Have they been informed of that? My breath and blood! Fiery! The fiery Duke! Tell the hot tempered Duke that -‘ He stopped. ‘No, but not yet. Maybe he’s unwell. Illness does make us neglect the duties we have no difficulty performing when we’re fit. We’re not ourselves when we’re under the weather: our minds then suffer with our bodies. I’ll control myself and restrain my impetuous inclination to mistake the indisposed and ill for the healthy man.’ He stood, drawing huge breaths to calm himself. But then he caught sight of Kent in the stocks. ‘Death on my rank!’ he stormed. ‘Why’s he sitting there? This act persuades me that this aloofness of the Duke and his wife is deliberate. Get my servant out of there! Go and tell the Duke and his wife that I want to talk to them. Right now! At once! Tell them to come out and listen to me or I’ll beat a drum at their bedroom door until they feel they’ll never be able to sleep again!’
Gloucester went off, shaking his head anxiously: ‘I’d like all to be well between you,’ he muttered.
Lear clutched his chest. ‘Oh me! My heart, my rising heart! But, down!’
‘Shout at it, Nuncle,’ said the fool, ‘as the cockney did at the eels when she put them live into the fish paste. She hit them over the head with a stick and cried: “Down, playful creatures, down!” It was her brother who, out of pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay,’
Gloucester was coming back, followed by Cornwall and Regan.
Lear smiled. ‘Good morning to you both,’ he called to them.
Cornwall strode forward, signalling as he did so, to the servants, to release Kent. He stopped and bowed to Lear. ‘Hail to your Grace.’
Regan came up behind her husband and smiled at her father. ‘I am glad to see your Highness,’ she said, curtseying.
Regan, I think you are,’ said Lear. ‘I have good reason for thinking so. If you weren’t glad I would separate myself from your mother’s grave because it would be holding an adulteress.’
Kent was approaching. ‘Oh, are you free?’ said Lear. ‘We’ll talk about this some other time.’
Kent nodded and left them. Lear turned back to his daughter. ‘Beloved Regan, your sister’s not worth it. Oh Regan, she’s stabbed me here with her sharp-toothed unkindness..’ – beating his chest – ‘… like a vulture that’s been tied there. I can scarcely tell you: you wouldn’t believe the depraved manner with which… Oh, Regan!’
‘Oh come on, sir, be patient,’ she said. ‘I’m hoping it’s that you’re undervaluing her rather than that she’s fallen short of her duty.’
‘What’s that?’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I can’t imagine for a moment that my sister would fail in her duty. If she has indeed restrained the wildness of your followers it would be on such grounds and for such good reasons as to clear her from all blame.’
Lear stared at her in disbelief. Then, ‘My curses on her!’ he exclaimed.
Regan tutted. ‘Oh sir, you are old. You are right at the end of your life. You should be advised and guided by some mature person who knows you better than you know yourself. So I beg you to go back to our sister and tell her that you’ve wronged her.’
‘Ask her forgiveness?’ said Lear. ‘Do you think that’s appropriate to my royal state?’. He knelt down and clasped his hands in an exaggerated attitude of prayer. ‘ “Dear daughter, I confess that I am old: old men are a nuisance. On my knees I beg you for clothes, bed and food.” ‘
Regan tossed her head. ‘Good sir, stop this,’ she said. ‘These are unseemly tricks. Go back to my sister.’
‘Never, Regan, she’s deprived me of half my retinue, given me black looks and lashed me with her tongue, serpent-like, on my very heart. May all the stored-up vengeance of heaven drop on her ungrateful head. Strike her unborn children, you infectious winds, with lameness!’
‘For shame, sir, for shame!’ exclaimed Cornwall.
‘You quick lightning, aim your blinding flames into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty, you fen fogs sucked up by the powerful sun by falling on her and destroying her beauty!’
‘Oh, the blessed gods!’ exclaimed Regan, ‘That’s how you’ll curse me when the mood takes you!’
‘No, Regan, you’ll never have my curse. Your tender-hearted nature won’t allow harshness. Her eyes are hostile but yours are comforting and don’t smolder. You don’t have it in you to begrudge me my pleasures, to cut off my retinue, to exchange hasty words, to reduce my following and, finally, to bolt the door against me. You understand better the duties of a child, good manners, dues of gratitude. You haven’t forgotten the half of the kingdom that I gave you.’
‘Good sir,’ she said, ‘get to the point.’
‘Who put my man in the stocks?’
A trumpet sounded and Cornwall scoured the horizen. ‘Who’s trumpet is that?’
‘I know it,’ said Regan. ‘It’s my sister’s. It confirms her letter, that she’d be here soon.’ Oswald was approaching. ‘Is your lady here?’ said Regan.
When Lear saw Oswald he was filled with anger. ‘This is the slave whose arrogant manner depends on the fickle patronage of she whom he follows. Get out of my sight, rogue!’
‘What does your Grace mean?’ said Cornwall.
‘Who put my servant in the stocks? Regan, I’m sure you didn’t know about it. Who’s this?’ He flinched as Goneril’s coach drew up and she got out. ‘Oh heavens, if you love old men: if your gracious power values obedience: if you yourselves are old, make this your cause: intervene and take my side.’ He glared at Goneril. ‘Aren’t you ashamed to look upon this beard?’ The sisters greeted each other with affection. ‘Oh Regan,’ he said. ‘Will you take her hand?’
‘Why not my hand, sir?’ said Goneril ‘How have I offended? Something isn’t offensive just because someone says so and because old men call it that.’
Lear put his hand on his chest. ”Oh sides, you are too tough! Are you still intact? How did my man come to be in the stocks?’
‘I put him there, sir,’ said Cornwall, ‘but his misconduct deserved worse.’
‘You! Did you?’
‘Please, sir,’ said Regan, ‘being weak, act accordingly. If you will return with my sister and stay with her till the end of your month – dismissing half your followers – then you can come to me. I’m away from home at present and not in a position to entertain you properly.’
‘Return to her? And fifty men dismissed? No, I’d rather reject all shelter and choose to fight the elements: be the companion of the wolf and the owl, feel the sharp pinch of deprivation. Return with her? I would rather kneel before the throne of the passionate France, who took our youngest-born without a dowry, and like a petty squire, beg a pension of him to keep the wolf from the door. Return with her! Persuade me instead to be the slave and underling to this detested servant!’ He pointed at Oswald.
‘Suit yourself, sir,’ said Goneril, yawning.
Lear appealed to her. ‘I beg of you, daughter,’ he said, ‘don’t make me go mad. I won’t trouble you, my child. Farewell. We won’t meet any more: we won’t see each other any more.’ There were tears in his eyes. He sobbed quietly then his anger returned. ‘But you’re still my flesh and blood – my daughter. Or rather, a disease that’s in my flesh, which I have to acknowledge mine. You’re a boil, a plague-sore, a swollen carbuncle in my corrupted blood. But I won’t curse you. Let shame choose its own time, I won’t summon it. I’m not calling on Jove to hurl his thunder, nor tell tales about you to him, whose judgment is supreme. Improve when you can: be better at your leisure: I can be patient. I can stay with Regan. I and my hundred knights.’
‘Not quite,’ said Regan. ‘I wasn’t expecting you yet, nor am I prepared for a fitting welcome. Listen, sir, to my sister. Any reasonable person listening to you will excuse you on the grounds of your old age and therefore… but she knows what she’s doing.’
‘Is this a reasonable thing to say?’ said Lear.
‘I dare say it is, sir,’ she said. ‘What? Fifty followers? Isn’t that enough? Why should you need more? Yes, or even so many, since both the expense and the danger argue against such a large number? How could so many people live in harmony in one house under two masters. It’s hard – almost impossible.’
‘Why couldn’t you, my lord, be looked after by her servants, or mine?’ said Goneril.
‘Why not, my lord?’ said Regan. ‘If they then happened to fall short of their duties to you we could correct them. If you want to come to me, because now I perceive a danger, I would ask you to bring only twenty-five: I won’t accommodate or recognise any more.’
‘I gave you everything…’ began Lear.
‘And it took you a long time,’ retorted Regan.
‘… made you the guardians of my kingdom, and my trustees, but with the condition that I should keep a following of such a number. What? Do I have to come to you with twenty-five? Regan, is that what you said?’
‘And I repeat it, my lord: no more with me.’
‘Wicked creatures look better when compared with others that are more wicked,’ said Lear. ‘Not being the worst is some measure of praise.’ He turned to Goneril. ‘I’ll go with you. Your fifty is twice twenty-five. Your love is twice hers.’
‘Listen, my lord,’ said Goneril. ‘Why do you need twenty-five, ten or five to look after you in a house where twice as many have orders to wait on you?’
‘Why do you need one?’ said Regan.
‘Oh don’t argue about the need! Even our meanest beggars have things they can do without. If you don’t grant man more than he needs then his life would be no better than an animal’s. You are a lady. If you dress only to be warm, why then, there’d be no need for the gorgeous fashionable clothes you wear, that barely keep you warm. But true need…’ He stopped in mid sentence and raised his hands to his head. ‘Heaven give me patience – the patience I need! You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, as full of grief as I am of age – wretched in both! If it’s you that is stirring these daughters’ hearts against their father, don’t make me such a fool as to bear it tamely: fill me with noble anger and don’t let the weapons of women – tears – stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags – I’ll take such revenge on you both that the whole world will… I will do such things – I don’t know what they are yet, but they will be earth-shattering. You think I’ll weep! No, I won’t weep. I’ve got every reason for weeping, but this heart will shatter into a hundred thousand fragments before I’ll weep. Oh Fool, I’m going mad!’ He staggered off.
‘Let us go inside,’ said Cornwall. ‘There’s going to be a storm.’
‘This is a small house,’ said Regan. ‘The old man and his people can’t be properly accommodated.:
‘It’s his own fault,’ said Goneril. ‘He’s upset himself and has to take the consequences of such folly.’
‘Regarding himself, I’ll gladly take him, but not one follower,’ said Regan.
‘That’s my position too,’ said Goneril. ‘Where is my Lord of Gloucester?’
‘He followed the old man,’ said Cornwall. ‘Here he is, coming back.’
‘The King is in a terrible rage,’ said Gloucester.
‘Where’s he going?’ said Cornwall.
‘He’s called for his horses. I don’t know where he’s going.’
‘It’s best to let him have his own way. He’s his own master.’
Goneril nodded. ‘My lord, by no means beg him to stay.’
‘Alas,’ said Gloucester. ‘It will be night eventually and the bleak winds are blustering harshly. There’s hardly a bush for miles around.’
‘Oh sir,’ said Regan, ‘Wilful men have to learn from their destructive actions. Shut your doors. He’s attended by such a desperate mob and it would be wise to be be on guard against whatever they may provoke him into doing.’
‘Shut your doors, my lord,’ said Cornwall. ‘It’s a wild night. My Regan’s giving you good advice. Come out of the storm.’