Gloucester and Edgar were approaching Dover. Edgar had managed to get some clothes from a peasant: anyone seeing them would have taken them for a couple of rustics. They moved slowly, Edgar helping his father across the sandy fields. Gloucester stopped.
‘When will we get to the top of that hill?’
‘You’re climbing it now,’ Edgar said. ‘See how we’re labouring.’
‘I think the ground is even,’ the old man said.
‘Horribly steep,’ said Edgar. ‘Listen, can you hear the sea?’
‘Well, I suppose your other senses are growing imperfect because of the pain in your eyes.’
‘That may be so, actually,’ Gloucester said. ‘I think your voice has changed and you’re speaking with more sophistication than you did before.’
‘You’re very much mistaken,’ said Edgar. ‘I haven’t changed at all, except for my clothes.’
‘I think you’re better spoken.’
‘Come on, sir.’ Edgar took his father’s hand and pulled him gently. ‘This is the place. Stand still.’
Edgar had stopped in the middle of a field – flat for as far as the eye could see. ‘How terrifying and dizzying it is to cast one’s eyes so far down!’ he said. ‘The crows and jackdaws that fly between here and the bottom look hardly as big as beetles. Halfway down there’s a man clinging to the cliff-side, gathering sea pickle. What a dreadful job! He appears to me no bigger than the size of his head. The fishermen walking on the beach look like mice and that tall anchored ship out there is reduced to the size of her lifeboat, her lifeboat to the size of a buoy, almost too small to see. From this height we can’t hear the murmuring breakers that chafe the millions of useless pebbles. I won’t look anymore in case it makes me dizzy and the blur causes me to topple headlong down.’
‘Help me to where you’re standing,’ Gloucester said.
‘Give me your hand.’ Edgar drew his father towards him. ‘You are now within a foot of the extreme verge. I wouldn’t jump about for all that lies beneath the moon.’
‘Let go my hand.’ Gloucester untied a small bag from around his waist. ‘Here, friend – it’s another purse. In it there’s a jewel worth something to a poor man. May fortune bring you the enjoyment of it. Go further off. Say farewell and let me hear you leaving.’
‘Well goodbye, good sir,’ said Edgar.
‘With all my heart.’
Edgar started walking. He stopped when he was a short distance away from the distressed old man and watched him. He didn’t like seeing his father in such a state of misery but the reason he was allowing it to continue was so that he could help him and make things better for him.
Gloucester knelt down. He clasped his hands together and turned his face to the sky. ‘Oh you mighty gods! I renounce this world and in your sight shuffle off my great suffering without complaint. Even if I could bear it any longer and not fall into a quarrel with your great unchallengeable decrees the wick and butt-end of my loathesome life would burn itself out. If Edgar is alive, oh bless him!’ He struggled to his feet. He turned and called: ‘Now, fellow, fare you well!’
‘Gone, sir. Farewell,’ Edgar called.
Gloucester stood, swaying for a moment, then he took a step and made a movement as though throwing himself forward, and he fell frontwards on to the ground.
Edgar started walking slowly towards him. It was interesting how one could delude oneself into death when the will to live has evaporated. If the old man had been where he thought he was (on the edge of a high cliff) all thought would be past. Was he alive or dead? ‘Hey, you sir,’ he said loudly. ‘Friend! Can you hear me sir? Say something.’ When Gloucester lay silent and unmoving, his face pressed against the ground, Edgar thought for a moment that he may indeed have died. He shook the old man, who stirred and moaned. He was recovering. Edgar changed his voice again, making it more coarse, and assumed a local accent, conveying the idea that he was a fisherman from the beach at the foot of the cliff. ‘Who are you, sir?’
‘Go away and let me die,’ moaned Gloucester.
‘If you had been anything other than gossamer, feathers or air, after falling from such a height you would have shattered like an egg! But you are breathing, and intact. You’re not bleeding, you can speak and you’re in good shape. The masts of ten ships wouldn’t be enough to measure the height you’ve fallen. It’s a miracle you’ve survived. Say something more.’
‘Have I fallen or not?’
‘From the very top of this chalky cliff,’ Edgar said. ‘Look up there. One can’t even hear the shrill-voiced lark from here. Just look up!’
Gloucester shook his head. ‘Alas, I have no eyes! Is wretchedness deprived of the benefit of ending itself by death? There was at least some comfort when misery could deflect the tyrant’s rage and frustrate his high ambitions.’
Edgar started helping him to his feet. ‘Give me your arm. Up, so. How are you doing? Can you feel your legs? Ah, you’re standing.’
‘Too well, too well,’ Gloucester said.
‘This is amazing,’ said Edgar. ‘What was that thing that left you on the edge of the cliff?’
‘A poor unfortunate beggar.’
‘As I stood here below I thought his eyes were two full moons: he had a thousand noses and horns that twisted and waved like the writhing sea. It was some fiend. Therefore, you lucky old man, it’s obvious that the righteous gods, honoured for performing the impossible, have preserved you.’
‘I remember now,’ said Gloucester. ‘From now on I’ll bear my suffering until it cries out “enough, enough” and lets me die. The thing you’re talking about – I thought it was a man. It often said “the fiend, the fiend.” He led me to that place.’
‘Try and forget about it,’ Edgar told him.
A man, dressed in tatters with wild flowers projecting from the gaps in the rags and woven into his untrimmed beard and hair, was coming towards them – slowly, tacking across the field.
‘Who’s this coming here?’ said Edgar. ‘A sane man would never walk around like this.’
The man laughed. ‘No,’ he said, decisively. ‘They could never get me for counterfeiting. I am the King himself!’
Edgar recognised him and he was filled with pity. ‘Oh, what a heart-breaking sight!’
Lear pointed at him. ‘Nature is above art in that respect,’ he said. ‘Take your King’s shilling!’ He assumed the posture of a general on the battlefield. ‘That fellow is handling his bow like a scarecrow. Draw that bowstring out a full yard!’ He looked down at his feet and began jumping about. ‘Look, look, a mouse!’ he shouted. ‘Sh! Sh! This piece of toasted cheese will do it!’ He tore a piece of cheese off an imaginary chunk and threw it down. ‘There’s my gauntlet. I’ll challenge a giant as well. Bring out the pike men!’ He moved his head as though watching a flying arrow. ‘Oh, well done, bird. In the bull’s eye, in the bull’s eye. Whtttt!’ He looked directly at Edgar. ‘Give the password.’
‘Sweet marjoram,’ Edgar said.
‘Pass.’ Lear stepped aside as though to allow them to pass.
‘I know that voice,’ said Gloucester.
Lear peered at the pathetic figure before him – ragged, thin, pale, with empty, bloody eye-sockets. ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed. ‘Goneril with a white beard! They flattered me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my beard before the black ones were there. Saying “yes” and “no” to everything I said! “Yes” and “no” isn’t good theology. Once when the rain came down to drench me and the wind to make me shiver, when the thunder wouldn’t stop when I ordered it to, that’s where I discovered them – that’s where I smelt them out. Go on, they are not men of their words. They told me I was invincible. It’s a lie, I am not immune to illness.’
‘I remember that tone of voice very well,’ Gloucester said. ‘Aren’t you the King?’
‘Yes, every inch a king! When I focus my attention on a man just watch him quake!’ Lear pointed to an imaginary figure. ‘I pardon that man’s life. What was your crime? Adultery? You shall not die. Die for adultery! Never: the wren goes to it, and the small golden fly lechers before my very eyes. Let copulation thrive! Because Gloucester’s bastard son was kinder to his father than my daughters conceived between legitimate sheets. Get down to it, lust, right on! I need more soldiers. Look at that pure-looking woman whose face suggests snow, who looks so virtuous, who shakes her head in disapproval at any mention of sex. Neither polecat nor stallion go at it with such sexual appetite. From the waist down they are Centaurs although they’re women above. The gods control us only to the belt, below it it all belongs to the devil.’ A look of horror came into Lear’s eyes. ‘There’s hell!’ he cried. ‘There’s darkness. There is the sulphurous pit – burning, scalding. Stench, decay – ugh, ugh, ah, ugh arrrr! Give me an ounce of perfume, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination. Here’s money for you.’
He sank to the ground. Gloucester went down on his knees. He felt around and found the King’s hand. ‘Let me kiss that hand,’ he said.
Lear withdrew the hand. ‘Let me wipe it first – it smells of death.’ He wiped his hand exaggeratedly on his ragged tunic.
‘Oh what a wrecked man!’ exclaimed Gloucester. ‘This great world will come to an end just like this. Do you know me?’
Lear peered at his face. ‘I remember your eyes well enough,’ he said. ‘Are you squinting at me? No, do your worst, blind Cupid – I won’t love again.’ He unrolled an imaginary scroll. ‘Read this challenge. Just look at the way it’s written.’
‘If the letters shone out like suns I wouldn’t be able to see them.’
Edgar looked on sadly. If anyone had told him about this he wouldn’t have believed it – it was breaking his heart.
‘Read!’ Lear said.
‘What, with only holes for eyes?’
‘Oh ho!’ Lear shook his finger in reprimand. ‘Is that what you’re up to? No eyes in your head and no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy state and your purse in a light one and yet you can see how the world works.’
‘I see it by feeling.’
‘What! Are you mad? A man may see how the world works without eyes! Look with your ears. See how that magistrate over there reprimands that humble thief. A word in your ear. Change places and – see if you can tell – which one is the magistrate and which the thief? You’ve seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?’
‘And the wretch run away from the cur? You see the great image of Authority in that. A dog’s obeyed in office.’ He stopped to admonish another imaginary character in his private drama. ‘You rascally constable – hold your blood-soaked hand! Why are you lashing that whore? Flay the skin off your own back: you’re lusting hotly to do to her what you’re whipping her for! The major offender hangs the minor one. Small offences show more obviously through tattered clothes: robes and furred gowns hide everything. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice breaks without making a dent: cover it with rags and the tiny spear of a pigmy pierces it. No-one sins. No-one, I tell you, no-one. I’ll guarantee them. Take that from whence it comes, friend, from me, who has the power to silence all accusers. Get some glass eyes and, like a vile politician, pretend to see the things that you can’t.’ He sat up and addressed an imaginary servant. ‘Now, now, now, now. Pull off my boots. Harder, harder, that’s it.’
It all struck Edgar as being a combination of sense and absurdity. It was reason in madness.
Lear touched one of Gloucester’s eye sockets gently. ‘If you want to weep for your misfortune take my eyes,’ he said softly. ‘I know you well enough – your name is Gloucester. You must be patient. We came here crying: you know that the first time we smell the air we wail and cry. I’ll preach to you. Listen.’
Gloucester cried without tears. Lear continued. ‘When we’re born we cry because we’ve come to this great stage of fools.’ He looked about on the ground as though searching for something then spoke: ‘This is a good block.’ He kicked the tree stump then climbed up and stood precariously on its flat surface. ‘It would be a good idea to shoe a troop of horses with felt. I’ll try it. And when I have stolen up on these sons-in-law, then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!’
The officer Cordelia had sent to find him approached them with a group of soldiers. Lear jumped down and held his hands out as though to surrender.
‘Here he is,’ the officer said. ‘Get hold of him. Sir, your most dear daughter…’
‘No rescue?’ said Lear. ‘What! A prisoner! I have always been unlucky. Treat me well. You’ll get a ransom. Get me to a doctor: I’m cut to the brain.’
‘You shall have anything you want,’ the officer said.
‘No followers? All by myself? Why this would turn a man to salt, to use his eyes for garden watering cans. , yes, to lay the dust of autumn. I will die in high style, like a bridegroom showing off. What! I’ll be jovial. Come, come, I am a king, masters. Do you know that?’
‘You are a monarch and we obey you,’ the gentleman said.
‘Then there’s still hope,’ said Lear. ‘Come on, if you want it you’ll have to run for it. Sa, sa, sa, sa!’ He ran off like a child and the soldiers chased after him.
The officer watched. He sighed. It would be a most pitiful sight in the meanest wretch: beyond words in a king. He spoke under his breath: ‘You have one daughter who redeems nature from the universal curse which her two sisters have invoked on her.’
The officer had ignored Edgar and Gloucester until now, but now he looked at them.
‘Greetings, sir,’ said Edgar.
‘Sir, to you, too,’ the officer replied. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Have you heard anything, sir, of a coming battle?’
‘Certainly,’ the officer said. ‘It’s common knowledge. Everyone who has his hearing has heard of it.’
‘But, if you don’t mind my asking, how near is the other army?’
‘Very near, and advancing fast. We’ll see the main body at any time.’
‘Thank you, sir, that’s all.’
‘Though the Queen is here for a special purpose, her army has moved on.’
Edgar bowed. ‘Thank you, sir.’
They could see Lear in the distance. He had stopped and the soldiers were keeping him company. The officer set off towards them.
Gloucester was praying to the merciful gods to take his life. He prayed that he wouldn’t be tempted to take his own life again before they willed it. Edgar put his hand on his shoulder. ‘Well prayed, old man,’ he said.
‘Now, dear sir, who are you?’ Gloucester said.
‘A very poor man, bowed by misfortune, who because I have suffered deep sorrows, am disposed towards pity. Give me your hand: I’ll take you to some shelter.’
‘Hearty thanks, and in addition to that may you receive the bounty of heaven.’
Someone else was coming. He was riding along the path towards Dover and when he saw them he drew his horse up. Then he left the path and came towards them. When he was within a few yards he stopped. He let out a whoop. ‘This man carries a reward for his life!’ he exclaimed. ‘What luck!’ Ignoring Edgar, he jumped from his horse and grabbed Gloucester by the shoulders. ‘That eyeless head of yours was created only to make my fortune. Say your prayers, you wretched old traitor.’ He drew his sword. ‘The sword is out that will destroy you.’ He stepped back and withdrew his arm, making ready to thrust.
Gloucester pushed his chest out. He ripped the front of his gown to reveal his flesh. ‘Now put some force into your friendly hand,’ he said.
Edgar stepped in front of him. The assailant addressed him angrily: ‘What do you think you doing, you impertinent peasant, defending a declared traitor? Go, before your association with him brings the same fate.’
Edgar took his father’s arm and began moving him away.
‘Let go his arm,’ the assailant threatened.
‘Oil nat let go zir, without better reason,’ said Edgar.
The man pointed his sword at him. ‘Let go, slave, or you die!’
‘Good gentleman, go your gait and let poor volk pass,’ said Edgar. ‘If oi cud ha’ bin cheated out of moi loif oi’d ave lost it a vortnight ago.’
The man took a step closer and Edgar came in front of his father again. ‘Nay come not near the old man,’ he said. ‘Keep away, oi tell you or oi’ll try which is ‘arder – your ‘ead or my stick. Oi’ll be plain with you.’
‘Get away you shitpile!’ the man said.
‘Oi’ll pick your teeth, zir. Oi aint scared of your sword strokes.’
The assailant made a thrust at Edgar, who raised his stick and vigorously beat off the attack. The man tried again and once again met with stiff resistance. Then Edgar landed a powerful blow to the man’s head. He fell down, blood flowing profusely. He lay on the ground, moaning. Edgar recognised him as Goneril’s servant, Oswald.
‘Wretch,’ he gasped. ‘You’ve killed me. Villain, take my purse. If you have ever hoped to thrive, bury my body and give the letters you’ll find on me to Edmund, Earl of Gloucester. Look for him among the English party.’ He lay back, grimacing. ‘What a bad time to die! Death!’ He lay still, his eyes staring.
‘I know you well,’ Edgar said. ‘A scurrilous villain, as obliging to the vices of your mistress as evil could desire.’
‘What, is he dead?’ said Gloucester.
‘Sit down and rest, father. Let’s have a look at these pockets: the letters that he mentioned may do me some good.’ He started searching through the pockets. ‘Yes, he’s dead. I’m only sorry he didn’t have some other executioner.’ He found a letter. ‘Let’s see. If you don’t mind, dear wax’ – breaking the seal – ‘it’s quite acceptable – we rip our enemies’ hearts out to find out what’s in their minds: ripping open their letters is more acceptable.’ He opened the letter and read: ‘Don’t forget our reciprocal vows. You have many opportunities to cut him off. If you really want this you will find that there will be enough time and opportunity. If he returns the victor nothing will have been achieved: I would be his prisoner and his bed my gaol. Save me from that loathesome intimacy and take his place for your trouble. Your wife, as I would like to be: affectionate lover: Goneril.
Oh, infinite span of woman’s lust! A plot against her virtuous husband’s life and to replace him with my brother!’ He gave Oswald’s body a little kick. ‘I’ll cover you up here in this unsanctified burial place of murderous lechers. When the time is right I’ll show this disgraceful letter to the targeted Duke. It’s lucky for him that I can tell him both about your death and the business you were engaged in.’
He began covering the body with branches and leaves. Gloucester watched him. ‘The King is mad,’ he said. ‘How stubborn my mind is that I should resist that and be so painfully conscious of my great distress. It would be better if I were mad: then my thoughts would be severed from my griefs and I would lose my pain in fantasies that would have no real meaning.’
Give me your hand,’ Edgar said. ‘I think I can hear drum beats in the distance. Come, father: I’ll leave you with a friend.’