Notes on Act IV, scene vi

voice: Edgar has forgotten to maintain his disguised accent

place: the edge of the cliff (or so he wants him to think)

choughs: jackdaws, another kind of bird, pronounced "chuffs"

gross: large

samphire: an herb growing on the cliffs

bark: ship

cock: cockboat; the large ship looks like a small rowboat

deficient: failing

all beneath the moon: for the whole world, I wouldn't jump from here

Fairies: fairies were supposed to multiply treasure

trifle: Edgar plays this trick on his father in order to cure him of his suicidal despair. Note, however, that the original audience in the Globe, watching this scene on a bare stage and relying solely on the actor's words, would have had no idea that Gloucester was not indeed standing at the edge of the cliff. Only Edgar's later words explain that Gloucester has merely fallen to the ground and passed out. Edgar convinces him that a miracle has saved him from the great fall, and Gloucester determines to leave his death to the gods.

opposeless: irresistible will; if I could endure the fate which you have determined for me

snuff: the smoldering remains of a candle, worthless

conceit: imagination; Edgar fears that his father may have died anyway, out of sheer terror at the thought of falling.

past: by this fall, his ability to think would be over (because he would be dead)

pass: die

gossamer: a fine film of cobwebs often seen floating in the air

precipitating: falling (Edgar now pretends to be another man at the bottom of the cliff, who witnessed Gloucester's miraculous fall)

shivered: shattered

heavy substance: your body is still in one piece

sound: alive and well

at each: ten ship masts end to end

chalky bourn: the white cliffs of Dover; bourn = boundary

gorged: throated

beguile: outwit, cheat (by suicide)

whelked: twisted

happy: fortunate (to be alive after such a fall)

father: Edgar uses this term out of respect, much as we would say, "sir". He does not reveal himself to be Gloucester's son until much later (told in the final scene).

clearest: purest, holiest

honours: gods bring honor to themselves by performing miracles

die: I won't try to take my own life, until my natural time comes

free: of care

safer: saner

accommodate: dress

touch: arrest

coining: minting coins, which only the king could do (most editors take the reading of Q here)

side-piercing: we might say "heart-breaking"

Nature's above art: a true king is born, not made (the king's face would appear on coins)

press-money: paid to soldiers, whom he imagines attend him. He acts as if he is still at court.

crow-keeper: a farmhand scaring away crows

draw me a clothier's yard: pull the arrow back a full yard (like a tailor would measure a yard of cloth, from his nose to the tip of his arm)

gauntlet: glove thrown down as a challenge (all these commands are random thoughts to imaginary attendants, recalling his better days as king)

brown bills: soldiers armed with battle axes or short hooked blades with spikes 

clout: bull's eye; Lear compares the arrow to a bird, the "hewgh" being the sound an arrow makes as it flies to hit the target.

word: pass word (said to Edgar)

marjoram: an herb used to treat insanity

Goneril: Lear sees the horrible image of blind Gloucester, and compares him to his daughter.

They: his daughters and the men of his court

like a dog: as a dog flatters, fawningly

white hairs: a sign of wisdom; they said he was wise before he was old. The court flattery had begun long before the first scene.

no good divinity: not good theology, making oaths that they didn't intend to keep: see Matthew 5:33-37.

chatter: his teeth chatter

peace at my bidding: perhaps an allusion to Jesus, calming the storm

found: uncovered their lies and flatteries

ague-proof: immune to fever and sickness

trick: particular quality

subject: criminal brought into judgement; Lear imagines he sits in a trial

cause: crime, cause for arrest

lecher: procreate (that is, the birds and the bees do it, why shouldn't you?)

Got: begotten; mad Lear doesn't understand the terrible irony of his statement, spoken to blind Gloucester who now knows of Edmund's treachery.

lawful sheets: marriage bed

luxury: lechery

soldiers: Lear's mad ravings make strange sense, as he needs more soldiers to be born in order to take revenge on his daughters (see lines below)

simpering: smiling in a coy or conceited manner

whose face ... snow: whose cold looks predict (presages) frigidity (snow) between her legs (forks).

minces virtue: pretends to be virtuous

shake the head: in disapproval of sexual talk

fitchew: skunk, also slang for prostitute

soiled: put out to pasture; that is, this woman pretends to be virtuous but actually has sex more than these animals

Centaurs: mythical creatures, half-human, half-horse, known for their lustfulness

to the girdle: down to the waist the gods control, the Renaissance idea that the upper part of the body was spiritual, while the lower part was carnal.

hell: Lear imagines these lustful women burning in hell, actually seeming to smell the sulfurous fumes

pah, pah: perhaps he imagines he is choking on the fumes

civet: perfume

squiny: squint

Cupid: the love god was supposedly blind, shooting his arrows randomly. Lear refuses to love (have sex) again and beget more children.

challenge: probably an imaginary piece of writing he shows Gloucester

report: I wouldn't believe it unless I saw it myself

case: empty sockets

heavy case: sad plight (pun)

justice: a judge (whom Lear says is no better than the thief)

handy-dandy: guess in which hand

beadle: constable who enforces the law

to use her in that kind: you want to perform with her the very act for which you punish her

usurer hangs the cozener: the powerful money-lender, a great cheater, punishes the little cheater

Through tattered clothes: small crimes by poor people are seen as great, while the wealthy and powerful get away with worse.

hurtless breaks: If the sinner is wealthy, plated with gold, the lance of justice simply breaks and does not harm him, but for the poor sinner, even a pygmy's dart would strike him down.

glass eyes: eye glasses

scurvy: worthless

boots: Lawrence Olivier's Lear is barefoot and has Gloucester remove imaginary boots

matter and impertinency: sense and nonsense

crying: as babies we came into this world crying, so it only makes sense that our lives are full of sorrows

block: critics don't agree on the meaning here, but some suggest he refers to his "hat" of flowers which he takes off, or perhaps to Edgar's felt hat, leading to the comment on felt.

felt: so that the enemy couldn't hear them coming

stolen: snuck up, surprised

natural fool: fortune's plaything

seconds: supporters coming to his aid

salt: salt tears

die bravely, like a smug bridegroom: "die" was sometimes a Renaissance allusion to sexual climax

life in it: there's still hope

general curse: universal condemnation (comparing their sin to Adam's)

vulgar: common knowledge

descry: sighting; they expect to see them within the hour

pregnant: disposed

biding: place to stay (abide)

benison: blessing

to boot: also, even more

proclaimed: someone under sentence of death

happy: fortunate (for Oswald as he will be rewarded for killing Gloucester)

framed: created

remember: think on your life

friendly: Gloucester thinks of Oswald as doing him a favor by killing him

published: publicly proclaimed as

Ch'ill not ... casion: Edgar disguises his voice with a strange accent: "I'll not let go, sir, without further occasion (reason)"

gait: way

An chud ... vortnight: If I could have been swaggered (bluffed) out of my life (frightened by the likes of you), I would have died a month ago.

che vor ye ... : "keep out, I warn ye, or I'll try whether your head or my club be the harder. I'll be plain with you."

Ch'll pick your teeth: "I'll knock your teeth out, no matter your sword thrusts (foins)"

death's-man: executioner

wax: the seal on the letter, which he breaks open

want: if you will be not lacking

labour: make a place in my bed for your sexual labor

indistinguished ... will: unlimited range of woman's lust

rake up: cover up, bury

post unsanctified: unholy messenger

death-practiced: whose death is plotted

stiff: "How stubborn is my hateful consciousness that I have not been driven mad by these terrible events"

distract: mad

wrong imaginations: delusions


Back to Act IV, scene vi

Next scene

Table of contents