Edgar talks himself into a glimmer of optimism: "better thus, and known to be contemn'd, / Than still contemn'd and flatter'd" (IV.i.1-2). Gloucester enters, urging his tenant accompanying him to leave for his own safety. Besides, "I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw" (IV.i.18-19). "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, / They kill us for their sport" (IV.i.36-37). He openly reproaches himself for turning away Edgar, who presents himself as the lunatic beggar and will lead Gloucester to Dover. "'Tis the time's plague, when madmen lead the blindf" (IV.i.46-47). Gloucester wants only to go to the cliff there.
Goneril invites Edmund into Albany's palace. Oswald's report indicates that Albany himself sympathizes with Lear and Goneril considers him a coward. She and Edmund are to be the new item apparently in their unity against France. Albany and Goneril exchange recrimination, Albany lamenting that "Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep" (IV.ii.49-50). They nearly come to blows.
A messenger brings news of Cornwall's death from the wound sustained when blinding Gloucester. Goneril sees this as her ticket with Edmund to rule England, except for Regan being a potential obstacle. Albany hears of Edmund's treachery and vows revenge.
Kent hears that the King of France has returned home but his marshal and army remain. Cordelia was dismayed but not histrionic by the news Kent had been giving in letters he had sent. Lear is in Dover but is too guilt-ridden and ashamed to meet with Cordelia.
Cordelia sends soldiers to fetch Lear and hopes that the Doctor is right and that herbs will help restore Lear to sanity. A messenger reports that the British army approaches. Cordelia says that France has sympathized and that the coming war is based not on ambition but on love and Lear's "right" (IV.iv.28).
Oswald tells Regan that Albany's participation against France is reluctant. She regrets that Gloucester was allowed to live, since people are automatically moved by his plight. Regan also perceives what's developing between Goneril and Edmund and wants her sister to knock it off. She recommands that Oswald kill Gloucester if he encounters him.
Edgar brings Gloucester to Dover and pretends they are nearing the cliff. Gloucester insists that his companion leave him. He thinks he is leaping and falls, passing out. When he comes to, Edgar tells him he survived the fall off the cliff and Gloucester vows to be tolerant of fortune from now on.
Lear enters, dressed oddly with weeds and flowers and pontificating
madly. He makes much sense though: "Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at
a beggar? ... And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst
behold the great image of authority: a dog's obey'd in office"
(IV.vi.154-159); "The usurer hangs the cozener" (IV.vi.163). Gloucester
Some men sent by Cordelia enter but Lear perceives himself imprisoned. "I am even the natural fool of fortune" (IV.vi.190-191). Lear runs and escapes them. Edgar and Gloucester learn that the battle will soon begin. A reference to the "English party" (IV.vi.254) is an "inevitable anachronism," English not being an appropriate designation for thirteen centuries yet (Asimov 45).
Oswald enters and gloats about finding Gloucester that his own fortunes will rise by killing the old man. The still disguised Edgar defends Gloucester and fatally wounds Oswald, who gives him a letter to deliver to Edmund. Oswald dies. Edgar reads the letter from Goneril telling Edmund to kill Albany and marry her. Drums are heard.
Cordelia thanks Kent, who otherwise remains disguised. Lear is brought in sleeping and Cordelia expresses her devotion. When he first wakes up he thinks she's an angel and he's in purgatory: "You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave" (IV.vii.44). Then, as he regains his senses he is amazed that the daughter with the most to hate him for is being the kindest to him. He wonders if he's in France, but Kent tells him he's still in his own kingdom.
The whole reconciliation scene is done in the simplest language, with scarcely a poetic flight, scarcely a polysyllable, yet nowhere in Shakespeare, and, I believe, nowhere in literature, is the human heart so skillfully and ruthlessly torn in sympathy with what it sees and hears. (Asimov 46)Kent learns that he and Edgar are rumored to be in Germany. Edmund will lead Cornwall's army into the bloody battle.