Kent, still disguised as an ordinary serving man, speaks with a gentleman in the French camp near Dover. The gentleman tells Kent that the king of France landed with his troops but quickly departed to deal with a problem at home. Kent’s letters have been brought to Cordelia, who is now the queen of France and who has been left in charge of the army. Kent questions the gentleman about Cordelia’s reaction to the letters, and the gentleman gives a moving account of Cordelia’s sorrow upon reading about her father’s mistreatment.
Kent tells the gentleman that Lear, who now wavers unpredictably between sanity and madness, has also arrived safely in Dover. Lear, however, refuses to see Cordelia because he is ashamed of the way he treated her. The gentleman informs Kent that the armies of both Albany and the late Cornwall are on the march, presumably to fight against the French troops.
Cordelia enters, leading her soldiers. Lear has hidden from her in the cornfields, draping himself in weeds and flowers and singing madly to himself. Cordelia sends one hundred of her soldiers to find Lear and bring him back. She consults with a doctor about Lear’s chances for recovering his sanity. The doctor tells her that what Lear most needs is sleep and that there are medicines that can make him sleep. A messenger brings Cordelia the news that the British armies of Cornwall and Albany are marching toward them. Cordelia expected this news, and her army stands ready to fight.
Back at Gloucester’s castle, Oswald tells Regan that Albany’s army has set out, although Albany has been dragging his feet about the expedition. It seems that Goneril is a “better soldier” than Albany (4.5.4). Regan is extremely curious about the letter that Oswald carries from Goneril to Edmund, but Oswald refuses to show it to her. Regan guesses that the letter concerns Goneril’s love affair with Edmund, and she tells Oswald plainly that she wants Edmund for herself. Regan reveals that she has already spoken with Edmund about this possibility; it would be more appropriate for Edmund to get involved with her, now a widow, than with Goneril, with whom such involvement would constitute adultery. She gives Oswald a token or a letter (the text doesn’t specify which) to deliver to Edmund, whenever he may find him. Finally, she promises Oswald a reward if he can find and kill Gloucester.
In these scenes, we see Cordelia for the first time since Lear banished her in Act 1, scene 1. The words the gentleman uses to describe Cordelia to Kent seem to present her as a combination idealized female beauty and quasi-religious savior figure. The gentleman uses the language of love poetry to describe her beauty—her lips are “ripe,” the tears in her eyes are “as pearls from diamonds dropped,” and her “smiles and tears” are like the paradoxically coexisting “sunshine and rain” (4.3.17–21). But the gentleman also describes Cordelia in language that might be used to speak of a holy angel or the Virgin Mary herself: he says that, as she wiped away her tears, “she shook / The holy water from her heavenly eyes” (4.3.28–29). Cordelia’s great love for her father, which contrasts sharply with Goneril and Regan’s cruelty, elevates her to the level of reverence.
The strength of Cordelia’s daughterly love is reinforced in Act 4, scene 4, when Cordelia orders her people to seek out and help her father. We learn that the main reason for the French invasion of England is Cordelia’s desire to help Lear: “great France / My mourning and importuned tears hath pitied,” she says (4.4.26–27). The king of France, her husband, took pity on her grief and allowed the invasion in an effort to help restore Lear to the throne. When Cordelia proclaims that she is motivated not by ambition but by “love, dear love, and our aged father’s right,” we are reminded of how badly Lear treated her at the beginning of the play (4.4.29). Her virtue and devotion is manifest in her willingness to forgive her father for his awful behavior. At one point, she declares, “O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about” (4.4.24–25), echoing a biblical passage in which Christ says, “I must go about my father’s business” (Luke 2:49). This allusion reinforces Cordelia’s piety and purity and consciously links her to Jesus Christ, who, of course, was a martyr to love, just as Cordelia becomes at the play’s close.
The other characters in the play discuss Lear’s madness in interesting language, and some of the most memorable turns of phrase in the play come from these descriptions. When Cordelia assesses Lear’s condition in Act 4, scene 4, she says he is
As mad as the vexed sea; singing aloud; Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds, With hordocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow. (4.4.2–5)
Lear’s madness, which is indicated here by both his singing and his self-adornment with flowers, is marked by an embrace of the natural world; rather than perceiving himself as a heroic figure who transcends nature, he understands that he is a small, meaningless component of it. Additionally, this description brings to mind other famous scenes of madness in Shakespeare—most notably, the scenes of Ophelia’s flower-bedecked madness in Hamlet.
These scenes set up the resolution of the play’s tension, which takes place in Act 5. While Lear hides from Cordelia out of shame, she seeks him out of love, crystallizing the contrast between her forgiveness and his repentance. Regan and Goneril have begun to become rivals for the affection of Edmund, as their twin ambitions inevitably bring them into conflict. On the political and military level, we learn that Albany’s and Cornwall’s armies are on the march toward the French camp at Dover. The play is rushing toward a conclusion, for all the characters’ trajectories have begun to converge.