To position himself advantageously, Edmund contrives to have Edgar flee Gloucestershire. Cornwall and Regan are on their way and Edmund would like nothing better than to be regarded their--Cornwall and Regan's--most trusted ally. Thus Gloucester is fooled into believing that Edgar had fled on account of Edmund’s opposition to Edgar’s plan to kill Gloucester. Edgar is denounced, and his allegiance to King Lear is noted. Conversely, Edmund is praised (for opposing Edgar), and he is promoted to a prominent rank within the Regan/Cornwall hierarchy. Though grateful on behalf of his step-son, Gloucester questions the purpose of Regan and Cornwall’s visit. They inform him that letters had arrived from the King and Goneril respectively, and that they would like his counsel as to how to reconcile the letters of the opposing camps.
Kent, disguised as Caius, is so offended by the sight of Goneril’s steward, Oswald, whose delivered letter has aligned Regan and Cornwall with Goneril and against the King, that he upbraids Oswald with every insult in the book before beating Oswald for refusing to fight back. Oswald’s cries for help are answered by Edmund, Regan, Cornwall, and Gloucester. When asked to justify his actions, Caius speaks his mind only to be rebuked by Cornwall who takes offense at Caius’ plain-spokenness which he interprets as insolent posturing. Oswald attests to the Duke’s interpretation, condemning Caius to the stocks, a form of punishment that is highly inappropriate for a King’s messenger. Caius, as does Gloucester, entreats the Duke to reconsider but for naught. Regan passionately approves of the measure, and Caius is put in the stocks. Alone, Caius retrieves a letter. The letter is from Cordelia, and though he can’t read it because of the failing light he knows that it signifies Cordelia’s return to Britian, in support of her father’s cause.
Pursued high and low, Edgar is compelled to assume a radical disguise, that of a lowly beggar, to avoid capture.
Lear arrives at Gloucestershire, wondering where Caius could be when lo and behold Caius is found shackled most ignobly--like a petty criminal--in the stocks. When told of the circumstances that had warranted this insult, Lear demands answers. He summons Regan and Cornwall. When they fail to duly appear, Lear initially brooks their delay only to reiterate his demand, so angry is he at the sight of his messenger in the stocks. Eventually, Regan and Cornwall appear and Caius is set free. Lear appeals to Regan, pleading her to sympathize with his cause vis-à-vis Goneril who would deny him his dignity. Regan aligns her sympathy with Goneril, however, arguing that Goneril is acting in the best interest of the state, that Lear should return to Goneril and apologize only to bear witness to her father’s vindictiveness as he invokes curse after curse that he would wish upon Goneril. Lear then praises Regan, saying how she could never be so cruel (as to warrant such curses herself) only to be disillusioned when Goneril enters the scene (having come all the way form Albany Palace), and joining hands with Regan, they oppose their father with a united front. Subsequently, Lear finds himself at the mercy of his daughters who would strip him of every honor and dignity that had been his by birthright but which now they hold the legal rights to--and all because in a moment of blindness he had actually believed that they had his best interest in mind. Outraged and nearly out of his mind, Lear departs with nowhere in mind. He is seen headed for the barren landscape that lies in the outer precincts of Gloucestershire. A heavy storm is on the way. Gloucester’s concern for the King’s welfare is of no avail, however, as Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril dismiss the King’s predicament as just punishment for being a foolish old man.