Lear meets 'Poor Tom'

Act 3 Scene 4 – Key Scene

Kent has managed to persuade Lear to follow him to a nearby hovel where he can shelter from the storm. Lear sends the Fool in first but the Fool quickly comes back out shouting for help because there is ‘a spirit’ inside the hovel. The ‘spirit’ is Edgar disguised as ‘Poor Tom’ who behaves as a poor ‘mad’ beggar. Lear is convinced that ‘Poor Tom’ has been driven to this state by his daughters. Kent and the Fool try to keep Lear calm.

Take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look

    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.

    Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom!
    Come not in here, nuncle, here’s a spirit. Help me, help me!

    Evil spirit, demon.

    Give me thy hand. Who’s there?
    A spirit, a spirit: he says his name’s poor Tom.
    What art thou that dost grumble there i’th’straw? Come forth.
    Away! The foul fiend follows me! Through the sharp hawthorn blow the winds. Hum! Go to thy bed and warm thee.

    Wicked devil. People who behaved ‘madly’ in Shakespeare's time were often thought to be possessed by devils.

    Did’st thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?
    Who gives anything to poor Tom? Whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire, that hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting-horse over four-inched bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold. O, do de, do de, do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting and taking! Do poor Tom some charity, whom the foul fiend vexes: there could I have him now — and there — and there again, and there.

    What might Edgar be thinking when he comes face to face with the King? Why do you think he makes this long speech and how effective is it?

    The devil has tempted me to damn my soul to hell through committing suicide with knives or by hanging myself, even when I’m in church.

    Rat poison.


    Has his daughters brought him to this pass?
    Couldst thou save nothing? Wouldst thou give ’em all?
    Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all shamed.

    In better times, The Fool made speeches that made perceptive points through roundabout imagery. What do you think of his briefer comments in this scene?

    Now, all the plagues that in the pendulous air
    Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!

    I call on all the diseases that hang heavy in the air to punish men when they do wrong, to fall on your daughters!

    He hath no daughters, sir.
    Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature
    To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.
    Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
    Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
    Judicious punishment! ’Twas this flesh begot
    Those pelican daughters.

    Pelicans were thought to feed their young by pecking holes in their breast and giving them their blood. Why do you think Lear uses this image? Why is Lear so convinced that ‘Poor Tom’ must also have such daughters?

    Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill: alow, alow, loo, loo!
    This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.
  • Listen

    Read the scene aloud. Are there any words or lines that really stand out?

  • Watch

    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?

  • Imagine

    Explore some images from past versions of King Lear at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the scene feel right to you?