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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 3, Scene 5

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 3, Scene 5 of William Shakespeare's play King Lear.

King Lear | Act 3, Scene 5 | Summary



Back at Gloucester's castle, Edmund and Cornwall take the stage. Cornwall swears revenge on Gloucester, while Edmund is worried people will criticize him for siding with Cornwall instead of his own father. He gives Cornwall a letter documenting the fact that Gloucester has been sending information to France. Cornwall promises Edmund's reward for this will be to take his father's place as Earl of Gloucester.


Just as the previous scene shows the good characters clustering together, this scene shows the evil ones doing the same. By betraying his father to Cornwall, Edmund links his own fate to the Duke of Cornwall's. He's also growing increasingly treacherous; having displaced his brother, now he has betrayed his father.

This scene includes the critical letter. In this instance, the letter is not just a communication. The letter, which initially indicated Gloucester's continuing loyalty to Lear and Cordelia, has been appropriated by Cornwall as evidence of Gloucester's role as a spy for the French. Cornwall thus fosters this false interpretation, allowing Edmund to appear to gain power over his father. However, Edmund is still operating in the shadow of the law, and he is still a villain.

The letter also has more symbolic meaning. Writing and literacy were highly important in Elizabethan society. We must remember that at that time, literacy was mostly a domain of the rich and privileged. Writing was seen (as it still often is) as more authoritative than verbal communication or contracts. Thus, when there are scenes in this and other Shakespearean works that involve letters or writing, great care should be taken in interpreting their meaning.

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