One of the most puzzling aspects of King Lear to me was why it took Edgar so tragically long to reveal his true identity to his sightless and deluded (though quite sympathetic, eventually) father the Duke of Gloucester. In 4.1, overwhelmed by the results of his father’s torture, Edgar nevertheless resolves not to break character: “I cannot daub it further,” (4.1.53) Edgar confesses, “And yet I must” (4.1.55). What makes Edgar’s continued ruse so confusing is the fact that in 4.1 Gloucester reveals that he knows Edgar was innocent all along!
O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abused father’s wrath
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again! (4.1.22-25)
Why would Edgar deprive his father, and the audience of such a pathos-filled reunion? Is the universe of King Lear too tragic for such a resolution? Perhaps Edgar senses that he could not reveal himself to his father without paying some tragic price, which he eventually does, when Gloucester dies upon seeing his son revealed late in act 5.
Edgar’s explicit reason for not revealing himself is pretty ambiguous. After leading his father to what he persuasively describes as the precipice of a great cliff on Dover’s shore, Edgar turns to the audience and tells us, “Why I do trifle thus with his despair/ Is done to cure it” (4.6.33-34). It is somewhat plausible that making Gloucester think he has miraculously survived the fall off of Dover Cliff would in some way redeem him. Edgar’s confrontation (no long as Tom, but another false identity closer to his own) with the just “fallen” Gloucester suggests a kind of spiritual redemption after a terrible fall:
Bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou has perpendicularly fell
Thy life’s a miracle. (4.6.52-55)
Soon after this event, Edgar begins to call Gloucester “father” which the Norton Anthology glosses as “old man” (2549). In this way, Edgar reestablishes, if only partially, or verbally, his filial relationship Gloucester, a man who banished him but one whom he nevertheless has helped to redeem. The fact that this father son relationship could only be partially reestablished is one of the great tragedies of the play–a tragedy that I think is made all the more upsetting by how close we get to witnessing an authentic reunion between father and son.
Perhaps, then, Shakespeare teased us with the possibility of happiness (here, as well as in the Cordelia and Lear plot) only to brutally revoke it in order to make the most tragic play possible. King Lear seems to prove that tragedy is more affecting when it is placed in close proximity to happiness.