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Lear enters, carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms: the messenger arrived too late. Slipping in and out of sanity, Lear grieves over Cordelia’s body. Kent speaks to Lear, but Lear barely recognizes him. A messenger enters and reveals that Edmund has also died. Lear asks Edgar to loosen Cordelia’s button; then, just as Lear thinks that he sees her beginning to breathe again, he dies.
Albany gives Edgar and Kent their power and titles back, inviting them to rule with him. Kent, feeling himself near death, refuses, but Edgar seems to accept. The few remaining survivors exit sadly as a funeral march plays.Read a translation of Act 5, scene 3 →
This long scene brings the play to its resolution, ending it on a note of relentless depression and gloom. Almost all of the main characters wind up dead; only Albany, Edgar, and Kent walk off the stage at the end, and the aging, unhappy Kent predicts his imminent demise. Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and Lear lie dead onstage, and Edmund and Gloucester have passed away offstage. Albany philosophizes about his merciless end when he says, “All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deserving” (5.3.301–303). One can argue that these words suggest that, in some sense, order and justice have triumphed over villainy and cruelty, and that the world is a just place after all.
But one can also argue that Albany’s words ring hollow: most of the virtuous characters die along with the villains, making it difficult to interpret the scene as poetic justice. Indeed, death seems to be a defining motif for the play, embracing characters indiscriminately. We may feel that the disloyal Goneril and Regan, the treacherous Edmund, the odious Oswald, and the brutal Cornwall richly deserve their deaths. But, in the last scene, when the audience expects some kind of justice to be doled out, the good characters—Gloucester, Cordelia, Lear—die as well, and their bodies litter the stage alongside the corpses of the wicked.
This final, harrowing wave of death raises, yet again, a question that has burned throughout the play: is there any justice in the world? Albany’s suggestion that the good and the evil both ultimately get what they deserve does not seem to hold true. Lear, howling over Cordelia’s body, asks, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (5.3.305–306). This question can be answered only with the stark truth that death comes to all, regardless of each individual’s virtue or youth. The world of King Lear is not a Christian cosmos: there is no messiah to give meaning to suffering and no promise of an afterlife. All that King Lear offers is despair.
The play’s emotional extremes of hope and despair, joy and grief, love and hate, are brought to the fore as well in this final scene. Lear’s address to Cordelia at the beginning of the scene is strangely joyful. He creates an intimate world that knows only love: “We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage. / When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down, / And ask of thee forgiveness” (5.3.9–11). This blissful vision, however, is countered by the terrible despair that Lear evokes at Cordelia’s death: “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” (5.3.306–307). Yet, despite his grief, Lear expires in a flash of utterly misguided hope, thinking that Cordelia is coming back to life. In a sense, this final, false hope is the most depressing moment of all.