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Similarly, Gloucester, as Edgar announces, dies partly of joy: “his flawed heart— / . . . / ’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly” (5.3.195–198). Even Edmund, learning of Goneril’s and Regan’s deaths, says, “Yet Edmund was beloved. / The one the other poisoned for my sake, / And after slew herself” (5.3.238–240). Even the cruel Edmund thinks of love in his last moments, a reminder of the warmth of which his bastard birth deprived him. But for him and the two sister queens, as for everyone else in King Lear, love seems to lead only to death. In perhaps the play’s final cruelty, the audience is left with only a terrifying uncertainty: the good and the evil alike die, and joy and pain both lead to madness or death.
The corpses on the stage at the end of the play, of the young as well as the old, symbolize despair and death—just as the storm at the play’s center symbolizes chaos and madness. For Lear, at least, death is a mercy. As Kent says, “The wonder is, he hath endured so long” in his grief and madness (5.3.315). For the others, however, we are left wondering whether there is any justice, any system of punishment and reward in the “tough world” of this powerful but painful play (5.3.313).
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