Quote 5

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth.

Lear utters these words as he emerges from prison carrying Cordelia’s body in his arms (5.3.256–260). His howl of despair returns us again to the theme of justice, as he suggests that “heaven’s vault should crack” at his daughter’s death—but it does not, and no answers are offered to explain Cordelia’s unnecessary end. It is this final twist of the knife that makes King Lear such a powerful, unbearable play. We have seen Cordelia and Lear reunited in Act 4, and, at this point, all of the play’s villains have been killed off, leaving the audience to anticipate a happy ending. Instead, we have a corpse and a howling, ready-for-death old man. Indeed, the tension between Lear as powerful figure and Lear as animalistic madman explodes to the surface in Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl,” a spoken rather than sounded vocalization of his primal instinct.