Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones . . .
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Edmund leads in Lear and Cordelia as his prisoners. Cordelia expects to confront Regan and Goneril, but Lear vehemently refuses to do so. He describes a vividly imagined fantasy, in which he and Cordelia live alone together like birds in a cage, hearing about the outside world but observed by no one. Edmund sends them away, giving the captain who guards them a note with instructions as to what to do with them. He doesn’t make the note’s contents clear to the audience, but he speaks ominously. The captain agrees to follow Edmund’s orders.
Albany enters accompanied by Goneril and Regan. He praises Edmund for his brave fighting on the British side and orders that he produce Lear and Cordelia. Edmund lies to Albany, claiming that he sent Lear and Cordelia far away because he feared that they would excite the sympathy of the British forces and create a mutiny. Albany rebukes him for putting himself above his place, but Regan breaks in to declare that she plans to make Edmund her husband. Goneril tells Regan that Edmund will not marry her, but Regan, who is unexpectedly beginning to feel sick, claims Edmund as her husband and lord.
Albany intervenes, arresting Edmund on a charge of treason. Albany challenges Edmund to defend himself against the charge in a trial by combat, and he sounds the trumpet to summon his champion. While Regan, who is growing ill, is helped to Albany’s tent, Edgar appears in full armor to accuse Edmund of treason and face him in single combat. Edgar defeats Edmund, and Albany cries out to Edgar to leave Edmund alive for questioning. Goneril tries to help the wounded Edmund, but Albany brings out the treacherous letter to show that he knows of her conspiracy against him. Goneril rushes off in desperation.
Edgar takes off his helmet and reveals his identity. He reconciles with Albany and tells the company how he disguised himself as a mad beggar and led Gloucester through the countryside. He adds that he revealed himself to his father only as he was preparing to fight Edmund and that Gloucester, torn between joy and grief, died.
A gentleman rushes in carrying a bloody knife. He announces that Goneril has committed suicide. Moreover, she fatally poisoned Regan before she died. The two bodies are carried in and laid out.
Kent enters and asks where Lear is. Albany recalls with horror that Lear and Cordelia are still imprisoned and demands from Edmund their whereabouts. Edmund repents his crimes and determines to do good before his death. He tells the others that he had ordered that Cordelia be hanged and sends a messenger to try to intervene.
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.
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.
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).