King Lear

by: William Shakespeare

What Does the Ending Mean?

King Lear ends with a battle for the British throne. Edmund wins the battle for the throne, but is then killed by his brother Edgar. As Edmund dies, he admits that he has sent orders for Lear and Cordelia to be executed. The orders are reversed, but too late; Cordelia has already been killed. Upon discovering that his beloved daughter has died, Lear dies of grief. Generations of readers have found the ending of King Lear unbearably sad. For more than a century it was considered too tragic to perform. In 1681, Nahum Tate wrote an adaptation of King Lear in which Cordelia lives, and until 1838 this optimistic version of the play was more popular than Shakespeare’s. In fact, Shakespeare’s ending was hardly performed during that period. The ending of King Lear is especially hard to bear because the characters suffer in ways that seem meaningless.

The suffering that takes place at the end of King Lear seems meaningless for multiple reasons. First, Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia momentarily seems to make all Lear’s suffering worthwhile. When she dies, Lear’s redemption is snatched away. Second, Cordelia dies for no reason. The person who wanted her dead, Edmund, has changed his mind and is dying himself, so her death serves no political purpose. Finally, Lear dies before he can reconcile himself to his loss. His last words are: “Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!” (V.iii.). In his dying moments, Lear still has not accepted that Cordelia is dead. The blindness that caused Lear to give his kingdom to the wrong heirs and fail to see Cordelia’s love persists through the end of the play, as Lear is unable to see that his mistakes have resulted in the death of the one person who truly loved him.