Welcome Brawlers to the grand finale of King Lear!
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To quote Kent: “Is this the promised end,” where Cordelia and Lear are reunited and live together for a few more years, where Lear is restored and we’re spared the worse case scenario?
In a word, nope.
In scene 1, Edmund and Regan are discussing whether or not Albany will have taken to the field or not; it seems that he has been wracked with doubt and remorse for his part in Lear’s mistreatment. They send a messenger to check on the news. Regan then asks Edmund if he truly loves her and not Goneril. She makes him swear to never have any private discussions with her and the sudden arrival of Goneril with Albany. Of course, the first thing Goneril says is that she would rather lose the battle than Edmund. Seems that Albany has chosen to take to the field in the end, motivated by what he sees as a French invasion to which they should all be opposed.
They all leave save Albany and Edgar shows up in disguise. He gives him the letter incriminating Goneril and Edmund – the one he was so conveniently was given by Oswald, remember? He tells him to read the letter before they take the field. Then, if they should win, to sound a duel so the disguised Edgar can bring his brother to justice.
The last word of the scene belongs to Edmund, however, as he considers his situation: he`s promissed to marry both. He’ll make use of Albany’s army for now but figures that once the battle is done, which ever sister wants him more can figure out how to get rid of Albany. We also learn that Albany intends to pardon Cordelia and Lear once the fight is done. Edmund can`t have any of that and plans to eliminate them.
The next scene is short exchange between Gloucester and Edgar which takes place while the battle rages around them. Edgar first makes Gloucester take shelter beneath a tree and promises that, should he survive the fight, he will take care of his father. Unfortunately, the battle does not go their way and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Edgar returns and tries to take his father with him to safety, but his father just wants to lie there and die. Edgar reminds him that the right thing to do is to endure this life until it is out time to go. Gloucester begrudgingly agrees and they leave.
Can it get any worse? In the words of Edgar, yes: “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.'”
Very uplifting stuff.
Bring on scene 3, the final scene of the play. Edmund orders Lear and Cordelia taken into custody. Lear is happy enough to simply be able tp spend his final days with his one honest daughter, even if it should be in jail. They are taken away. As soon as they are gone, Edmund sends a messenger with the order for their execution. Albany and the others come on the scene and Albany asks for Edmund to turn over the prisoners to him. Edmund tells him that he ordered them taken away but they can address this tomorrow. Albany does not approve of his temerity and calls him on his lack of authority: “Sir, by your patience, / I hold you but a subject of this war, / Not as a brother.” Or, in other words: “who the hell do you think you are?”
Regan is quick to defend her champion Edmund, stating that he basically has whatever authority Regan decides she wants to give him. In fact, she declares Edmond her husband and master. Albany tells him them that this decisions really isn’t theirs to make (Albany outranks the others because he is married to the eldest daughter. That should technically make him the next king and the king has the right to veto his family’s marriage plans.) Regan charges Edmund to fight Albany for his right but Albany instead arrests him. He shows them the letter and tells Edmund that there is someone here to challenge these claims.
Sure enough, at the third sound of the trumpet, Edgar (still in disguise) shows up to challenge Edmund, accusing him of being a traitor to his brother, father, country, gods and pretty much anything else you can think of. Edmund technically could choose to fight this duel because the challenger is not clear, but he decides that Edgar looks noble enough so says, “what the heck” and accepts the challenge.
Edmund was willing to use all the tricks to get his hands on the throne earlier but now he won’t use a legal technicality to avoid a fight. Why not? Pride? Again, who the hell knows.
Either way, they fight and Edmund falls.
Albany then accuses Goneril of being in on the plot and shows her the letter, which she does not deny. He sends someone after her because he seems worried that she will kill herself. Edmund acknowledges his crimes and asks to see who his challenger was. Edgar finally reveals his identity and is embraced by Albany. When Edgar explains how he hid himself, we learn that Gloucester dies of shock of the news of Edgar’s survival. He also explains that Kent was Caius, who had returned to watch over his king despite his banishment.
A messenger arrives with news that Goneril has stabbed herself but not before poisoning her sister Regan. That seems to jolt Albany into the sudden realisation that they totally forgot about Cordelia and Lear who are probably being murdered as they speak! Edmund decides that he wishes to atone in some small way for his actions (for no reason that I can tell) and gives them his sword to show to the captain so their lives might be spared.
As Edmund is being led off, the messenger runs off to deliver the message. Will he make it?
We`ve faulted Shakespeare’s endings in the past, the infamous ‘act V slump’ of Coriolanus, Henry VI, part 1, or even The Merchant of Venice.
No act V slump here. Instead, Shakespeare gives us a finishing move of Mortal Combat proportions.
Lear walks onto the stage, holding Cordelia in his arms. Is she dead? Is there some life left in her? As Kent asks, is this death, or an image of death? While he seems to think that she is dead at first, he desperately wants her to still be alive. Lear himself killed her would-be executioner but was he able to do so in time. The audience at this point is likely expecting her to wake up. As we’ve discussed, the Lear story has been around for a while before Shakespeare, and in it Lear and Cordelia get to live together for a while before he passes away peacefully. But not here.
Despite his pleading, she’s gone and nothing can bring her back. We then learn that Edmond has killed himself but that hardly seems to matter. Lear finally dies next to his daughter. With this final scene, Kent walks off and Albany leaves the realm in Edgar’s care.
For over 250 years this ending was thought to be so bleak that the only version staged was a version re-written by Nahum Tate where Cordelia survives and married Edgar.
Everybody is dead, Lear’s line is ended and even his “poor fool is hanged.” What does all this mean? Is it even supposed to mean anything?
Join us next week where we look at speeches from King Lear and try to make some sense of the carnage.
Also, check out Dalya Alberge‘s Guardian article against the Bard Deniers who have been trying to prove he never wrote anything for the last decade.
(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean)
Sonnet 18 read by Bard Scrawler Leigh MacRae.
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