The Ending of King lear





Few Shakespearean plays have caused the controversy that is found with King Lear’s ending scenes. Othello kills himself, Macbeth is executed, and of course in hamlet, everyone dies. Lear, however, is different from other Shakespearean classics. Is Lear mad or lucid? Is Cordelia really dead? Is Edmund’s delay explainable? What is the nature of the Lear world that occasioned all of this? How does Knight’s thesis relate to the ending?

Critical commentary varies and appears exhaustive. Bradley speaks of evil, but thinks Lear dies in a moment of supreme joy; Knight argues that however vicious and cruel the Lear world is, the death of Cordelia represents the future triumph of love. Frye writes of Lear’s madness as our sanity if it were not sedated as if the universe is fundamentally absurd. Andrews writes that the meaning depends on the F vs. Q variations, and that the audience must be left uncertain. Snyder says that Lear dramatizes the phases of dying that we all endure, and that Lear dies because he is warn out by the exhaustion of life. Rackin comments that the play moves through a dialectical process of reconciliation of opposites that culminate in Lear’s triumph of faith. Hennedy notes the existential approach saying that Lear dies secure in knowledge that Cordelia lives after death, having experienced transcendence. The paradox of (in a Christian sense) that hopes comes from the cross. Donner writes that the cathartic experience the end of the play affords us is the belief that justice had not been done; how could it, and we can not forget the tremendous potential man has for evil that no one but God could forgive. Harris argues that the promised end is dramatized by the ending of Lear, and the final words of the play make the meaning clear—the power of art transcends what language can only try to express. Foakes thinks that Hamlet now is less suited for the twentieth century than Lear, insofar as Lear’s existential content is what matters, so now the question becomes why would Cordelia want to live in Lear’s world? The play is about protesting a world gone mad.

The situation is further intensified by the Tate emendation that playgoers witnessed for over a century. Arguing from the perspective of post-restoration and neo-classical taste that literature must teach virtue, Tate dropped the Fool, gave Cordelia and Edgar a love interest, thus sparing her life along with her father:
Edgar: My dear Cordelia! Lucky was the Minute
Of our approach, the Gods have weighed our Sufferings,
W’are past the Fire, and now must shine to Ages
Albany notes,

Take off their chains thou Injur’d Majesty,
The Wheel of Fortune now has made a circle…
What comfort may be brought to cheer your age?
And heal your savage Wrongs, shall be apply’d
For to your Majesty we do resign
Your kingdom…
Lear’s last words according to Tate are:

Though, thou hast some business yet for life;
Thou, Kent, and I, retir’d to some cool cell
Will gently pass our short Reserves of time
In calm reflections on our fortunes past,
Cheer’d with relation of the prosperous reign
Of this celestial pair; thus our remains
Shall in an even course of thoughts be past?
Enjoy the present hour, not fear the last
Quite a difference from Edmund’s inexplicable delay in revoking his doom, leading inevitably to the death of Lear and Cordelia.

Perhaps today our taste have changed since our metaphysics have, and if the mimetic theory of Aristotle still holds, then Foakes has charted the change when he notes that Hamlet has been replaced by Lear as the play most representative of our century. “In the 1960’s, the central question about the tragedy of King Lear, took on new form.” And as Herbert Blau put it, “In our time it became possible to ask again about the death of Cordelia not why she should die, but why she want to live?” To escape the implied horror this question poses regarding this century, demands perhaps an existential interpretation of the universe. Lear then holding Cordelia asking us to “Look there…”(V,iii,308) defines his own lucidity in a mad world where humanity preys upon itself.

What brought Lear to such a moment in Act V? In the Wheel of Fire, Knight believes the universal apparatus in the Lear world to be humanlike. Humans thus chart their own