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King Lear

Comments on Act 5 Scene 3

Cordelia’s death has long been a point of debate among critics. The 18th century editor of Shakespeare’s works, Samuel Johnson was so disturbed by the scene that he avoided re-reading the end of the play for years: Shakespeare “seems to write without any moral purpose … he makes no just distribution of good or evil.” Johnson admitted that Shakespeare’s ending might be true to life, but thought such cruelty should not be presented on the stage.

From 1681 – 1838, an adaptation of King Lear by Nahum Tate, which added a happy ending with the marriage of Edgar to Cordelia and Lear on the throne for several more years, was the only one seen on the English stage. As T. S. Eliot once said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Cordelia’s murder is not found in earlier versions of the story such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (12th century) and the anonymous King Leir (produced in 1594). Shakespeare must have had good dramatic reason for adding it. Her death is especially shocking because it subverts the usual pattern of expectations about tragedy.

Since the time of the Greeks, one theme of tragedy has been that suffering produces wisdom or greater self-understanding in the protagonist. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the chorus sings, “Zeus, whose will has marked for man the sole way where wisdom lies, ordered one eternal plan: man must suffer to be wise” (Vellacott translation). However, Lear has already learned something from his ordeal, both in his recognition of those less fortunate than himself (3.2, 3.4) and in his reconciliation with Cordelia. His final suffering only leads him back into delusion, possibly believing she may still be alive.

Unlike in the ending of Hamlet, the defeat of evil does not depend on her sacrificial death, as Edmund and her sisters are already gone. Her death plays no part in restoring order to the situation.

Earlier in this scene, several characters affirm their belief in a moral order to the universe. Over the fallen body of his brother, Edgar says, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us” to which even dying Edmund agrees. Then immediately before the entrance of Lear with his daughter in his arms, Albany shouts, “The gods defend her!” but to no avail. This “final” affirmation of divine justice is no sooner spoken than the principle is subverted (or at least called into question).

We are reminded of Gloucester’s despairing cry, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” (4.1).

C. J. Sisson says the play’s ending destabilizes our theological and moral assurances that Heaven will reward virtue and punish evil (Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice, 1962).

In Shakespeare our Contemporary (1964), Jan Kott compared King Lear to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy Endgame, and wrote that the play “makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies: of the heaven promised on earth [by humanists] and the heaven promised after death [by Christianity]” (116).

In his defense of Shakespeare against the criticism of Tolstoy, George Orwell explained the ending of King Lear: “A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.”

Before Lear dies, Albany seems to expect the traditional ending for Renaissance tragedies in which the moral order is re-established: “All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings.” However, as John Shaw notes, “In defying the decorous pattern of the usual ending, Shakespeare is implying that any return to routine after the events of this tragedy would constitute an outrage to one’s sense of moral justice as well as to one’s sense of artistic rightness” (Essays in Criticism 16.3 (1966): 266).

Edgar’s final line (in the Folio) may reflect the author’s sentiments on his choice of an ending, as Shakespeare resolves to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Ironically, this final line also applies to Cordelia’s initial response to her father which started the chain of events leading to the final tragedy (my thanks to Ralph Johnson for pointing this out).

Other notes:

In a 1993 Royal Shakespeare Company production, Edgar tried to take revenge for his father’s torture by gouging out Edmund’s eyes as he lay mortally wounded.

In 1962 director Peter Brook cut Edmund’s agreement of Edgar’s affirmation “the gods are just” and his remorseful conversion, determined to do some good before he dies, as well has his admission, coming too late, that he had sentenced Lear and Cordelia to death. Edmund dies unrepentant.

In Olivier’s video (1983) Lear carries Cordelia and lays her on an altar stone, resembling a sacrificial victim. Because the actor was suffering a severe illness, he needed the help of cables to hold her up (in a few shots they are visible).

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