ACT V – Scene.iii
(The British camp near Dover)
Lear and Cordelia are led in as prisoners.
Edmund is their jailor. They are led away to prison and Edmund gives the officer in charge his orders that are to be followed immediately.
Edmund is joined by Albany, Goneril and Regan.
Albany demands that Lear and Cordelia be put into his custody, but Edmund
refuses. Albany then orders that Edmund and Goneril be arrested for treason. They are charged with conspiracy for plotting Albany’s death.
Edgar enters still in disguise and he makes a statement denouncing Edmund.
The two brothers fight and Edmund falls.
Albany reveals the contents of the letter given to him by Edgar and Goneril
Edmund admits his villainy and Edgar reveals his identity and recounts the
recent events with his father. Edgar had revealed his identity to Gloucester, but he suffered a heart attack and died.
The part that Kent has played in the events is also revealed.
A gentleman enters with the news that Goneril has killed herself after she
had poisoned her sister Regan, who is also dead.
Albany realizes that Edmund and Goneril planned to have Lear and Cordelia
murdered, but he is too late to act.
Lear enters carrying his dead daughter in his arms. She had been hanged.
This last tragedy for the King is too much and he dies, covering his
daughter’s body with his own.
Albany, Kent and Edgar are left to restore the Kingdom.
Kent indicates that he too does not have long to live.
Edgar closes the play,
“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
The final scene brings both plots in the play to their conclusion.
Lear and Cordelia are prisoners of the evil Edmund. As they are led
away to the cells, Edmund passes orders to the jailor that they are to be executed. Lear’s only wish is to be with his daughter.
What the evil Edmund orders the officer to do is to make Cordelia’s death look like suicide. The efforts Lear makes to save his daughter can only be imagined, but they result in his death soon after Cordelia’s.
In this final scene we also witness the final transformation in Albany’s
character, which has grown at the same pace as the evil in his wife, Regan and Cornwall. At the end, Albany has that air of authority and takes full control at the battle’s conclusion.
He has been forewarned of his wife’s treachery through the letter he received from Edgar.
Edgar is also present to support Albany and confront his brother, whom he
Again there are similarities to ‘Hamlet’, which also ended in a duel.
The difference is that in Hamlet it was staged as sport, but this duel is for real and of course it symbolizes the battle between good and evil.
Paradoxically it was Edmund’s attempt to be noble that led to his
downfall. He could quite easily have avoided a duel with his brother, but deep down he wished to obtain his goal through honorable means at the very end.
He agrees to fight the duel not knowing that it is his brother. He could have easily refused to fight with an unidentified stranger. At the last, Edmund does repent his evil actions and tries to rescind his orders to execute Cordelia and Lear, in stark contrast to Iago in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’.
As previously prophesized in the play, Goneril and Regan are consumed by the
evil they helped generate.
Shakespeare introduces another element of irony through the death of
Goneril. Although there have been attempts at suicide and fake suicides throughout the play, the only actual suicide is Goneril’s, who appeared as such a strong individual at the start of the play.
The audience is left in a quandary concerning the role of divine justice in
the play because of the death of Cordelia, who had previously been likened to an angel by her father.
This ending has been controversial over the centuries since the play was
Some productions have altered the ending in order to ease the tragic element of the play, but Shakespeare never intended this play to be other than the greatest tragedy of the English language. The audience should leave the theatre with pain arising from Cordelia’s death. One can justify the deaths of Gloucester and Lear because they have made errors of judgement, but Cordelia was young and innocent. She shared this position with Edgar, the other pure character in the plot. Her death causes an immediate relapse for Lear who is lost in madness before he dies.
In my view, Shakespeare deliberately decided to make this the greatest
tragedy, and the play should not be viewed in isolation.
Shakespeare has provided us with alternative endings in his other tragedies. ‘King Lear’ should not be interfered with and as well as being the greatest tragedy, the role of King Lear poses the greatest challenge for the acting profession.
The closing scene provides us with a set littered with bodies, some who have
deserved death, and others are innocent victims.
The whole Lear dynasty has been destroyed. Those that are left have the task of picking up the pieces. The noblest figure in the play left standing closes it with words that are self-explanatory.