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What is the meaning of each of these two of Lear's speeches (V.iii, 259-65; V.iii,...

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prine0charming | (Level 1) Honors

Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:43 AM via web

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What is the meaning of each of these two of Lear's speeches (V.iii, 259-65; V.iii, 307-13)?

King Lear

Act V, scene III, Excerpts:

Lear. Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so   3435
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

Lear. This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows   3445
That ever I have felt.

Lear. A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!   3450
I might have sav'd her; now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st, Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low- an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.   3455
Lear. And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,   3495
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! look! her lips!
Look there, look there!   3500

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted June 13, 2013 at 1:36 AM (Answer #1)

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As I am unable to find text that matches your line numeration, my best supposition is that you mean the last two speeches of the excerpts I've posted above; the others put the last two in context. Hoping I'm correct, I'll explain the meanings of the "A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!" speech and the "And my poor fool is hang'd!" speech. First let's establish the context.

Lear delivers the "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" and "This feather stirs; she lives!" speeches because he has entered the stage carrying a dead, limp lifeless Cordelia in his arms. He summons and imitates the wind--becoming the personification of the raging storm he has just endured through--and proclaims that had he eyes with which to weep, he would cry so much and so loud that the rains of the "vault of heven" would crack open and join him in his fierce lament. Then he demands a mirror with which to test her breath to determine if life remains in her still. In so doing, he believes he perceives a feather to stir, denoting her breath and, with her breath, her life.

Within this context, Lear speaks the two speeches that we've targeted. He finds that cruelty delivers the truth as he realizes, through his tormented and fogged mind, that she has not breathed, and she is dead indeed. He proclaims "A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!" as he protests that if she had but lived a little longer, before having gone to death, he "might have sav'd her" by reuniting with her and dispelling all troubles between kingdoms. In a troubled delusioned thought that he heard her voice--always "ever soft, / Gentle, and low- an excellent thing"--he announces that he killed "the slave that was a-hanging" Cordelia.

In his final anguish before his own death, Lear cries "And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!" He protests that beasts of the field should retain their lives when one so worthy, so beloved, so truly his own should lie there before him dead, with "no breath at all"; a beloved one who wilt "come no more." Again, he believes (as he cannot see) that her lips move, that she speaks, that she lives, and in this unhappy delusion, his life passes from him: "The wonder is, he hath endured so long" (Kent).

    ... Never, never, never, never, never!
    ... Look on her, look, her lips,
    Look there, look there!
    Lear Dies
    Break, heart; I prithee, break!
    Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much
    That would upon the rack of this tough world
    Stretch him out longer.
    The wonder is, he hath endured so long....


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