What is the final message of King Lear?


King Lear

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Posted on (Answer #1)

This play has been called the bleakest of all Shakespeare's tragedies, and it is certain that the play presents one of the most uncompromising and unequivocal of messages about the human condition. This is summarised most strongly in the final scene of the play, which includes perhaps one of the most depressing scenes in all of Shakespeare: Lear carrying his dead daughter, Cordelia, back on centre stage, uttering the following words:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth.

This speech summarises the overall theme of the play, which is based around the profound lack of anything resembling justice. At Cordelia's death, "heaven's vault should crack." But it doesn't. Once again, in this play, there appears to be no overriding concept of justice. There is no definite "happy ending" and good actions do not necessarily win characters respite from death and suffering, as Cordelia's fate supremely demonstrates. The ending therefore leaves the audience with a very unsettling message that humans are nothing more than mere playthings to the gods, and that any sense of justice is at best illusory, and at worst, non-existent. As Gloucester says after having his eyes taken out:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.


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