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The end of King Lear emphasizes the consequences of betrayal and the necessity, but inadequacy, of loyalty to command the ship of state. By the time act V begins, Lear’s kingdom has been pulled apart. His descent into mental illness is nearly complete, and Kent has helped him join Cordelia, who has the military support of the French army. Although the king’s recognition of her loyalty and his joy at their being reunited have a positive effect on his mental state, their worries are far from over.
The disloyal daughters Goneril and Regan are openly quarreling over their campaign to take over the country. Edmund takes advantage of their mutual distrust to gain the upper hand over Albany, Goneril’s husband, who does not support killing Lear or Cordelia. Goneril’s jealousy intensifies so far that she poisons Regan, intent on killing Albany next and ruling with Edmund.
When their forces defeat the French, Lear and Cordelia become the rebels’ prisoners. Another happy reunion occurs between the formerly disguised Edgar and Gloucester (now blind), who then dies. Although Edgar kills Edmund, it is too late to stop the first planned execution: Cordelia is hanged as a traitor (offstage). Lear, however, had recovered some of his physical powers and killed her executioner. As he carries her body onto the stage, it is clear he is completely destroyed. The force of his grief kills him. Albany learns of his wife’s treachery, and Goneril takes her own life.
The alternation between loyalty and treachery throughout the act extends the themes that dominated the entire play. Kent is left alive to rule the country, which is appropriate because he remained loyal to the true king. Although Cordelia did not deserve to die, her death is necessary to emphasize the consequences of Lear’s behavior. Glimmers of hope are provided by the parallel reunions of father and child—Gloucester and Edgar, Lear and Cordelia—but these are inadequate to turn back the tide of violence that Lear’s irresponsibility had unleashed.