Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1521
Edmund and Regan, with their entourage of attendants and soldiers, are in the British camp near Dover. Regan is questioning Edmund about his interest in her and asks if he has already been with her sister Goneril. He claims he hasn't, and she warns him to stay away from Goneril. When Albany and Goneril arrive, Goneril, in an aside, states that she would rather lose the coming battle than allow Regan to separate her from Edmund.
Albany indicates that he will put aside his differences with Edmund and fight alongside him to defeat the invasion by France. Edmund and Regan go to Albany's tent to confer on battle plans; Goneril at first declines to accompany them but then changes her mind.
Edgar appears and gives a letter to Albany, telling him that if the battle is won, a “champion” will appear who will prove the information set forth in the letter. Albany, as is the case with the other characters, does not recognize the disguised Edgar, who is dressed as a peasant. Edmund reenters and reminds Albany that the time for battle is now, but Albany delays going with him until he has read the letter from Edgar.
When Albany has left the scene momentarily, Edmund soliloquizes about his position in being fought over by the two sisters. He plans to cooperate with Albany until the battle is won and then to stand by while Goneril, as he thinks she will do, kills her husband. Edmund also intends to prevent any sort of mercy Albany might grant Lear and Cordelia.
In the midst of battle, Lear and Cordelia appear with their soldiers and then exit, falling back before the advance of the opposing forces. Edgar and Gloucester enter, and Edgar, now no longer in disguise, tells his father to take refuge while he joins the battle. Gloucester declines to stay and hide, saying that a man “may rot even here.” Edgar then tells his father to come with him.
The result of the battle is that Lear, Cordelia, and the forces of France have been defeated. Edmund orders Lear and Cordelia to be escorted away to prison. Cordelia tells her father that she has fought for his sake and lost, and she now wishes to confer with her sisters, who have defeated her. Lear, however, welcomes being in prison with Cordelia, as if being with her there will make up for the wrongs he has inflicted upon her. The two are led away.
Edmund now privately gives a note to a captain, who will follow the guards escorting Lear and Cordelia, with Edmund saying that if he obeys the instructions in it, promotion awaits him. The officer agrees to do as Edmund says.
When Albany, Goneril, and Regan return, Albany states that Lear and Cordelia should be brought in to be examined and, he implies, so it can be determined whether or not they might be released without any danger to the victors. Edmund replies that this can be done tomorrow and that for the time being the two must be kept in custody. But Albany's attitude is that Edmund is not an equal, a “brother” to him in this war, but rather a mere subject, below him in authority. An argument breaks out between Goneril and Regan over Edmund's status, with their jealousy over him the obvious cause. Regan begins to feel increasingly ill. She exits, led by a herald, while Albany declares Edmund a traitor. Another herald enters, reading a declaration that anyone who can prove Edmund's treachery is welcome to show himself after three trumpet calls are made.
At the third sound of the trumpet, Edgar enters in armor, with his visor down, and declares himself the adversary of Edmund. The two draw swords and fight, and Edmund falls. Goneril attempts to declare that the combat has been illegal, but Albany overrules her and produces the letter Goneril had written showing her intent to have Albany killed. Goneril flees the scene, and Edmund confesses his treachery as he lies mortally wounded. He admits, as well, that “the wheel [of fate] has come full circle,” and now he, who thought to vanquish Edgar and gain power, has been defeated. Gloucester, Edgar announces, has died. It was not until a half-hour earlier that he finally revealed his identity to his father, whose heart was unable to take the strain of suffering and the shock of events. Edgar tells the whole story of his own disguise and Kent's, and of how Kent was the one who aided Lear when Lear had been turned out by his daughters.
A Gentleman comes running in with a bloody knife in his hands and reveals that Goneril has stabbed herself to death after poisoning Regan. The dying Edmund indicates he had issued the command to have Lear and Cordelia killed. But now, wishing to do one act of goodness before his death, he rescinds the order and gives Edgar his sword as a token to the captain who was charged with the task of killing them. The captain's orders, Edmund reveals, were to hang Cordelia and to claim that she has committed suicide.
Edmund, still alive for the moment, is taken away, and Lear enters with Cordelia's lifeless body in his arms. He is lucid, though lapsing periodically into his impaired state, and he tells the others that he killed the servant who hanged Cordelia. Though he knows Cordelia is dead, he imagines she might still be alive and asks for a mirror to be brought so that her breath can be detected on it, but it is hopeless. Cordelia is dead, and now Lear, too, dies as he holds her body in his arms.
It has been announced as well that Edmund is dead. Albany now declares that Kent and Edgar should take over the kingdom and rule it jointly, given their services in protecting Lear and defeating the conspiracy of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. All exit, bearing the bodies of Lear and Cordelia.
The conclusion of King Lear paradoxically shows both the essence of tragedy and, in the midst of all the darkness and terror, signs of hope. Lear and Cordelia might have been saved, since at the last moment Edmund has rescinded his order to execute her. But it is too late, for Cordelia has been hanged, and Lear then dies of grief with her in his arms.
But those who have done all the damage are killed as well, having been defeated by their own evil. Earlier the sadistic Cornwall was killed after blinding Gloucester. Now Goneril, by her own hand; Regan, having been poisoned by Goneril; and Edmund, defeated in a swordfight by his brother Edgar, are all dead. Albany, almost an innocent bystander though married to Goneril, survives but rightly cedes power to Kent and Edgar, arguably the only characters who have consistently done good and acted according to the purest and most selfless motives throughout the play.
Perhaps more than in Shakespeare's other tragedies, the conclusion of King Lear demonstrates that there is a “moral” or a “message” that emerges after all the lies, deceptions, and cruelties that have been enacted. Lear, as he belatedly recognizes even in his impairment, has acted wrongly and foolishly in punishing those—specifically Cordelia and Kent—who were the best people in his life and who least deserved to be treated this way. By rewarding Goneril and Regan, Lear brought about his own doom, and his fate, despite his seeming goodness as a king and his good intentions, is a deserved one. He has misunderstood human nature, not only the specifics of his daughters' nature but the general fact that by placing himself in a position of weakness and ceding power, he has made himself vulnerable.
Edgar's situation is one in which a man who has been favored from birth because of his “legitimacy” now has to fight for himself instead of having everything handed to him, as it has always been. Though Edmund may have had legitimate grievances over the unfair treatment he has received throughout his life, nothing could justify the cruel and deceitful manner in which he has acted. By the standards of the time, Gloucester has at least in some measure deserved his own punishment for having committed adultery in fathering Edmund, as Edgar himself says in the final scene. His blindness is a metaphor for the moral blindness that has afflicted him, not merely for this reason but probably as well for the unequal way he has treated his two sons. And Goneril and Regan, with their heartlessness, deceit, and sadistic cruelty, deserve their fates as well. Cordelia is the only character who is pure of heart but nevertheless is defeated in the end. Yet her own behavior at the start of the play was morally equivocal. Her refusal to elaborate on her love for her father may have been honest, but in some sense it was also coldhearted and unnecessary, and her fate is perhaps the result of a tragic flaw that has made her unable to demonstrate or express her deepest feelings.
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