Essential Passage by Character: King Lear
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
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.
Is this the promised end?
Or image of that horror?
Fall, and cease!
This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
O my good master!
'Tis noble Kent, your friend.
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved 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 killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.
'Tis true, my lords, he did.
Did I not, fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip: I am old now,
And these same crosses spoil me. Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o' the best: I'll tell you straight.
Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 305-333
In the play's culmination, King Lear, out of his madness, at last comes to the full realization of all that is caused by his hubris and self-love. Having wandered away from the protection of the Duke of Gloucester and Kent, he has been captured by Edmund, imprisoned with his loyal daughter Cordelia. Albany has arrested Edmund for the treason he has committed against the king. Lear’s unfaithful daughters, Goneril and Regan, are dead. Regan has been poisoned by Goneril out of suspicion and jealousy, should she manage to snare Edmund in her newfound widowhood. Out of grief at Edmund’s arrest and sure execution, Goneril has committed suicide. In a duel, Edgar, the legitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, has mortally wounded Edmund, who lies dying. In a last ditch attempt to do something good, he warns Albany that he has ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. They are to be hanged in an attempt to make it appear that the two have committed suicide. The guards rush to their place of imprisonment, but it is too late. Cordelia has been hanged, but Lear managed to kill the hangman before he himself suffered the same fate. Cordelia’s body is carried to the stage by Lear himself.
In his grief, Lear castigates those remaining alive in their seeming indifference to all the loss that has been suffered, especially in the death of Cordelia. He struggles to accept his daughter’s death, stating at first that she is “as dead as earth.” He insists he knows who is alive and who is dead, and yet he cannot quite accept it. He asks for a mirror against which he can check to see if Cordelia still has breath enough to fog up the mirror.
Kent, Edgar, and Albany wonder if this is indeed the end of the world because so many deaths have occurred at a single time. While they cry against the heavens, Lear holds up a feather to Cordelia’s lips and thinks he sees it moved by her breath. “She lives,” he states simply. If this is true, he says, it would redeem all the sufferings he has encountered thus far.
Kent approaches his king, but Lear orders him away in his despair. In grief, Lear calls all of them murderers and traitors, yet he realizes that he himself could have saved her if he had only not cast her out.
As his mind slips, Lear thinks he hears Cordelia whispering something to him, stating that “her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Then bluntly he announces that he himself killed her executioner, to which one of the guards offers verification. Lear seems to take some pride in this fact, stating that in his youth he could have done a much better job of it. Yet now he is old, burdened by adversities that plague him. Seeing a figure before him, he asks who it is (it is Kent). Lear admits that his sight is not the best.
In this passage, Lear learns...
(The entire section is 2,429 words.)