Act Five, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five (Spoiler Alert!): Regan, also in love with Edmund, demands to know whether or not he has any feelings for Goneril, but he denies everything. As Goneril and Albany plan war with France, the disguised Edgar hands Albany Goneril’s love letter and demands to fight Edmund in a one on one combat after the battle. The British forces destroy the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured and imprisoned. Albany, having since read Goneril’s letter, accuses Edmund of treason, and Edgar, once again in disguised, but this time as a mysterious knight, fights his brother, only revealing his identity (and that their father Gloucester has died) after Edmund is mortally wounded. Just as the news arrives that Goneril has poisoned Regan and killed herself over Edmund, Edmund confesses that Lear and Cordelia are to be executed on his orders. Albany orders their immediate release, but it is too late: Lear enters, carrying Cordelia’s body, and died, demented by grief.
Now, at last, events rush forward. The long awaited battle between the French army and those of Edmund and the two sisters is both rapid (it is placed almost entirely off stage) and brutal: the invading forces are crushed, and Cordelia is captured along with her father. Now, at this point, Shakespeare’s audiences, at least those who were familiar with the older version of the story, would have been expecting a happy ending, and would probably have been disconcerted. After Edmund is fatally wounded by Edgar in single combat, it seems as though, the play will right itself one last time: overtaken by a last-minute conversion (but why?), the dying Edmund reveals that his ‘writ/Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia’ and a messenger is sent to save them before it is too late. The question of whether it is too late is one that Shakespeare refuses to answer, and the suspense is, possibly more horrific than anything in else in a play filled with horror. The image of Lear limping on stage, clutching Cordelia’s lifeless body is one of those moments in Shakespeare that leave one struck with a combination of horror, pity, awe…Lear at first thinks she is dead but then, grief gives way to frantic hope:
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 for ever…
She’s dead on 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?’ Kent asks, and we are surely meant to share his bewilderment. Holding a ‘ looking-glass’ to the mouth of the living, breathing actor playing Cordelia can only intensify the confusion, and despite Lear’s initial certainty (‘She’s dead on earth’) a few second later he is convinced that she is still breathing. But, when it becomes apparent that this hope is mere fantasy, the shock of her loss, strung out until the last moment, is almost unspeakable. Lear expresses it in a series of plain monosyllables, among the last words he has:
No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all?
‘Never, never, never, never, never,’ he concludes (one of the most heartbreaking lines I know of in all of literature), an empty jangle that says everything and nothing. Nothing (as we get back to that again) makes sense, and it’s with that terrifying thought that King Lear dies, and, except for Kent and Edgar’s last mournful and despairing words, King Lear ends.
From Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All:
“Yet in a Shakespearean universe there is no such thing as an abdicated king. The play has experimented with comedy and romance [MY NOTE: See last week’s post Act Four, Part One], but it must return to history and to tragedy, and tragedy is remorseless. It allows no mistakes, and permits no reversals. And Lear has made his mistake. Now we hear him plead with Cordelia to seclude herself with him, away from the world. Her instinct is confrontation, his, retirement:
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?
No, no, no, no. Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask thee forgiveness; and so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales…
His proposal is that they retreat into a world of art, spectatorship, romance, and ritual, reliving and restaging their reunion:
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.
But Lear’s fantasy here is not really far from those other places of retirement from the world figured in Shakespeare plays as nunneries, monasteries, and ‘little academes.’ Retreat from the public arena, from governance and power, for this King is tantamount to symbolic death, as we have already seen in our discussion of the Fool, in many ways King Lear is a play about the acceptance of death.
The play has all along been a process of interlocking plots, cross-relationships: the Lear plot and the Gloucester plot, the mad King and the blind Duke, two old man and their faithless and faithful children. The final scene offers yet another kind of interlocking, presenting two playwrights and actor-managers seeking to occupy the same stage. The competing texts might be called ‘The Play of Edmund’ and ‘The Play of Edgar,’ or ‘The Play of Time’ and ‘The Play of Timelessness.’ For the plays of Edmund and Edgar are already plotted, already in rehearsal. They are plays that embrace opposite philosophies.
Edmund’s play is a power play, a play of power excised. Like all of Shakespeare’s uncompromising realists (Iago and Richard III, Prince Hal and Octavius Caesar), Edmund is a believer in now, and in personal power and influence. His instructions to his captain could well be Prince Hal’s:
Know thou this: that men
Are as the time is. To be tender-minded
Does not become a sword…
His campaign is ruthless. He hardly cares which of the two sisters kills the other to get him. To him, as to the other Machiavels (Iago, Richard, arguably even Hal), women are a political asset rather than a sexual or emotional goal. It is Edmund who jokes mordantly on his deathbed – and theirs – using the familiar ‘die’ pun: ‘all three/Now marry in an instant.’ Edmund’s design is simple enough. No sooner has Lear spoken of going with Cordelia peacefully to prison, like birds in a cage, than Edmund sends a letter, a written text, commanding their execution. His script requires that they be killed before any of the others have time to protest; he will then take power and become the king. But he reckons without that medieval view of tragedy in which, oddly, he believes more than anyone else in King Lear; his modernity is also his fatalism. And he will accept, finally, the verdict of retribution: ‘The wheel is come full circle. I am here.’ This is Edmund’s play; in tune with the Renaissance tragedy of intrigue, a play of politics and of psychology, of men ‘as the time is.’
But what is Edgar’s play? We could say it is the play of apocalypse, of timelessness – an apocalypse played out, yet again, naturalistically rather than supernaturally. Once again, in yet another disguise, Edgar appears onstage, and presents himself to the Duke of Albany, the ranking political figure in the court. ‘’If any man of quality or degree within the lists of the army will maintain upon Edmund, supposed Earl of Gloucester, that he is a manifold traitor, let him appear by the third sound of the trumpet.’ And the trumpet sounds three times. At the last sound of the trumpet there appears a masked figure with no name and no face, declaring, ‘Know, my name is lost.’ Like Hamlet, and like so many heroes of biblical and medieval saga, he has come to reclaim his name (‘My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.’) At the close of the play, as we will see, Edgar is able to reclaim not only his place but also his rightful style of speech, when he appears to challenge his brother Edmund in combat. “[T]hy tongue some say of breeding breathes,’ Edmund will declare, accepting the challenge from this anonymous champion as coming from a man of rank, and thus a worthy opponent.
Once again, there is a biblical shadow to the scene that cannot be ignored: the sounding of the trumpet on the day of resurrection. ‘We shall not all sleep,’ writes Saint Paul, ‘but we shall be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed’ (I Corinthians 15:51-52). Two passages from the Book of Revelation are also highly relevant: the mention of ‘a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True;…and he had a name written, that no man knew, except he himself’ (Revelation 19:11-12), and the revelation itself, ‘I…heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, saying I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the Last’ (Revelation 1:10-11). The first and the last – echoing ‘the last shall be first,’ a principle text for the action and logic of this play.
‘Let’s exchange charity,’ says Edgar to Edmund, who now lies dying. (‘[W]e shall be changed.’) And even Edmund is moved now for the first time to speak of good: ‘Some good I mean to do/Despite of mine own nature.’ Nature, the reigning goddess of the play’s first four acts, is in part vanished in act 5, in favor of something like grace – or so it seems. And then with a characteristic reversal comes that dramatic stage picture, the inverted Pieta, the father, King Lear, holding his dead daughter in his arms. Once again we hear the language of apocalypse: ‘Is this the promised end?’ ‘Or image of that horror?’ ‘Fall and cease.’ The horrified spectators, Kent and the others, ask whether they are witnessing the end of the world, or only a bitter anticipation of that final catastrophe. As Kent says, ‘All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.’
Lear has lost Cordelia, and Cordelia is all he has of the human bond that makes life possible. Now he in turn acknowledges the loss of language, the loss of breath, and pleads for his own final stripping toward the grave:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more.
Never, never, never, never, never.
[To Kent] Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Edgar calls on him, as he called on Gloucester, to ‘[l]ook up, my lord,’ and Kent cries out,
O, let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.
The image is that of torture, the rack a common implement for the stretching of the body from wrists to ankles. We may note that the rack was an instrument of fifteenth-through-seventeenth-century punitive practice, not of the supposedly more barbarous early Britain of the historical King Leir. Kent calls for the body to ‘pass’ from one world to the next, a common phrase still in use as a ‘polite’ euphemism for dying. But the word ‘pass’ here also carries the sense of ‘password.’ Kent asks that the gate be opened, and the King permitted to go through.
The principals are all dead now: Cordelia and her sisters; Edmund; Gloucester and Lear. Kent, still faithful to ‘authority,’ speaks in the metaphor of the tragic journey that has been familiar since Hamlet:
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go:
My master calls me, I must not say no.
At the last, as he has been all along, Edgar is our representative on the great stage of fools. The Quarto, as we have noted, gives the final lines of the play to the Duke of Albany, the surviving son-in-law of the King. Fittingly, if we want to press the point at all, this is the version titles the Historie – rather than the Tragedie – of King Lear; the heir speaks for history, the hero for tragedy. The Folio version presents Edgar as the speaker, and the speech itself, like Edgar, addresses the onstage and offstage audiences at once:
The weight of this sad time we must obey
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath born most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Order has been restored. ‘We that are young’ – the we here means all audiences, at any time, not just the survivors of the Lear court, or the spectators of Jacobean England. ‘We’ must ‘[s]peak what we feel,’ like Cordelia, and Kent, and the Fool – not just what we ‘ought to say.’ ‘We’ shall never see so much as the blind Gloucester saw, nor live so long as these characters live, beyond their onstage deaths, in the play that tells their story.
Lear himself is greater at the close of the play than at the beginning. His growth from error to acknowledgement of his poor, stripped nature, to repentance and a humble kneeling before Cordelia, is an upward progression as well as a downward one. He is greater on his knees than on his throne. Cordelia, too, grows and changes from act 1 to act 4, as we see from the two scenes in which she is asked to answer her father, to account for unaccountable love. Her death, which resembles the deaths of Desdemona and Duncan, deaths that extinguish impossible purity, is as the play present it something to learn from as well as to mourn.
We are left, each of us, with Kent’s question and with Edgar’s. Is this the promised end, or image of that horror? Is it a vision so unbearable as to hold out no hope for the future? Or is it, deliberately, an image: a copy, likeness, picture, shadow, similitude – an imitation in the strong Aristotelian sense – a symbol, an emblem, a sign? In essence, is there any redemption in this play of love, power, deception, and loss, of ‘ripeness is all’? The play poses this question, but will not answer it. The question remains open; it is not foreclosed, even in the direction of nihilism. Ultimately it is the same question Lear asked of Cordelia. Every production seeks its own response, according to the bond of theater.”
From Harold Bloom:
“’But what if excess of love/Bewildered them until they died?’ Yeats asks in his ‘Easter, 1916.’ Whatever that meant in regard to MacDonagh and MacBride, and Connolly and Pearse, Yeats’ question is appropriate to Lear himself. Love, whether it be Lear’s for Cordelia, or Edgar’s for his father, Gloucester, and for his godfather, Lear, is pragmatically a waste in this most tragic of all tragedies. Lust does no better; when the dying Edmund muses that in spite of all, he was beloved, his sudden capacity for affect superbly surprises us, but we would choose another word rather than ‘beloved’ for the murderous passion of Goneril and Regan.
In Hamlet’s play there is a central consciousness, as there is in Macbeth’s. In Othello’s play, there is at least a dominant nihilist. But Lear’s play is strangely divided. Before he goes mad, Lear’s consciousness is beyond ready understanding; his lack of self-knowledge, blended with his awesome authority, make him unknowable by us. Bewildered and bewildering after that, Lear seems less a consciousness than a falling divinity, Solomonic in his sense of lost glory, Yahweh-like in his irascibility. The play’s central consciousness perforce is Edgar’s, who actually speaks more lines than anyone except Lear. Edmund, more brilliant even than Iago, less of an improviser and more a strategist of Evil, is further into nihilism than Iago was, but no one – hero or villain – can be dominant in Lear’s tragedy. Shakespeare, contra historicists old and new, burns through every context, and never more than in this play. The figure of excess or overthrow never abandons Shakespeare’s text; except for Edmund, everyone either loves or hates too much.
Edgar, whose pilgrimage of abnegation culminates in vengeance, ends overwhelmed by the helplessness of his love, a love progressively growing in range and intensity, with the pragmatic effect of yielding him, as the new king, only greater suffering. Edmund, desperately attempting to do some good, despite what he continues to insist is his own nature, is carried off stage to die, not knowing whether Cordelia has been saved or not. No formalist or historicist would be patient with my asking this, but in what state of self-knowledge find himself as he dies? His sense of his own identity, powerful until Edgar overcomes him, wavers throughout the long scene of his dying Lear and Edgar have shared enormous bewilderments of identity, which appear to be further manifestations of excessive love. Shakespeare’s intimation is that the only authentic love is between parents and children, yet the prime consequence of such love is only devastation. Neither of the drama’s two antithetical senses of nature, Lear’s or Edmund’s, is sustained by a close scrutiny of the changes the protagonists undergo in Acts IV and V. Edgar’s ‘ripeness is all’ is misconstrued if we interpret it as a Stoic comfort, let alone somehow a Christian consolation. Shakespeare deliberately echoes Hamlet’s ‘The readiness is all,’ itself an ironical reversal of Simon-Peter’s sleepiness provoking Jesus’ ‘The spirit is ready, but the flesh is weak.’ If we must endure our going hence even as our coming higher, then ‘ripeness is all’ warns us how little ‘all’ is. Soon enough, as W.R. Elton observed, Edgar will tell us ‘that endurance and ripeness are not all.’ His final wisdom is to submit to ‘the weight of this sad time,’ a submission that involves his reluctant assumption of the crown, with the ghastly historical mission of clearing a Britain overrun by wolves.
Love, Samuel Johnson once remarked, is the wisdom of fools and the folly of the wise. The greatest critic in our tradition was not commenting on Lear’s tragedy, but he might as well have been, since his observation is both Shakespearean and prudential, and illuminates the limitations of love in the play. Edgar has become wise when the play ends, yet love is still his folly by engendering his inconsolable grief for his two father. The great stage of fools has only three survivors standing upon it at the end: Kent willing soon will join his master, Lear, while the much shaken Albany abdicates his interest to Edgar. The marriage between Albany and Goneril would have been more than enough to exhaust a stronger character than Albany, and Kent is only just barely a survivor. Edgar is the center, and we can wonder why we are so slow to see that it is, except for Lear, Edgar’s play after all. Lear’s excessive love for Cordelia inevitably sought to be a controlling love, until the image of authority was broken, not redeemed, as Christianizers of this pagan play have argued. The serving love of Edgar prepares him to be an unstoppable avenger against Edmund, and a fit monarch for a time of troubles, but the play’s design establishes that Edgar’s is as catastrophic a love as Lear’s Love is no healer in The Tragedy of King Lear; indeed, it starts all the trouble, and is a tragedy in itself. The gods in King Lear do not kill men and women for their sport; instead they afflict Lear and Edgar with an excess of love, and Goneril and Regan with the torments of lust and jealousy. Nature, invoked by Edmund as his goddess, destroys him through the natural vengeance of his brother, because Edmund is immune from love, and so has mistaken his deity.
Dr. Johnson said that he could not bear Act V of the play because it outraged divine justice and so offended his moral sense, but the great critic may have mistaken his own reaction. What the drama of King Lear truly outrages is our universal idealization of the value of familial love – that is to say, both love’s personal and love’s social value. The play manifests an intense anguish in regard to human sexuality, and a compassionate despair as to the mutually destructive nature of both paternal and filial love. Maternal love is kept out of the tragedy, as if natural love in its strongest form would be too much to bear, even for this negative sublimity. Lear’s queen, unless she were a Job’s wife, laconically suggesting that Lear curse the gods and die, would add an intolerable burden to a drama already harrowing in the extreme.
Hazlitt thought it was impossible to give either a description of the play itself or of its effect upon the mind. Rather strikingly, for so superb a psychological critic, Hazlitt remarks, ‘All that we can say must fall short of the subject; or even of what we ourselves conceive of it.’ Hazlitt touches on the uncanniest aspect of Lear: something that we conceive of it hovers outside our expressive range. I think this effect ensues from the universal wound the play deals to the value of familial love. Laboring this point is painful, but everything about the tragedy of Lear is painful. To borrow from Nietzsche, it is not that the pain is meaningful but the meaning itself becomes painful in this play. We do them wrong to speak of Lear’s own permutation as being redemptive, there can be no regeneration when love itself becomes identical with pain. Every attempt to mitigate the darkness of this work is an involuntary critical lie. When Edgar says of Lear, ‘He childed as I father’d,’ the tragedy is condensed into just five words.
Unpack that gnomic condensation, and what do you receive? Not, I think, a parallel between two innocences (Lear’s and Edgar’s) and two guilts (Lear’s eldest daughters’ and Gloucester’s) because Edgar does not consider his father to be guilty. ‘He childed as I father’d’ has in it no reference whatsoever to Goneril and Regan, but only to the parallel between Lear-Cordelia and Edgar-Gloucester. There is love, and only love, among those four, and yet there is tragedy, and only tragedy, among them. Subtly, Edgar intimates the link between his own rugged recalcitrance and Cordelia’s. Without Cordelia’s initial recalcitrance, there would have been no tragedy, but then Cordelia would not have been Cordelia. Without Edgar’s stubborn endurance and self-abnegation, the avenging angel who strikes Edmund down would not have been metamorphosed out of a gullible innocent. We can wonder at the depth and prolongation of the self-abasement, but then Edgar would not have been Edgar without it. And there is no recompense; Cordelia is murdered, and Edgar despairingly will resign himself to the burden of kingship.
Critics have taken a more hopeful stance, to argue for redemptive love, and for the rough justice visited upon every villain in the play. The monsters in the deep all achieve properly bad ends: Edgar cudgels Oswald to death, the servant, defending Gloucester, fatally wounds Cornwall, Goneril poisons Regan, and then stabs herself in the heart; Edgar cuts Edmund down, as the audience knows Edgar is fated to do. But there is no satisfaction for us in this slaughter of the wicked. Except for Edmund, they are too barbaric to be tolerated, and even Edmund, fascinating as he is, would deserve, like the others, to be indicted for crimes against humanity. Their deaths are meaningless – again, even Edmund’s, since his belated change fails to save Cordelia. Cordelia’s death, painful to us beyond description, nevertheless has only that pain to make it meaningful. Lear and Gloucester, startlingly, both die more of joy than of grief. The joy that kills Lear is delusional: he apparently hallucinates, and beholds Cordelia either as not having died or as being resurrected. Gloucester’s joy is founded upon reality, but pragmatically the extremes of delight and of anguish that kill him are indistinguishable. ‘He childed as I father’d’: Lear and Gloucester are slain by their paternal love; by the intensity and authenticity of that love. War between siblings; betrayal of fathers by daughters and by a natural son; tormented misunderstanding of a loyal son and a saintly daughter by noble patriarchs; a total dismissal of all sexual congress as lechery: what are we bequeathed by this tragedy that we endlessly moralize? There is one valid form of love and one only: that at the end, between Lear and Cordelia, Gloucester and Edgar. Its value, casting aside irrelevant transcendental moralizings, is less than negative: it may be stronger than death, but it leads only to death, or to death-in-life for the extraordinary Edgar, Shakespeare’s survivor of survivors.”
And to conclude today’s post, from Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language:
“In the midst of the happenings that are to bring disaster there occurs a brief scene that is a minimum of the play’s intentions. Edgar brings his father to a shelter and goes off to fight: ‘If ever I return to you again, I’ll bring you comfort.’ Nothing is heard except the sound of battle. Gloucester is alone and silent on the stage, using his ears as eyes, as Lear has told him to. Then Edgar returns, but with no comfort: ‘King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en.’ He offers a hand, tries to drag his father away; but Gloucester has had enough: ‘No further, sir, a man may rot even here.’ Edgar than speaks the famous lines: ‘What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure/Their going hence even as their coming hither,/Ripeness is all.’ Come on’ – to which Gloucester replies, ‘And that’s true too.’
Edgar uses the obvious point that his father must leave his refuge just as he arrived at it, to make a more general stoical point about death. ‘Ripeness is all,’ though much quoted, is not an unambiguous piece of wisdom; is the ripeness of time referred to, or the preparedness of the sufferer? Edgar wants to hurry away; his ‘Come on’ may strike a note of impatience at the old man’s ‘ill thoughts.’ And Gloucester, trailing off, seems to treat the observation as a mere platitude. What is certain is that he waited in the shadow of his tree for good, conclusive news and comfort, and got neither. That is the way Lear works.
The King himself, a prisoner with his daughter (V.iii), now vainly imagines a happy ending, while Cordelia imagines they have reached the worst, not having heard Edgar’s lesson in Iv.i. Lear is given the kind of fantastic poetry Shakespeare had long known the trick of; Lear’s thoughts are on the court he has lost; he cannot hope to have another, but he remembers, in a gently satirical way, the customary talk of courtiers: ‘Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out’ – only with this addition: he and his daughter will
take upon ‘s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.
Here the simplicity of the beginning (‘We two alone will sing like birds in a cage’) gives way to more compacted language, with its hints of a wider frame of discourse. And Lear continues with even more intellectual force and originality:
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell
Ere they shall make us weep!
The biblical image of foxes attacked or flushed out by fire (Judges 15:4-5) is combined with the obscure ‘the good years’ (‘the good’ in Q), never properly explained but seemingly a disease; the relations between these items are no longer those of demented association; the King is not fully sane, but no longer raving.
The rest of the story concerns Edmund’s fatal move to kill Cordelia and the King, the love lives of Regan, Goneril, and Edmund, and the fuller emergence of Albany as the man in charge. Edmund dies at his brother’s hand, Edgar tells his brother’s story, Goneril and Regan die, and with all this going on, everybody forgets about Lear and Cordelia until it is too late. The King enters with his daughter in his arms, thinking she is dead, wondering if she still breathes. Amidst the pathos of this ending the King complains about his eyes (V.iii.280), asks for a button to be undone so that he can once more shed an addition. Within these intensities the words ‘see’ and ‘look’ resound, the latter four times in Lear’s last ten words.
This is the craftiest as well as the most tremendous of Shakespeare’s tragedies. One can imagine awestruck colleagues wondering what the author…could possibly do next. There is a finality about Lear; it even instructs us to think that.”
Obviously I’m going to have more posts on Lear (two at least), but…what are your thoughts? How do you read it? Is there any sense of potential redemption? (For me, there’s none. It’s bleak on top of bleak.) Do you have any questions/topics you’d like me to cover? Please…share with the group!
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning