The scene opens on the British camp near Dover. Lear and Cordelia are led in as prisoners, with Edmund as their jailer. As the two are led off to prison, Edmund gives a note to an officer and orders that the note's instructions be followed immediately.
Albany, Goneril, and Regan join Edmund. Albany demands that the two prisoners be turned over to him. Edmund resists, saying that Lear and Cordelia will be held in safekeeping so that their presence does not divide the soldiers' loyalty. Albany orders Edmund and Goneril arrested for treason.
Albany requests any man who is willing to support the charges against Edmund to appear. Edgar enters, and although he will not identify himself, he assures Albany that he is as noble as Edmund. With this statement, the brothers begin to fight, and Edmund falls. When Goneril announces that Edmund has been betrayed, Albany reveals the letter, which she does not deny. Instead, Goneril flees.
Edmund admits that the charges against him are truthful. Edgar reveals his identity and tells his brother of recent events, including the news that after disclosing his identity to his father, Gloucester's heart proved too weak to survive the news. Edmund also reports that Kent has been in disguise, having been close enough to help his king during the recent period.
A gentleman enters with news that Goneril has killed herself, but not before poisoning Regan, who is also dead. When Albany discovers Goneril's plan to have both Lear and Cordelia murdered, he quickly orders an officer to intercede, but it is too late. Lear enters with a dead Cordelia in his arms.
Albany recognizes that Lear is king and will be served by his loyal subjects, but within moments, the king dies, his body covering that of his youngest daughter. Albany informs Kent and Edgar that they must now rule the kingdom together, but Kent replies that he will soon leave the world to join his master. Edgar is left to speak of the sad weight of these events, which everyone must now endure.
This final scene brings resolution to both the plot and subplot. The scene opens with Lear and Cordelia held prisoner by Edmund. Cordelia's response to their capture evokes the same stoicism exhibited by Edgar and Gloucester: "We are not the first / Who, with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst" (V.3.3-4). While bravely facing these events, Cordelia recognizes they are also at risk. Unlike Cordelia, Lear fails to recognize the danger in which the two captives now find themselves. Lear is merely happy to be with Cordelia, unconcerned that the war is lost and they are prisoners. He is seemingly unaware that they are in danger from Edmund. Lear has only visions of their happiness (V.3.8-15).
Lear asks for nothing more than to be with Cordelia. He will close out the rest of the world and even exclude his oldest daughters. When Cordelia asks if they will see daughters and sisters, Lear's response is a resounding "No, no, no, no!" (V.3.8). His vision of the future excludes all others, except for Cordelia. But Edmund has other plans, as he makes clear after Lear and Cordelia are led to prison. Edmund orders his officer to stage Cordelia's death as a suicide. Without hesitation, the officer accepts Edmund's orders, seemingly unconcerned about killing the king and his daughter. Gaining Edmund's favor will assure the officer continued employment when the war is over. This officer's willingness to kill without question recalls Tyrrel's similar actions in Richard III.
Albany has undergone significant change from his initial, docile appearance early in the play. The audience has witnessed his personal growth, and in this scene, the culmination of change is clear when he assumes control following the battle's conclusion. Although he is initially complimentary of Edmund's success in battle, Albany is quickly angered at Edmund's assumption of authority when the illegitimate son has the king and Cordelia arrested and imprisoned.
Albany immediately reminds Edmund that he is a bastard, calling him a "Half-blooded fellow" (V.3.81). Regan's defense of Edmund moves Albany to order Edmund's arrest and to issue a challenge for someone to come forth and fight Edmund. The duel that ensues is quite different from the duel that ends Hamlet, which is staged as sport.
Christian tradition recalls several biblical battles between good and evil, as divine justice is an important component of trial by combat. The duel between Edgar and Edmund is really a conflict that replays this ongoing battle between good and evil, with Edgar's defeat of Edmund obviously signaling the triumph of righteousness over corruption. In the end, Edmund is defeated by being noble, by not being as ruthless as he should be — or was. The system of honor disarms him, and he agrees to a duel, although he recognizes that he does not need to agree to a fight with an unidentified stranger (V.3.140-144).
When fatally wounded, Edmund even adopts the rules of social snobbery claiming, "If thou'rt noble, / I do forgive thee" (V.3.164-165). But unlike Shakespeare's other great villain, Iago, Edmund does repent and tries to rescind his order to execute Cordelia and Lear. In this small measure, he proves himself worthy of Gloucester's blood.
As Albany has earlier prophesized, Goneril and Regan's evil has finally destroyed them. The audience learns early in this scene that Goneril has poisoned Regan (V.3.97), and with Albany's denouncement of Goneril's plotting, Goneril kills herself. Although Gloucester had earlier attempted suicide, ironically only Goneril, who initially appeared so strong, succeeds at ending her own life.
Albany's order to rescue Cordelia and Lear is given too late. When Lear enters with Cordelia's body, any immediate ideas about divine justice are destroyed. The deaths of Cornwall, Edmund, Regan, and Goneril have lulled the audience into a belief that the gods would restore order to this chaotic world. But Cordelia's death creates new questions about the role of divine justice.
Eighteenth-century audiences were disturbed enough by this ending that productions of King Lear included a new conclusion, one in which Cordelia lives. But Shakespeare never intended for his audience to escape the painful questions that Cordelia's death creates. The deaths of Gloucester and Lear are acceptable. Both have made serious errors in judgment, and although both came to recognize their complicity in the destruction that they caused, the natural resolution of this change was an acceptance of their future, whatever it held. But Cordelia is young and blameless. She, like Edgar, is completely good and pure. Her death plunges Lear back into madness, as he can find no other way but insanity to deal with such a tragedy.
As is the case in many of Shakespeare's tragedies, at the play's conclusion, the stage is littered with bodies, some deserving of death, and some the innocent victims of evil. Lear lies surrounded with the bodies of his three daughters, just as he was surrounded by them in Act I. Traditionally, the highest ranking individual speaks the last lines in a tragedy, but in this case Edgar is given the final lines, as he responds to Albany's request. Albany, whose rank places him above the rest, has appointed Kent and Edgar to restore order. But Kent intends to follow his master in death, and Edgar's final lines are ambiguous and may portend his own early death. Thus, King Lear ends without the clear resolution of many of Shakespeare's other tragedies. Audiences must decide for themselves if divine justice has prevailed.
take upon be interested in.
strain ancestry; lineage; descent.
quarrels a cause for dispute.
list a wish; a craving, desire, or inclination.
attaint to prove guilty.
cope to meet, encounter, or have to do (with).
maugre in spite of.
descent the lowest point; here, the sole of a shoe.
rings the outer edge or border of something circular; rim, as of a wheel.
tranc'd a stunned condition; daze; stupor.
fordone destroyed, killed, ruined, etc.