Shakespeare’s King Lear: Tragically Unjustified
In Leviathan from 1651, philosopher Thomas Hobbes reflects on “the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal… the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (“Hobbes”). Even though Shakespeare’s King Lear was most likely written a good half a century earlier, between 1604 and 1605, the beliefs in a brutish and nasty life, as described by Hobbes, are clearly reflected throughout the play, especially in the tragic final scene. In Act 5, Scene 3, Shakespeare portrays a scene of painstaking injustice, and thus illustrates a world where one’s fate is not always related to one’s integrity.
In King Lear’s final scene, Shakespeare seems initially to set up the action in almost a commentary on morality; “the good end happily, and the bad unhappily,” as Oscar Wilde quips centuries later. By now in the play, Cornwall is dead, Regan and Gonoril have killed one another, and Edgar has finally defeated Edmund- all that is left is for Albany’s men to rescue Lear and Cordelia, and the righteous and honorable can live through the end of the play in harmony. However, the moment Lear “enters the last scene carrying Cordelia’s dead body in his arms and tries, against all hope, to find proof that she is still alive,” King Lear becomes a play that is in no way about poetic justice (Brown 233). The characters themselves are shocked by this turn of events, with Kent asking “Is this the promised end?” as he gazes upon Cordelia’s corpse and her mad, weeping father (Act 5, Scene 3, 263). The promise of an “apocalyptic dream of the last judgment” where the ‘evil’ goats are separated from the ‘good’ sheep is “forever deferred” with the inclusion of Cordelia’s death (Greenblatt 2314). Lear himself underscores this deference of justice as he yells: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (5,3, 305-6). This directly refutes Albany’s claim that “[a]ll friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings” (5, 3, 299-303). Surely, it is clear that Cordelia in no way “deserves” to die, and yet it still is her outcome. Both Lear and the audience are asked to question the fairness in this, but unlike most plays of the time, Shakespeare “refuses to offer any of the conventional answers” and leaves these inquiries open-ended and without response (Greenblatt 2314).
Earlier in the play, when he is talking to Gloucester, Lear states: “When we are all born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” (4, 6, 176-7). In the final scene, Lear’s sweeping rage at his fellow survivors parallels the image of the world as a painful realm where justice is not upheld. When he enters, carrying the dead Cordelia, Lear sobs and refuses to acknowledge anyone directly, except his daughter’s corpse. When Kent tries to console his master, Lear snaps at him and refuses to respond to Edgar’s management:
‘Tis noble Kent, your friend.
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever! (5, 3, 267-269)
Lear lashing out at his companions as “murders,” when they had no actual part in Cordelia’s death, is more metaphorical than earnest. He cannot trust anyone in this “dark, and deadly” world (5, 3, 299), and only believes in his own ability to save and salvage some form of the universe’s decency.
However, Lear soon moves away from this point of view as he softens his tone, acknowledges his friends, and recognizes Kent for who he truly is. From this point on, Lear “neither prays to the gods for help nor curses them… his last efforts are to get others to share what he sees to be true, and to plead for understanding as earnestly as he had insisted on his commands” (Brown 254). He explains, in explicit detail, the circumstances of Cordelia’s death and regularly asks those around him to “Look” for evidence of any life left in his youngest daughter. The most notable moment occurs in the 1623 folio text, but not in the second quarto, when Lear says right before he dies: “Do you see this? Look on her, look on her lips, / Look there, look there!” (5, 3, 308-9). This is one of the most ambiguous lines in the play. These passionate words “could be spoken either to share his joy in the illusory belief that Cordelia is alive or, quite the opposite, to insist that attention is paid to Cordelia’s death and that others share in [the] distress” (Brown 235). Another reading is much less literal, focusing more on the emotions of the scene. Throughout the play, Cordelia is the only daughter to truly love Lear without condition. In Act 4, Scene 7, Cordelia and Lear truly make peace and verbalize their parent-child love for one another. The emphasis on her lips at the end may be a reference to the daughterly kiss she gives him in the final Act. This symbol of Cordelia’s unconditional love is fitting closure in context of the play’s opening. After denying Cordelia as his daughter because she refused to falsely voice her love, Lear finally shows full recognition of her devotion in these final lines. However, if “lips” are in fact a symbol of Lear’s love and the acknowledgement of his daughter’s, then Cordelia’s death is even more tragic and a fervent illustration of the world’s injustice.
After Lear dies, mourning Cordelia, the play becomes even more ambiguous in certain places, and yet clearer in others. The image of the universe as inherently cruel and unfair is reiterated, as Edgar tries to revive the dead Lear; Kent stops him, saying: “Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer” (5, 3, 311-313). In the last few lines of the play, comparing the world to a device of torture makes a clear and strong statement. There is no chance for rational righteousness on earth; it is a cruel and harsh place no matter who you are or how you have lived; some may get “the cup of their deservings,” but the overall brutality of the world is impartial and does not rely on morals.
The fact that the play ends without answering important political questions also supports the image of the “tough world” filled with uncertainty and pandemonium. In two different versions of King Lear, the folio and second quarto, the character changes that delivers the final speech; in the quarto, it is Albany, while in the folio it is Edgar. When Albany asks Kent and Edgar to rule Lear’s kingdom and Kent politely refuses, it is assumed that Edgar will take up the helm and become England’s king. However, in the quarto, the audience never receives an answer from Edgar, so it is not apparent if he is willing to take on the role or if he will go on his own “journey,” in a similar fashion to Kent (5, 3, 320-5). In the folio, however, it is Edgar who speaks the regal, mourning speech: “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long” (5, 3, 324-325). However, this ending, while less vague, still leaves many problems unanswered, both in a moral and political sense. Even in this version, “the future beyond this moment is scarcely suggested, as if no one, not even the author, knew what would follow” (Brown 283). This built-in uncertainty speaks to “the great stage of fools” that Lear alludes to- a world where nothing is assured and nothing is truly fair.
There is no clear-cut, happy ending for the “morally pure” in King Lear, and this has disturbed a great many people throughout history. In the early 1800s, Samuel Johnson even rewrote the ending so that Cordelia lives, in order to avoid the topic of universal injustice. However, this takes away much of the complexity and brilliance of the play, as well as the fact that it broke from the standard mold of its time. During a time when unambiguous moral judgments and orthodoxy were customary, Shakespeare unabashedly left the questions open and allowed his characters to be stretched out on the “rack of this tough world,” no matter their integrity. This is one of the reasons that King Lear is still studied so closely today, and the reason that the ending will continue to confound and trouble readers for years to come.
Brown, John Russell. “King Lear.” Shakespeare: The Tragedies. Palgrave, St. Martin’s Press: New York. 2001.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “King Lear: Foreword.” The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt, ed. 1986. Norton: New York. 1997.
“Hobbes and Hooker.” In-Class Handout, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: ENGL 116. May 2005.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt, ed. 1986. Norton: New York. 1997.
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