Few Shakespearean plays have caused the controversy that is found with King Lear’s ending scenes. Othello kills himself, Macbeth is executed, and of course in hamlet, everyone dies. Lear, however, is different from other Shakespearean classics. Is Lear mad or lucid? Is Cordelia really dead? Is Edmund’s delay explainable? What is the nature of the Lear world that occasioned all of this? How does Knight’s thesis relate to the ending?
Critical commentary varies and appears exhaustive. Bradley speaks of evil, but thinks Lear dies in a moment of supreme joy; Knight argues that however vicious and cruel the Lear world is, the death of Cordelia represents the future triumph of love. Frye writes of Lear’s madness as our sanity if it were not sedated as if the universe is fundamentally absurd. Andrews writes that the meaning depends on the F vs. Q variations, and that the audience must be left uncertain. Snyder says that Lear dramatizes the phases of dying that we all endure, and that Lear dies because he is warn out by the exhaustion of life. Rackin comments that the play moves through a dialectical process of reconciliation of opposites that culminate in Lear’s triumph of faith. Hennedy notes the existential approach saying that Lear dies secure in knowledge that Cordelia lives after death, having experienced transcendence. The paradox of (in a Christian sense) that hopes comes from the cross. Donner writes that the cathartic experience the end of the play affords us is the belief that justice had not been done; how could it, and we can not forget the tremendous potential man has for evil that no one but God could forgive. Harris argues that the promised end is dramatized by the ending of Lear, and the final words of the play make the meaning clear?the power of art transcends what language can only try to express. Foakes thinks that Hamlet now is less suited for the twentieth century than Lear, insofar as Lear’s existential content is what matters, so now the question becomes why would Cordelia want to live in Lear’s world? The play is about protesting a world gone mad.
The situation is further intensified by the Tate emendation that playgoers witnessed for over a century. Arguing from the perspective of post-restoration and neo-classical taste that literature must teach virtue, Tate dropped the Fool, gave Cordelia and Edgar a love interest, thus sparing her life along with her father:
Edgar: My dear Cordelia! Lucky was the Minute
Of our approach, the Gods have weighed our Sufferings,
W’are past the Fire, and now must shine to Ages
Take off their chains thou Injur’d Majesty,
The Wheel of Fortune now has made a circle?
What comfort may be brought to cheer your age?
And heal your savage Wrongs, shall be apply’d
For to your Majesty we do resign
Lear’s last words according to Tate are:
Though, thou hast some business yet for life;
Thou, Kent, and I, retir’d to some cool cell
Will gently pass our short Reserves of time
In calm reflections on our fortunes past,
Cheer’d with relation of the prosperous reign
Of this celestial pair; thus our remains
Shall in an even course of thoughts be past?
Enjoy the present hour, not fear the last
Quite a difference from Edmund’s inexplicable delay in revoking his doom, leading inevitably to the death of Lear and Cordelia.
Perhaps today our taste have changed since our metaphysics have, and if the mimetic theory of Aristotle still holds, then Foakes has charted the change when he notes that Hamlet has been replaced by Lear as the play most representative of our century. ?In the 1960’s, the central question about the tragedy of King Lear, took on new form.? And as Herbert Blau put it, ?In our time it became possible to ask again about the death of Cordelia not why she should die, but why she want to live?? To escape the implied horror this question poses regarding this century, demands perhaps an existential interpretation of the universe. Lear then holding Cordelia asking us to ?Look there??(V,iii,308) defines his own lucidity in a mad world where humanity preys upon itself.
What brought Lear to such a moment in Act V? In the Wheel of Fire, Knight believes the universal apparatus in the Lear world to be humanlike. Humans thus chart their own progress and become victims of the mad world they helped to define. Humanity does pray upon itself.
An instructive parallel is Romeo and Juliet. Could Romeo be a youthful Lear? I believe so. Romeo’s history is one of rash, impulsive behavior. Friar Lawrence, for instance, finds Romeo’s ?conversion? from Rosaline to Juliet more than perplexing:
Holy Saint Francis! What a change is here!
Is Rosaline that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? Young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes
He warns of the dire consequences of impulsive behavior:
These violent delights have violent ends
And in the triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately?
Romeo opts for suicide rather than banishment, and tells the Friar that philosophical exhortations mean little when confronted with the pragmatics of a permanent separation from Juliet. The Friar retorts, ?Thou fond mad man, hear me a little speak.? (III, iii, 53). The madness is dramatized in Act v. Entering the tomb and thinking Juliet is dead, Romeo now actualizes his earlier threat. His monologue offers an interesting parallel to Lear.
How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! Which their keepers call
A lightning before death, O, how may I
Call this a lightning? O my love, my wife!
(V, iii, 88-91)
Is Lear merry? Bradley thinks that Lear dies in a moment of supreme joy. The issue is further complicated by variant readings. Q substitutes ?Sir? followed by ?O O O O ?, with ?Do you see this? Look on her, look at her lips,/ Look there, look there? (V, iii, 309-310) being deleted. Keeping F allows for the possibility Cordelia is either alive or at least Lear thinks so, making Bradley’s thesis at least plausible. Comparing the final words of Romeo and Juliet with Lear may help to resolve this issue. The Prince, absolving the Friar of his part, notes,
A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things?
(V, iii, 305-307)
Albany (or Edgar) says:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
(V, iii, 322-323)
Both ending suggest further discourse. In Romeo and Juliet, what circumstances bring about the horrors? The Sonnet Prologue speaks of ?star crossed lovers? but in Lear, Edmund dismisses such as superstitious nonsense, and like Iago to Roderigo, believes humans chart their own destiny by making opportunities for themselves.
Romeo, according to the Friar, defies his own madness; he is rash and impulsive like Lear whose ?hideous rashness? causes him to banish Kent who warned against. The wheel has come full circle, and Shakespeare has noted such before in, As You Like It’s famous ?Seven ages of man? speech by Jacques. Interestingly the first stage (??the infant./Mewling and puking) comes ?full circle? in senility to the last stage (??second childishness and mere oblivion./ sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything.?). (II, vii, 139-166). Romeo has come full circle to Lear.
?Is this the promised end?? asks Kent. The answers that if Kent were to look at Romeo’s youth, he might have recognized a young Lear, and with characteristic bluntness reminded Lear of his past. Such conduct leads to death and fashioning of a universal horror that defies rational explanation. What ought to be said is in our own day the lesson of the holocaust. Donner said, ?Shakespeare has deliberately made us feel that justice has not been done, that the sufferings inflicted have been to great for human beings to bear, and the crimes committed too terrible to be condoned- too terrible to forget. I believe Shakespeare wanted us to feel, and so to know that we must not forget and must not let ?new sorrows Strike us on the face.? That is what we ought to say and what art says. If we do not, we deny the function of art not only to enhance life, but to ?teach and delight?. Our denial makes us participants in the madness that engulfs Lear. IN the words of Prufrock, we have to ?dare to eat peach,? for doing so we disturb the universe.
Harold Bloom has published, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. This study argues that Shakespeare invented personality, and that any modernist attempt to lower that achievement to current sociopolitical trends does violence to that achievement. ?Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness.?
Bloom initially states that Lear is beyond commentary, but nonetheless proceeds to offer many revisionistic concepts, not the least of which is the belief that divine justice does not prevail at the end, this he terms ?offensive?. He believes that the key to interpreting Lear’s end and for that matter any moment of the play rests with love; we must note that initially Lear is loved by all of the good characters in the play: The Fool, Kent, Gloucester, and Edgar. Thus cement binding (or not) the Lear world is to much love: ?Shakespeare’s implication is that the only authentic love is between parents and children; yet the prime consequence of such love is only devastation?the play manifests as intense anguish in regard to human sexuality, and a compassionate despair as to the mutually destructive nature of both paternal and filial love.? This love is what Bloom calls a love that is so deep it cannot be avoided. Thus for Bloom the line that best sums the tragedy is Edgar’s, ?he childed as I father’d,? meaning not hate but love between the generations. Hence, Lear’s great love for his children and Edgar’s for Gloucester occasion the very tragedy that love is supposed to negate.
The death of Cordelia has only pain to make meaningful, a premise quite the opposite of Bradley’s belief cited above. The Lear world is love gone mad and therefore poised to self-destruct. Frye noted in the body of this essay that perhaps Lear’s madness would be our sanity if it were not sedated. Bloom argues that traditional ?sedatives? such as a moral cleansing and recognition do not apply. The Fool therefore is needed in the play, Bloom believes, to insulate us from Lear’s madness that is with in all of us.
Thus, the endings of Lear as seen by Bloom are not in the redemptive mode occasioned by flashes of insight, but are ?emanations of his wholeheartedness.? Thus Shakespeare endowed Lear with sensibilities, broad enough to achieve the potentially infinite, so as to include of necessity emanations of recognition, but in the final analysis what remains in the Lear world is its own ashes consumed on the alter of paternal love. There are no gods to accept the offering.
So, is dialectic sustained to the point where opposites are reconciled? If Bloom is right that Shakespeare invented what it means to be human, a synthesis may not be possible. Shakespeare gave us Bottom and Edgar, Iago and Richard III, and history gave us Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler. Love, it would seem, does turn upon itself, and by doing so destroys what it is supposed to preserve.
Works Cited Page
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Fawcett Books, n.d.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998
Frye, N. On Shakespeare. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986
Knight, G.W. The Wheel of Fire. New York. Meridian Press, 1963.
Donner, H.W. Is This the Promised End? Reflections on the tragic ending of ?King Lear? L(Winter 1969).
Foakes, R.A. King Lear and the Displacement of Hamlet. Huntington library Quarterly(1980)
Hennedy, H. Recognizing the Ending. Sp, 71 (1974)
Rackin, P. Delusion as Resolution in King Lear. Shakespeare Quarterly. XXI (1970)
Snyder, S. King Lear and the Psychology of Dying Shakespeare Quartely. XXXIII(1984)