Act 5 scene 3

Synopsis of Act 5 Scene 3

Lear and Cordelia enter as prisoners and Edmund commands officers to take them away. Lear is overjoyed to be reunited with Cordelia but Edmund sends an Officer after them, planning to have them both murdered, starting with Cordelia. 
Albany arrives with Regan and Goneril. He arrests Edmund and Goneril for treason, declaring that a challenger will prove the justice of the charge via trial by combat. The already unwell Regan suddenly feels seriously ill and is taken to her tent. As Edmund is charged with treason, Edgar appears, unrecognisable in full armour. He and Edmund fight until he wounds Edmund. Albany stops the fight, then confronts Goneril with her letter to Edmund and she hastily leaves. 
The dying Edmund confesses his crimes whilst Edgar discloses himself and explains how he has accompanied Gloucester. When he eventually revealed his true identity to his father, the emotional shock killed the old man. 
A Gentleman enters to report that Goneril has confessed to poisoning Regan, before committing suicide herself. Edmund admits that he has ordered someone to kill Lear and to hang Cordelia in her cell, making it seem like suicide. Whilst he is carried away, a soldier is sent to countermand these orders but arrives too late.
Lear comes in with Cordelia’s dead body in his arms, grieving yet unable to comprehend that she’s really dead. Kent now reveals his true identity but Lear can no longer recognise or understand him. 
Edmund’s death is reported and Albany announces that he will return the kingdom to Lear. However, Lear dies, believing Cordelia has revived. Albany therefore orders preparations for the funerals and appoints both Edgar and Kent to be joint rulers of Britain with him but Kent declares he too will soon die. It is Edgar who closes the play with the assertion that Lear’s suffering has been so great that those who are young will never see its like in their lifetime.

Commentary on Act 5 Scene 3

The play’s final scene is crowded with incident and makes extreme emotional demands on both actors and audience. Hope battles with despair throughout. Good could eventually triumph over evil, but this is a tragedy set in a world in which wrongs cannot be undone and their consequences have to be faced. Three evil characters (Goneril, Regan, Edmund) die – but so do three of those who have been ‘more sinned against than sinning’ (Lear, Cordelia and Kent – whose death is imminent as the play ends). The scene brings both the intertwined Lear and the Gloucester stories to a climax and shows how human weakness (rather than any sort of divine agency) has been responsible for the suffering. Both Lear and Gloucester have allowed themselves to be deceived, so perhaps it is appropriate that Lear dies deceived that Cordelia may still be alive. Every event that happens in this scene has its opposite, just as Lear’s resignation to his fate is balanced by his defiance and vindictiveness.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage: Now Lear is eager to go to prison because he will be with his daughter and will, therefore, have everything he desires – that is, an opportunity to be reconciled with her and to try to atone for his self-centred treatment of her.

And take upon ’s the mystery of things: ‘the mystery of things’ goes to the heart of what this play is about – what it is to be human.
As if we were God’s spies: This is the only time in the play when the God of the Bible is referred to, in a speech which radiates forgiveness and trust. Lear imagines seeing things from a viewpoint which transcends the merely human. The play focuses on the mysteries of existence and the extent to which human beings are masters of their own destiny.
One step I have advanced thee: In common with many of Shakespeare's villains Edmund shows that he is able to switch from one thing to another with ease, always apparently in control. The paper which Edmund gives to the captain gives orders for the murder of Lear and Cordelia, promising the captain promotion if he does what Edmund wants.
You have the captives … We do require them of you: Tension is heightened as a deep division now opens up between Edmund and Albany over how Lear and Cordelia should be treated.
I told you but a subject of this war, / Not as a brother: Albany is furious that Edmund is acting as if he and Albany are equals – which they are not. This provokes an argument between Goneril and Regan over Edmund.
a full-flowing stomach: In Shakespeare's day it was believed that the stomach was associated with emotions such as passion and anger.
Mean you to enjoy him: Goneril has already managed to poison Regan and therefore she knows that her sister can never ‘enjoy’ Edmund.
An interlude: An interlude was originally a short piece of farcical comedy which came between the acts of a long, serious play. Goneril's use of this word shows contempt for Albany as she refuses to take his bitter words about love between Regan and himself seriously.
There is my pledge: The rules of chivalry stipulated that those on opposing sides in a quarrel could appoint champions to fight on their behalf. Albany says that he will fight Edmund himself if no one comes forward to champion him. The glove (or ‘gage’) was a traditional symbol of such a pledge. It was believed that the winner of the physical fight would thereby demonstrate the rightness of his argument.

There's my exchange: Edmund throws down his glove as a symbol that the challenge is accepted.

He is bold in his defence: Edmund insists that he is innocent and will fight with any champion to prove it.

Behold, it is the privilege of mine honours: The rules of chivalry stipulated that champions had to be appropriately matched in rank and skill, which Edgar is.
In wisdom I should ask thy name: Edmund is well aware that he is not bound to fight unless he is sure that his adversary is his equal in rank. However, he decides not to ask Edgar what his name is, a fateful omission, as far as he is concerned. 
This sword of mine shall give them instant way: Edmund asserts that a single blow with his sword to Edgar's heart will prove beyond doubt that his accusations are false.
Let's exchange charity: Edgar has to forgive the crimes which Edmond has committed against him, just as Edmund has to forgive Edgar for fatally wounding him.
I am no less in blood … father's son: Edgar states that if his rank turns out to be higher than Edmund’s, then Edmund has wronged him more grievously. In the social hierarchy, Edgar outranks Edmund because he is the older brother as well as the legitimate one.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: Edgar clings to the idea that the universe is a just and moral one, ruled over by gods who punish evil and reward goodness. At the same time he also seems to believe that Gloucester’s suffering arose from his sexual excesses.
Lady Fortune spinning her wheelThe wheel is come full circle: Which powers are at work in the universe? Is it the gods or is it a fickle, impersonal Fortune? The image Edmund uses here is of Fortune’s wheel on which he has risen to great power, but is now brought down to an opposite extreme.
Never – O fault! – revealed myself unto him: Edgar now thinks that he should have revealed himself in his true identity to Gloucester much earlier.
But his flawed heart … Burst smilingly: Gloucester’s heart has been shattered by two opposing emotions: grief as a result of his suffering and now joy at his reconciliation with Edgar. His already weakened heart could not bear any more strain.
all three / Now marry in an instant: Edmund makes a rather grim joke implying that he and the two sisters will now all be unified in death.
for my writ / Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia: Edmund refers to his earlier command that Lear and Cordelia should be executed.
Take my sword; / Give it the captain: Edmund sends his sword to the captain, saying that he will know that the man who carries it speaks with Edmund’s authority.
Re-enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms: For many years this was one of the most controversial moments in the whole of Shakespeare. Many productions of the play changed this stage direction so that Cordelia was still alive, so that the ending could be about goodness triumphing over evil.
Howl … heaven’s vault … crack: Lear's words are reminiscent of those he spoke in the storm. Such grief should cause a huge upheaval in nature.

the promised end: Kent thinks that the sight of the King with Cordelia in his arms could presage the end of the world.
This feather stirs: Lear places a feather near to her mouth. In his desperation he deceives himself that he can see her breath moving it and therefore she is alive.
If fortune brag of two she loved and hated, / One of them we behold: Although these words clearly contribute to the theme of the fickleness of fortune, Kent’s meaning is not entirely clear. He appears to mean that Lear is one man previously favoured by Fortune who has now been brought low – and that he, Kent, is the other.
That's but a trifle here: Edmund’s pride has destroyed him and Albany treats his death as of no consequence.

And my poor fool is hanged: Lear is referring to Cordelia, ‘fool’ being a term of endearment. Some commentators have suggested that this term is evidence that the Fool and Cordelia (never on stage at the same time) were played on Shakespeare’s stage by the same actor. However, this is highly unlikely as evidence points to the Fool being played by an older actor and Cordelia by a young boy.
Pray you, undo this button: Lear feels that he is suffocating. One of the things which makes the scene so unbearable for the audience is that such a mundane reference as undoing a button makes humanity seem so insignificant in the face of such vast and universal suffering.
Break, heart: Kent is now speaking of his own heart.
the rack of this tough world: The rack was an instrument of torture which inflicted agony upon the victim by dislocating the joints.
Rule in this realm: Albany asks Kent to rule over the kingdom together with Edgar. However, he refuses because he knows he has ‘a journey’ in front of him – that is, he knows he is going to die.
My master: Kent means Lear.
Exeunt, with a dead march: This would have been a slow march with solemn music to accompany the exit of a dead body.

Investigating Act 5 Scene 3...

  • Why does Lear welcome prison?
    • What does he not understand about a prison under the control of Edmund?
  • How does the behaviour of Albany in the scene seek to preserve natural order?
    • How does the behaviour of Edmund, Goneril and Regan seek to destroy it further?
  • When does the audience first begin to feel that the tide is beginning to turn towards the restoration of morality and justice?
  • Characters begin to reveal their true identity in this scene. What is the dramatic and thematic purpose of these revelations?
  • How does Edgar seek to explain that all the suffering that has occurred is part of the workings of a just universe in which wrongdoing is punished?
  • Lear’s initial decision to support his evil daughters and banish the good Cordelia ultimately ends in the destruction of his entire family. Does this fact uphold a belief in a universe ruled over by divine embodiments of justice and morality?
  • How do the events of the scene suggest that consequences of evil have to be endured rather than overturned?
  • What is the dramatic effect of having Albany and Edgar take over the leadership of the kingdom?
    • Do Edgar's concluding words offer hope or do they confirm a profound feeling of waste and loss?
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