The ending of King Lear

The desire for good to triumph

The final scene of King Lear is problematic – so much so that for many years the play was presented with a ‘happy’ ending. In 1681 Nahum Tate adapted the play and gave it an ending in which Lear and Cordelia are reunited and live happily ever after, with Lear once again ruling as king and with Cordelia marrying Edgar. Up until 1838, this version was the only one most audiences would have seen.

The problems of Shakespeare’s ending

Part of the ‘point’ of a tragedy is that the audience understands how the suffering endured by the protagonists has somehow been of benefit to them, in terms of their spiritual or moral improvement. However, Shakespeare leaves ambiguous whether
Lear has in fact undergone spiritual renewal. Does he ‘see’ more clearly than he did at the beginning of the play?

The evidence for ‘yes’

Many people who have watched and read the play have wanted to believe in a positive answer to these questions. After all, it is not unnatural to want to believe in spiritual progress and in good triumphing over evil. They would point to the following evidence:
  • Lear recovers from his insanity
  • He is lovingly reunited with Cordelia
  • Lear appears to have found fulfilment. As they depart for prison, he says: ‘Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia / The gods themselves throw incense.’
  • He humbly accepts his wrong-doing against Cordelia by saying: ‘When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness.’
  • The image he uses of the two of them singing ‘like birds i’th’cage’ suggests acceptance and to a clear vision that what really matters is not power but the love of his loyal daughter.

The evidence for ‘no’

However, others could point out that the pagan universe of King Lear offers no such easy answers and might cite the following:
  • The animal-like ‘howls’ of pain uttered by Lear as he enters carrying Cordelia in his arms. These suggest something more primitive, more physical, more indicative of raw anguish than could be encompassed by terms such as ‘acceptance’ and ‘spiritual renewal’
  • Lear says that he ‘killed the slave that was a-hanging’ Cordelia. Are these the words of a man who is still self-assertive, bragging of his undiminished physical strength?
  • Is Lear’s capacity for self-deception also suggested by his statement that Cordelia’s continuing to live would ‘redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt’?
The point is not a question of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but rather of ambiguity. The play raises questions throughout its complex plot, so it should not surprise us that the ending is ambiguous and does not allow the audience the comfort of moral certainties or of an easy resolution. The world of King Lear has demonstrated that life is ‘tough’ and existence like being tortured on a ‘rack’. Human happiness has been shown to be very fragile, easily and irrevocably broken by selfish desires for wealth and power.
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