Act V Summary:
Edmund sends an officer to learn of Albany's plans since he has become so fickle. Regan approaches Edmund, sweetly asking him if he loves her sister and if he has ever found his way into her bed. He replies that though he loves in "honored love" he has done nothing adulterous or to break their vow. Warning him to stay away from Goneril, Regan threatens that she will not put up with her sister's entreaties to him. Goneril and Albany enter as Goneril tells the audience that her battle for Edmund is more important to her than the battle with France. Albany informs Regan of Cordelia and Lear's reunion. Regan wonders why he brings up the subject of the King and his grievances. Goneril points out that they must join together against France and ignore their personal conflicts.
As the two camps separate, Regan pleads with Goneril to accompany her instead of the other camp where Edmund will be present. Goneril refuses at first but then sees Regan's purpose and agrees. Edgar finds Albany alone and asks him to read the letter to Edmund from Goneril he had intercepted. Though he cannot stay while Albany reads it, he prays him to let the herald cry when the time is right and he will appear again. Albany leaves to read it when Edmund reenters to report of the oncoming enemy. In soliloquy, Edmund wonders what he will do about pledging his love to both sisters. He could take both of them, one, or neither. He decides to use Albany while in battle and after winning, to allow Goneril to kill him. Moreover, he plans to forbid any mercy Albany may show Cordelia and Lear because his rule of the state is his highest priority.
The army of France, accompanied by Cordelia and Lear, crosses the stage with their battle colors and drums and exits. Next, Edgar and Gloucester enter. Edgar offers Gloucester rest under a nearby tree while he goes into battle. The noises of the battle begin and end, at which time Edgar reenters the stage to speak with Gloucester. He calls for Gloucester to come with him as Cordelia and Lear have lost and been taken captive. Entertaining ideas of suicide again, Gloucester tries to remain but Edgar talks him into accompanying him, noting that men must endure the ups and downs of life.
Edmund holds Cordelia and Lear prisoner. Trying to keep Lear's spirits up, Cordelia tells him that they are not the first innocent people who have had to endure the worst and she will be happy to endure for the King. She asks if they will see Goneril and Regan but Lear rejects that notion. He wants them to spend their days in prison enjoying their company, conversing and singing and playing and debating the "mystery of things". As they are taken away at Edmund's command, Lear encourages Cordelia to dry her tears and enjoy their reunion as they will never again be separated. Edmund demands the subordinate captain follow Lear and Cordelia to prison and carry out the punishment detailed by his written instructions. Threatened with demotion, the captain agrees.
Albany praises Edmund for his work in the battle and in obtaining his prisoners. He then commands Edmund to turn Cordelia and Lear over into his protection. Edmund replies that he thought it best to send Lear and Cordelia into retention so that they did not arouse too much sympathy and start a riot, but he assures Albany that they will be ready the next day to appear before him. Albany warns Edmund to remember that he is only a subordinate to which Regan replies that Edmund is in fact her husband and thus an equal. Goneril proclaims that he is more honorable on his own merit than as Regan's partner. Not feeling well, Regan implores Edmund to accept all of her property and herself. Goneril asks if she means to be intimate with him to which Albany retorts that the matter does not relate to her. Edmund disagrees and Regan calls for him to take her title. Albany interrupts, arresting Edmund for treason and barring any relationship between Goneril and Edmund. He calls Edmund to duel, throwing down his glove. Edmund throws down his glove as well and Albany alerts him that all of his soldiers have been sent away. Feeling very ill, Regan is taken off.
The herald reads aloud Albany's notice, calling for anyone who holds that Edmund is a traitor to come support that claim. The trumpet is sounded three times and Edgar, still disguised, appears after the last. Asked why he has responded, Edgar states that he is a noble adversary who desires to fight with Edmund, a traitor to "thy gods, thy brother, and thy father". They fight and Edmund falls. Albany calls for him to be spared while Goneril supports Edmund for fighting an unknown man when not required, noting that he cannot be defeated. Albany quiets her with the letter she wrote desiring Edmund's hand but Goneril retorts that as she is the ruler, he can bring no punishment upon her. She leaves before he can take command over her. Dying, Edmund asks his conqueror to reveal himself. Edgar tells of his identity and their relation, noting that Edmund has rightly fallen to the bottom as a result of his father's adulterous act, which also cost Gloucester his sight. Edmund agrees that he has come full circle and Albany rejoices in Edgar's true identity, sorrowful that he had ever worked against him or his father. Edgar describes his disguise and how he led his blinded father, protecting him and sheltering him. He had never revealed his identity until a half hour before, telling his father the entire story. Gloucester was so overwhelmed by the news that his heart gave out. Furthermore, after learning who Edgar was, Kent revealed his identity to Edgar, embracing him and spilling all of the horrid details of Lear's state and treatment. Edgar then learned that Kent too was dying but was forced to rush off as he heard the trumpet call.
A gentleman runs onto the stage with a bloody knife, informing the company that it was just pulled from Goneril's heart. She had stabbed herself after admitting that she had poisoned Regan. Edmund notes that as he had been contracted to both sisters, now all three would die. Albany calls for the gentleman to produce the bodies and comments on the immediate judgment of the heavens. Kent enters, hoping to say goodbye to Lear. Realizing that he has forgotten about the safety of Cordelia and Lear in the excitement, Albany demands Edmund to tell of their circumstances. Edmund admits that he had ordered their murders but as he hopes to do some good, he sends an officer to try to halt Cordelia's hanging. He and Goneril had commanded it look like a suicide. Lear stumbles in, carrying the body of Cordelia. Overcome by grief, Lear rages against the senseless killing of Cordelia, admitting that he killed the guard who was hanging her. Lear recognizes Kent, though he can hardly see, and Kent informs him that he has been with him all along, disguised as his servant Caius. It is not clear if Lear ever understands. Kent tells him that his evil daughters have brought about their own deaths. A messenger enters to tell them that Edmund has died. Albany tries to set things right, reinstating Lear's absolute rule and Kent and Edgar's authority, promising to right all of the good and punish the evil. Lear continues to mourn the loss of Cordelia and then dies himself. Albany thus gives Kent and Edgar the rule of the kingdom to which Kent replies that he must move on to follow his master, leaving Edgar as the new ruler.
Act V Analysis:
Let us return to the idea of King Lear as parable, as a patterned and figurative story, as we approach the play's conclusion and see the result of the prophesies and symbolic gestures we have noted all along. Lear was the king whose major flaw was a need for flattery and whose major error was his banishment of the honest daughter in favor of the two insincere daughters. Once this act is committed, Lear is destined to reap the consequences through a painful journey to essential man. Unaccommodated man is reached, in and within Lear's madness, in the very middle of the story, Act III, and his redemption begins following this point, conveniently as he is transported to Dover where Cordelia and the allies await. It is a Cinderella type fairy tale where the good daughter is cast aside for the betterment of the two wicked daughters. Lear makes this error and is punished for it. We also have the parallel subplot of Gloucester whose major flaw was adultery. This backfires when his bastard son resents his illegitimacy and moves to displace both Edgar and Gloucester. Somewhat coldly, Edgar sums up the nature of these events after he has fatally wounded Edmund. He states, "The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/ Make instruments to plague us./ The dark and vicious place where thee he got/ Cost him his eyes" (V.3.171-174). Some critics view this line very harshly whereas others feel that Edgar was explaining the events in a manner which Edmund would understand and feel was justified. Edmund does respond in agreement which supports the last viewpoint.
Furthermore, we have discussed Edgar as a parallel character to Cordelia and Kent, as he has both led his father to safety and nursed him because of filial love and loyalty. None of the three hold a grudge against Lear or Gloucester. This type of resentment was not necessary on their parts because of their roles as the good characters. They have saved the fallen men, their masters, and led them to safety. This has been their role. Edmund, Regan, and Goneril on the other hand, have been heavily tortured with resentment toward their fathers or siblings or anyone else whom holds power. As completely evil characters, they work laterally, fulfilling their evil role and not departing much from it. They are evil and become progressively so to the extent that Regan and Goneril are responsible for their own deaths. And one could hardly say Goneril is more at fault because she was the actual murderer in both occasions. We watched both women fight and claw for power from their father, husbands, Edmund, and each other. Whichever action or behavior fit their motive at the time, whether it was uniting against their father or becoming rivals for Edmund's hand, they eagerly took it on. Their jealousy and hostility bore itself up to the point that they barely resembled women as we noted was commented on by both Lear and Albany.
Albany is one of the only characters who is seen to grow and develop over the course of the play. He is never truly evil, simply ambitious at the start. He is quickly transformed once he uncovers the true nature of his wife. Cordelia purposely remains at an even keel of goodness and virtue to aid the audience in understanding her station. Note that in the few lines Cordelia has in Act V, she voices them in rhymed couplet as she did in the very first scene. Melodically, she declares, "We are not the first/ Who with best meaning have incurred the worst./ For thee, oppressèd king, I am cast down;/ Myself could else outfrown false Fortune's frown" (V.3. 3-6). Her figure stands above the others, nobly and saintly. On the other hand, Edmund progresses in degrees of evil before alleviating his cruelty slightly at the end when he tries to stop the hanging of Cordelia. Most will feel however that this action is too little too late, especially considering how he waits for awhile after insinuating that he may do good before he actually does anything. The hesitation, this instance of the unsaid, is a metaphor for the character of Edmund as he can be understood as a figure of circumstance. We do not know if he would have been evil if he had been born into legitimacy and privilege as Edgar was. We know only that his largest grievance is his bastard status and this drives all else. Thus, he cannot easily let go of this drive when dying and is slow to think of anyone but himself. Edmund had continually worked between the lines to influence and manipulate the other characters. Hence, as he tries to effect change up front, he is not able to do so effectively.
Lear and Gloucester both come to heavily allegorical ends, the first carrying his abused daughter dead in his arms and the latter dying not from his torture or attempted suicide, but from the strain of knowing his wronged son had helped him when he needed him most. They both seem a bit contrived, but that is the intention. This is the ends they were fated to have, one echoing the fate of the other. In this manner, it is not surprising that the play ends as it began with Lear and his three daughters on stage. Yet this time, all three are dead and Lear as well, though he is the last to go. Kent and Gloucester spoke to open the play and here Kent and the new Earl of Gloucester have the last two lines to end the play. Moreover, the kingdom is being divided in both cases with Lear as the divider in the beginning and Albany, one of the previous inheritors, dividing at the end. Wisely, Shakespeare ends the play without another shared division even though this means the death of Kent.
Regardless of whether this was Shakespeare's intention (it likely was not seeing that nearly every other good character dies), a sole ruler bodes better for the kingdom overall. Edgar had shown himself true to his father and the King throughout the text and as critics note, he played a different role in the play almost every couple of pages, from beggar to rustic peasant to poor gentleman to soldier to kindly son. Thus, it makes sense, allegorically if nothing else, that he would be best fitted to take over the role of king, which Lear taught us must be a person of tolerance, removed from artifice. When Lear and Cordelia are being sent to prison, we see Lear happy for the first time. He is looking forward to time when they can discuss life and sing and enjoy the world. Edgar, as one who has grown from a too trusting young man to a man who has seen many levels of life and death, can best support the void left by Lear.
This pleasant take on the end should not distract the reader from the dismal events of Act V. Lear dies without knowing it was Kent who helped him and without having the chance he had wished for to spend time with Cordelia. Though Edgar's place on the throne at the end gives hope, the play ends with an overwhelming sentiment of failure. The efforts that Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar took to save Lear and Gloucester come to little. All prayers made to the gods to save the righteous or help the good were not answered. Many were senselessly killed, including those killed in a battle which occurred behind the scenes. Ironically, as several characters tried to persuade each other to focus on the larger battle against Lear's avengers rather than on their personal quarrels, the actual battle is hidden from view whereas the personal confrontations are mainly staged in full view. Scene ii of Act V is thus an example of synedoche, representing the whole of the play by broadcasting that the battle with France plays second fiddle. Lear's battle with himself, for instance, takes precedent and points our attention to the battles of man and of the self and of good versus evil over any war-like battles which take place. This explains why the play must end in a brokenhearted atmosphere. Life's mysteries, as Lear referred to, are not meant to be won through manipulation or sword fighting. Lear's battle with pretense and the physical representations of it embodied in Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, and Edmund had to crumble the very existence of those who survived in order to illustrate to the audience the meaning underneath the death and broken hearts.