King Lear Act Five plot synopsis: deaths

Previously in King Lear:

While Act One was filled with mistakes made and bad behavior, Act Two was all about the dark clouds rising-–the ratcheting up pressure against those characters that we care about (Edgar, Lear and Kent all facing tribulations). Act Three brought more tribulations to these three, then added another victim into mix, and made it even worse for him: blinding Gloucester. Act Four gave us the reunion of Gloucester and Edgar (though only Edgar was aware of it), and Lear and Cordelia. It ended hopefully.

Alas, it was not the end of the play.

Act Five begins in the British camp, where there is some question by Regan and Edmund as to Albany’s course. More importantly, to Regan at least, is the question of Edmund’s love for Goneril. He denies anything beyond “honored love” (V.i.9) for Goneril (and certainly denies ever finding his way into her “forefended place” [V.i.11] — cough, sex, cough); Regan pleads for him not to be “familiar” (V.i.13) with her sister. But before much more of this pseudo-soap opera talk can go on, Goneril, Albany and their soldiers arrive.

Albany has news that Cordelia has been reunited with Lear, and the armies begin to leave to battle. Edgar enters disguised and asks to speak with Albany alone. He gives Albany the letter from Goneril to Edmund, telling the duke to read the letter before the battle. If they win the battle, Edgar asks that he be presented to provide “a champion that will prove // What is avouched” (V.i.33-4) in the letter. Albany agrees, Edgar leaves, Edmund re-enters to call Albany to battle. When Albany exits, Edmund delivers a short soliloquy that continues our soap opera-interruptus: “To both these sisters have I sworn my love” (V.i.45). He knows this is causing conflict between the two sisters, and ponders where this will all go. More importantly, though, he’s concerned about “the mercy // Which [Albany] intends to Lear and to Cordelia” (V.i.55-6); if the British forces capture the two, Edmund declares that they will “never see his pardon” (V.i.58).

The short second scene of the act takes us to the battlefield where Edgar attempts to find Gloucester some safety during the battle, knowing that Lear and Cordelia have been captured. It seems Edgar still hasn’t revealed his true identity.

The final scene of the play is back in the British camp where Edmund and his soldiers have the captured Lear and Cordelia. Edmund orders them to prison. Cordelia wants to confront her sisters, but Lear wants to go to prison, if it means that he can spend time with Cordelia; he paints an idyllic picture of the two of them: “we’ll live, // And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh” (V.iii.11-12). The two are taken away.

Goneril, Albany, and Regan enter with soldiers. Albany demands Edmund’s prisoners, and when Edmund puts him off, Albany says that while Edmund may be “a subject of this war, // [he’s] Not as a brother” (V.iii.54-5). This attempt to pull rank is unsuccessful, however, as Regan vouches for Edmund since he has “bore the commission of [her] place and person” (V.iii.58). Goneril takes it a step further saying that Edmund’s acts “doth exalt himself // More than in [Regan’s] addition” (V.iii.61-2). Nothing like a domestic-military catfight.

Regan says she’d really let Goneril have it if she was feeling better (“Lady, I am not well” [V.iii.67]). Hmm. That doesn’t sound good. Keep that in mind. Meanwhile the domestic sniping continues:

 Mean you to enjoy him?
The let-alone lies not in your goodwill.
Nor in thine, lord.
 Half-blooded fellow, yes.
  • V.iii.72-4

And why does Albany feel this is his business? Well, this is the moment Albany arrests Edmund on charges of capital treason, and implicates Goneril. Then saying that Edmund is armed, Albany calls for trumpets to sound to call forth a champion to engage Edmund in trial by combat; and if none shows up, Albany pledges to fight him himself.

Regan then calls out that she is sick; Goneril responds in aside, “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine” (V.iii.90). It seems Goneril is not just a “serpent” (V.iii.78) as Albany claims, but a venomous one at that. Edmund accepts Albany’s challenge, Regan is taken away, and a Herald enters to read the challenge for a champion for the trial by combat, and Edgar enters in armor with his face-shield down, and accepts the challenge.

When asked, Edgar says that his name “is lost, // By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit, // Yet [is he] noble” (V.iii.112-3). After a quick duel of words, they fight and Edgar defeats Edmund, wounding him badly, but leaving him alive. Goneril calls out that this doesn’t count, saying, ‘The laws are mine, not thine” (V.iii.151) when Albany attempts to enter her letter into the discussion. She exits, with attendants in pursuit.

Edmund admits his crimes, and says to his vanquisher, “If thou’rt noble, // I do forgive thee” (V.iii.158-9). Edgar reveals himself, and Albany says that he knew it all along, “Methought thy very gait did prophesy // A royal nobleness” (V.iii.168-8). Yeah. Right.

Edgar then recounts how he nursed his father after his torture, and how his father’s heart failed when he finally revealed his identity. [Final scene death number one: thankfully off-stage] Edmund is moved to “do good” (V.iii.193), but before he can, a man comes in with a bloody knife, that had been used by Goneril to kill herself [Final scene death number two: again thankfully off-stage], over guilt of poisoning her now dead sister Regan. [Final scene death number three: off-stage but we saw it coming]

When the bodies are brought forth, Edmund says, “Yet Edmund was beloved” (V.iii.215). Was Edmund’s villainy all about love?

Kent enters as himself. Before Edmund is borne off (to die, natch), he tells Albany of his death sentence for Lear and Goneril, so it can be stopped “in time” (V.iii.223).

No such luck.

Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia. [Final scene death number four: off-stage but no less brutalizing to the audience] Lear tries to convince everyone (including himself) that she’s still alive, but she’s not. He feels guilt over her death (not just because of all of what has happened in the play, but) because he didn’t act quickly enough: he killed the hangman to get Cordelia’s body. [Final scene death number five: off-stage and, well, wow]

Kent reveals himself to Lear, who recognizes him, but little else, merely agreeing with news of his daughters’ deaths. Word arrives that Edmund succumbed to his wounds. [Final scene death number six: off-stage and expected–and for most in the audience, I’m guessing–silently applauded.]

Albany announces that he’s resigning his powers back to Lear, but Lear, babbling almost incoherently over the body of Cordelia, dies. [Final scene death number seven: the only one on-stage, and befitting the tragedy that bears his name]

His plan foiled by fate, Albany then says that he plans to split the kingdom between Kent and Edgar, but Kent feels that he will be dead soon enough (“My master calls me, I must not say no” [V.iii.299]). [Final scene death number eight?] That leaves Edgar with the last words of the play (maybe, but more on that later in our discussions):

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much nor live so long.
  • V.iii.300-303

It’s a fitting speech for both the end of the play and the beginning of a new reign.