ASSIGNMENT: The ending of Lear has provoked considerable critical controversy. Your assignment is to develop and defend an interpretation of the ending of Lear using:

[A Bibliography follows the article.]


I will argue in the following paper that Shakespeare intended a dialectical approach that sustains the power of art to reflect mimetically the attempt to reconcile several opposites, including love and hate and faith and despair.


by R. Nighan

Few Shakespearean plays have caused the critical controversy Lear's ending occasions. Othello kills himself, Macbeth is executed, and of course in Hamlet, everyone dies. Lear, however, is different. Is he mad or lucid? Is Cordelia really dead? Is Edmund's delay explainable? What is the nature of the Lear universe that occasioned all of this 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 universe 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 the Lear dies secure in the knowledge that Cordelia lives after death, having experienced a transcendence., the paradox of [in a Christian sense] that hope comes from the cross. Donner writes that the cathartic experience the end of the play affords us is the belief that justice has not been done; how could it, and we cannot 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 that the final words of the play make the meaning clear--the power of art transcends what language can only imperfectly 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 the Lear universe? The play is about protesting a world gone mad. Since. Harold Bloom's, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human argues that Shakespeare invented personality, and that any modernist attempt to subordinate 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 may 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 initially that Lear is loved by all of the good characters in the play: The Fool, Kent, Cordelia, Gloucester, and Edgar. Thus the cement binding (or not) the Lear universe is too much love: "Shakespeare's intimation 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, and is it a love Thus for Bloom the line that best sums the tragedy is Edgar's, " he childed as I father'd," meaning not hate between the generations but love. 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 therefore, has only pain to make it meaningful, a premise quite the opposite of Bradley's belief cited above. The Lear universe 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 catharsis and recognition do not apply. The Fool therefore is needed in the play, Bloom believes, to insulate us from the Lear's madness that is within all of us. According to Bloom, the Lear universe therefore lacks hope, and so does the ending: "Lear is the universal image of the unwisdom and destructiveness of paternal love at its most ineffectual, implacably persuaded of its own benignity, totally devoid of self-knoweldge, and careening onward until it brings down the person it loves best, and its world as well."

The ending of Lear as seen by Bloom is not in the redemptive mode occasioned by flashes of insight, but are "emanations of his wholeheartedness." Shakespeare endowed Lear with sensibilities broad enough to be wholehearted, to encompass the totality. Lear, to echo John Donne , is the macrocosm, 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 universe is its own ashes consumed on the alter of paternal love. There are no gods to accept the offering.

So is the 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, and Iago and Richard III, and history gave us Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler. Love, it would seem, does turn upon itself, and in so doing destroys what it is supposed to preserve. Coleridge's idea that the imagination "dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to recreate" would appear sustained, but in the case of the Lear universe, nothing is created. One might compare Byron's "Darkness". Does faith become despair and "angst"? What else can be said:"the rest is silence."

The situation is further exacerbated by the Tate emmendation 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:

Albany notes,

Lear's last words according to Tate are:

Quite a difference from Edmund's seemingly inexplicable delay in revoking his doom, leading inevitably to the death of Lear and Cordelia.

Perhaps today our tastes 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 a new form; as Herbert Blau put it, "In our time it became possible to ask again about the death of Cordelia not why should she die? But why would she want to live?" To escape the implied horror this question poses regarding this century, demands perhaps an existential interpretation of the macrocosm. Lear then holding Cordelia asking us to "Look there..." (V,iii,308) defines his own lucidity in a mad world where humanity indeed does prey [not pray] upon itself.

What brought Lear to such a moment in Act V? In the Wheel of Fire, Knight believes the macrocosmic apparatus in the Lear universe to be anthropomorphic. Humans thus chart their own progress and become victims of the mad world they help to define. Humanity does prey upon itself.

An instructive parallel is Romeo and Juliet. Could Romeo be a youthful Lear? I think 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:

He warns of the dire consequences of impulsive behavior:

Kent like wise warns Lear to the point of calling him mad. When Romeo learns of his banishment, his emotions echo Lear's dying words:

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 dead, Romeo now actualizes his earlier threat. His final monologue offers an interesting parallel to Lear.


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 (0)", with "Do you see this? Look on her, look 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 resolve the issue. The Prince, absolving the Friar of his part, notes,

Albany (or Edgar) says:

Both endings suggest further discourse. In Romeo and Juliet,what occasions the horrors? The Sonnet Prologue speaks of "star-crossed" but in Lear, Edmund dismisses such as superstitious nonsense, and like Iago to Roderigo, believes humans chart their own destiny by making opportunities for personal gain.

Romeo, according to the Friar, defines his own madness; he is rash and impulsive like Lear whose "hideous rashness" cause 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 answer is 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 macrocosmic 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 use feel that justice has not been done, that the sufferings inflicted have been too 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 a peach," for is so doing we disturb the universe.

Does Lear die mad or sane? Is Cordelia dead or alive in the last scene? It depends on what we "ought to say" to prevent the horror so we will not have to guess after the terror has descended upon us.

The following sources were used to prepare this study. In conducting your research, it is of course, mandatorythat you consult these sources, and although invaluable, they do not replace a good working knowledge of the primary source.


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.

Muir, K. (ed.). King Lear. London: Methuen and co., 1978.

Summers, M. (ed.). Shakespeare's Adaptations. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1966.


Andrews. M. The Death of Lear College Literature.

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)

Harris, D. The End of Lear and a Shape for Shakespearean Tragedy.

Hennedy, H. King Lear: 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 Quarterly. XXXIII (1984)