Lear's dilemma - future of Britain & Cordelia
Tripartition of Britain - Lear's grand plan
Kent & Gloster - Lear's attitude to Cornwall
Act 1 Scene 1 - Enter KING LEAR
The flattery game - Goneril & Regan
Sharing the kingdom - a third more opulent
Lear and flattery - did he love it or hate it?
Duke of Burgundy - the dowerless suitor
King of France - in choler parted
Edmund - sectary astronomical
Duke of Albany - worthy prince
Queen Goneril - King Lear's successor?
Oswald - this detested groom
Goneril - under the influence
Regan - is she worse than Goneril?
Goneril/Edmund/Regan - unequilateral triangle
Division 'twixt Albany and Cornwall - rumour
Lear's sanity - recovery
The final tableau - Lear endures his going hence
The last word - Albany or Edgar?
Lear endures his going hence
Last scene of all, that ends this strange, eventful historyThe conventional description of Lear in the final scene is that he is more or less mad. On examination, though, he seems to do only rational and sensible things. He kills Edmund's Captain in the act of hanging Cordelia.
Note that, although the Captain has instructions to kill both Cordelia and Lear he goes for the weaker Cordelia first. This seems strange. You would think he would kill Lear first, knowing Lear to be a soldier of vast experience. Perhaps Lear was asleep and Cordelia awake. Either Cordelia or the Captain might have signalled, one to the other, not to wake him. If the Captain then quietly entered the cell he might have suddenly seized Cordelia by the throat and hanged her. The scuffle or a muffled scream might have woken Lear. Whatever the reason Lear's spontaneous action shows his mental powers were intact. Presumably, he grabbed the Captain's sword, the only weapon that was in the cell, and killed the Captain.
Despite what the Officer said, neither he nor Edgar were eyewitnesses to Lear killing the Captain. Recall that Edgar is asked to take Edmund's sword and run to the prison. This is after the Edgar/Edmund duel and a very long time after the Captain had set out for the prison. By the time Edgar has arranged for Lear's release and the cell to be opened Lear has already killed the Captain and cut Cordelia from the noose. The dead murderer on the ground shows the Officer, and presumably Edgar, that only Lear could have killed him. If Lear has been quick enough cutting down Cordelia she may still be alive. Lear's subsequent tests suggest that he thinks there is some hope that she has survived. Edgar and the Officer, unaware of this, and if ignorant that it takes time to die by hanging may have assumed, rather than checked, that she was dead.
An interesting historical comparison is the method of execution called 'hanged, drawn and quartered'. The victim was first hanged, then disembowelled and finally chopped into pieces. A favorite pastime of executioners was to cut the victim from the scaffold BEFORE death so that the victim would feel the agony as various parts of his body were hacked away during the rough-and-ready butchery. Thus hanging does not always result in death. A modern execution by hanging 'drops' the victim thus snapping the neck-bone and causing instant death.
The stage direction says Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms. Cordelia appears to be dead but is she? Perhaps she is only unconscious. What we expect to see are human responses to the events. Lear, with the apparently dead Cordelia in his arms, is accompanied by Edgar and the Officer. Note that neither Edgar nor the Officer show any concern for Cordelia's welfare, neither sending for a doctor nor trying to revive her, obviously believing that she is dead and so beyond help. Kent and Albany, also, do nothing to try to save Cordelia and may well assume that she is dead when Edgar does nothing for her.
Lear carries out a number of tests hoping to show that Cordelia is still alive, and she may be, if he has managed to cut her from the noose in time. His tests are well known and quite sensible to detect shallow breathing in a dying or an apparently dead person. They have been used in some folk cultures and are possibly still performed in less-sophisticated societies. As a child I got to know that the mirror (looking-glass) was a traditional method used in the backwoods of Australia. I assume it came from Europe. Lear listened intently for Cordelia's tiny voice which was ever soft, gentle and low. Nobody other than Lear considers that Cordelia may be alive. To everybody else she appears to be dead. To them, Lear's experiments would appear to be irrational, if it is true. But that is the point: if it is true. Nothing is proven beyond doubt. When Lear's earlier comments are examined they are not irrational. Only moments after laying Cordelia on the ground he shows that his mind is clear:
A little later, after trying to explain his 'Caius' disguise, Kent continues:
Albany's and Edgar's comments suggest Lear doesn't know what he says but Lear actually responds quite sensibly under the circumstances. As far as Lear is concerned Albany is the enemy. He lead the forces that defeated Cordelia's army. Lear would believe that the orders to kill Cordelia came from Albany. Why would he think otherwise? Suddenly Lear recognises the friendly face of Kent in the enemy camp. Kent tries to explain his Caius disguise. Lear is puzzled but anyone would be puzzled. How is Lear expected to know who are his enemies and who are his friends? Albany obviously considers explaining why he was the enemy leader fighting Cordelia but was actually a friend and that it was really his associate who was the villain who had ordered Cordelia to be hanged. Albany may well struggle to explain his ambivalence to himself, let alone Lear. He decides not to present himself to Lear. Edgar, also, thinks it inappropriate to explain his 'Poor Tom' disguise. They realise that Lear could not possible handle the overload of all these explanations on top of Kent's 'Caius' explanation while Lear is at the moment engulfed in thinking about Cordelia.
Nor might Lear's remark, "Ay, so I think." be a mindless utterance, but a thoughtful response to Kent's, "All's cheerless, dark, and deadly." Albany certainly does not seem to think Lear is mad. He intends to resign his absolute power back to Lear. 'Absolute power' is not something one would think he would give to a madman.
Albany's plan can never take effect because Lear dies. Note that Lear's death evokes a response quite different to Cordelia's death. Edgar tries to revive Lear until stopped by Kent. Edgar assumes Lear is alive but he assumes wrongly. Earlier he had assumed Cordelia was dead, and did nothing. He may have assumed that wrongly, too.
Lear is shown to be a heart-broken father mourning his child Cordelia. What could be more human and natural? Almost no-one accepts the death of a loved one with blunt, matter-of-fact logic. Anyone who has ever been through this experience will know of the desperation and heroic measures to recover or maintain a life even though it may be logically impossible to do so. After a death there is often a non-acceptance of reality, particularly with the death of one's child. This is not madness, this is normal human emotion in action. We all go through such traumas at some stage in our lives. Lear is shattered by Cordelia's death and his reaction is quite believable. It is that of a broken-hearted father for his beloved daughter. No madman could react so.
It is human to grieve. It may not be logical but it is not madness. In "Twelfth Night" is this passage: