King Lear: Finale – Exeunt, with a Dead March

King Lear weeping over the body of Cordelia – Francis Legat, 1792 (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Previously on King LearEdmund had begun to get in trouble for his fucking, the King had gone so mad he had regained some reason, met up with Cordelia again but likely to be captured and Edgar, though no longer a fop, is still a sweetheart.

We re-enter the fray with Edgar leaving Gloucester so as to prepare his grand surprise of revealing to Edmund he knew he was a shit all along. Essentially Lear and Cordelia lost their fight, Gloucester feels a bit hopeless about this and just wants to rot under a tree but obviously Edgar knows better and knows they have an ally in Albany…an Allybany…an albanally…Alballyny…I like portmanteaus.

Edmund captures Lear and Cordelia and, we know from his speech at the end of the last bit that he intends to do harm to them.

Cordelia says here;

                “We are not the first
                Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst.”

Which I think is generally taken as meaning she’s speaking to Lear and, perhaps, reflecting on her own situation (having been cast out for meaning her best) but I think there’s also a little bit of pity and sympathy for Edmund in there even as she is being captured by him. Cordelia has always demonstrated herself as astute, knowledgeable and truthful. All Edmund ever wanted was respect, the love of his father, the legitimacy deserving of his wit and yet he has had to plot and to scheme his way there, making allies of all the worst people. I think if ever there was a time to plant some seeds of goodness to drive a wicked man either good, or mad, now is that time.

Then Lear says some stuff about butterflies and foxes, he is essentially trying to comfort Cordelia into prison and how they will comfort each other but he follows Edmund’s cry of ‘take them away’ with;

                “Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
                The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
                He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
                And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
                The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
                Ere they shall make us weep: we’ll see ‘em starve
                first. Come.”

It seems in the absence of a fool (more on him later) Lear himself has become prescient. He can see the future. This is a prophecy for Edmund to heed, but Edmund, now feeling like he is due King, is exhibiting the same kind of hubris that Lear earned with age and experience. He pays no heed. Edmund gives his Captain some orders, presumably to execute Lear and Cordelia.

Then Albany enters and says “Nah mate…” but in a lot of words. Unfortunately he spends so much time arguing with Edmund, Goneril and Regan, about who is horny for who, who fucked who, who gets to keep fucking who and quite who’s fucked that by the time Albany arrests Edmund, Regan has been poisoned by Goneril and there’s no doubt some mischief will become Lear and Cordelia.

Then we get the bit where the gauntlets are literally thrown down between Albany and Edmund and Albany sounds the trumpet to await his champion. Edgar appears; saying

                “Know, my name is lost;
                By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit:
                Yet am I noble as the adversary
                I come to cope.”

“I am noble as the adversary”?…Is Edgar suggesting he is equal to his bastard brother? More on that later.

Now..prepare for a lot of VERBA-TIME!!!!!!! <AIRHORN SOUNDS> This will be a longish one, but well worth it.

EDGAR

Draw thy sword,
That, if my speech offend a noble heart,
Thy arm may do thee justice: here is mine.
Behold, it is the privilege of mine honours,
My oath, and my profession: I protest,
Maugre thy strength, youth, place, and eminence,
Despite thy victor sword and fire-new fortune,
Thy valour and thy heart, thou art a traitor;
False to thy gods, thy brother, and thy father;
Conspirant ‘gainst this high-illustrious prince;
And, from the extremest upward of thy head
To the descent and dust below thy foot,
A most toad-spotted traitor. Say thou ‘No,’
This sword, this arm, and my best spirits, are bent
To prove upon thy heart, whereto I speak,
Thou liest.

EDMUND

In wisdom I should ask thy name;
But, since thy outside looks so fair and warlike,
And that thy tongue some say of breeding breathes,
What safe and nicely I might well delay
By rule of knighthood, I disdain and spurn:
Back do I toss these treasons to thy head;
With the hell-hated lie o’erwhelm thy heart;
Which, for they yet glance by and scarcely bruise,
This sword of mine shall give them instant way,
Where they shall rest for ever. Trumpets, speak!

Alarums. They fight. EDMUND falls

At this point Albany confronts Goneril with her conspiring letters and Goneril fucks off, huffy that her pet fuckboi has fallen in battle, she’s been found out and probably about to do herself some mischief, what with being such a bitch she even killed her own sister for some cock.

Then Edmund and Edgar begin to speak with one another;

EDMUND

What you have charged me with, that have I done;
And more, much more; the time will bring it out:
‘Tis past, and so am I. But what art thou
That hast this fortune on me? If thou’rt noble,
I do forgive thee.

EDGAR

Let’s exchange charity.
I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;
If more, the more thou hast wrong’d me.
My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.
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.

EDMUND

Thou hast spoken right, ’tis true;
The wheel is come full circle: I am here.

‘I am no less in blood than thou art’ is, I feel, a measure of respect from Edgar. Indeed the next line ‘If more, the more thou hast wrong’d me’ could be interpreted to mean that you had to wrong me because I was better but I think it means the opposite. I think it means Edgar has grown, Edgar has become all the better for having been wrong. His experiences have shaped him. He does not even blame Edmund, or suggest Edmund got his justice from the gods, but that his father’s siring an illegitimate child, his adultery ‘cost him his eyes’. All the burden Edgar places on their father.

Albany chats some shit about how he knew it was Edgar all along…yeah right, although Edgar agrees because he’s a nice guy and not a dick like me. Anyway, then we have the recounting of the tale. Shakespeare does love a good expositional recap near the end but in this case it is for Edmund’s purposes, as well as to explain the scenario to Albany. In Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence’s expositional recap only highlights how fucking dumb that plot is, in Lear, Edgar’s recap only confounds the miseries past and the miseries to come.

ALBANY

Where have you hid yourself?
How have you known the miseries of your father?

EDGAR

By nursing them, my lord. List a brief tale;
And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst!
The bloody proclamation to escape,
That follow’d me so near,–O, our lives’ sweetness!
That we the pain of death would hourly die
Rather than die at once!–taught me to shift
Into a madman’s rags; to assume a semblance
That very dogs disdain’d: and in this habit
Met I my father with his bleeding rings,
Their precious stones new lost: became his guide,
Led him, begg’d for him, saved him from despair;
Never,–O fault!–reveal’d myself unto him,
Until some half-hour past, when I was arm’d:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

EDMUND

This speech of yours hath moved me,
And shall perchance do good: but speak you on;
You look as you had something more to say.

ALBANY

If there be more, more woeful, hold it in;
For I am almost ready to dissolve,
Hearing of this.

EDGAR

This would have seem’d a period
To such as love not sorrow; but another,
To amplify too much, would make much more,
And top extremity.
Whilst I was big in clamour came there in a man,
Who, having seen me in my worst estate,
Shunn’d my abhorr’d society; but then, finding
Who ’twas that so endured, with his strong arms
He fastened on my neck, and bellow’d out
As he’ld burst heaven; threw him on my father;
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear received: which in recounting
His grief grew puissant and the strings of life
Began to crack: twice then the trumpets sounded,
And there I left him tranced.

ALBANY

But who was this?

EDGAR

Kent, sir, the banish’d Kent; who in disguise
Follow’d his enemy king, and did him service
Improper for a slave.

Then a Gentleman runs out yelling for help because Goneril has gone and gutted herself and confessed to poisoning Regan who is also dead.

EDMUND

I was contracted to them both: all three
Now marry in an instant.

Is my kind of gag! I’ve seldom seen it pulled off that way. In fact I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone give this line its comic due but I’m fairly certain that’s Edmund’s gallows humour at work and when a dude dying pulls off a cracker like that you’ve got to laugh!

A good thing too because what follows is some of the fastest paced misery you’ll see on stage or screen. Kent arrives to see Lear and Cordelia, and at this point dipshit Albany remembers they exist! Kent asks Edmund why everybody’s dead and Edmund says one of the most profound lines;

          “Yet Edmund was beloved;
          The one the other poison’d for my sake,
          And after slew herself.”

Why is this profound? Because not only earlier, as he’s dying, does Edmund manage to crack one hell of a joke. Now he manages to have insight. “Yet Edmund was beloved” is, I think, not talked about as often as it should be. I suspect this is the first time this illegitimate, this bastard child, this evil-natured seed of sin has ever truly acknowledged that he was loved. Until now, until the clarity of death, I think Edmund always believed he was hated, his actions certainly seem to say so.

He then tries to save Lear and Cordelia saying;

          “I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
          Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send,
          Be brief in it, to the castle; for my writ
          Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia:
          Nay, send in time.”

The plan was to hang Cordelia and say she had taken her own life in despair. He says he is doing it ‘despite’ his own nature but, lets be honest, its nurture not nature at work in crafting a villain of Edmund. Here is a man of exceptional skill and talent, for court politics, for war, for romance – and yet, without his villainy he would only ever have been the bastard.

Edmund is taken away and Lear enters, carrying a dead Cordelia in his arms. Having seen so many touching performances of this I have no shame in saying I am welling up thinking about this.

Which is why I’m going to stop! No, it’s not Verba-time!

I have been saying for ages now that I would get to the stories of Edmund and Edgar and why Edmund is not such a bastard and why Edgar becomes the hero and now is that time. Effectively their stories are done, now. Edgar’s rightful place has been restored and Edmund’s villainy undone.

Here is what I love so much, for one, Edmund. Vilest villain in all of Shakespeare according to some, the most plotting, Machiavellian shitbag you could ever imagine. Look at the damage he does, the trouble he causes, the problems he brings…

…BECAUSE YOU CALLED HIM BASTARD! You made him, society, as it was then, to an extent as it is now, made him a bastard, the environment made him a bastard, nature made him a bastard. If man has agency in his life he should use it for his own ends and do you know what? THE FUCKING BASTARD DID! He did everything he could to gain power, to gain legitimacy and I think he’d have made a damn fine King because I’ll stand up for the bastard! Which innocents did he take down? His father, who made him in the first place in the lusty arms of someone whose name he probably can’t remember but who was ‘great sport’ – fuck him. Gloucester is a sympathetic figure, sure, but he’s a bastard too. Lear and Cordelia? That’s just political expediency, what was he supposed to do with them? Let them off the hook and go on his merry way? He’s a senile old King and she’s effective leader of the opposition army. This is war, not a fucking pillowfight, could he have handled it differently, sure but were they ‘innocent’ – no! Goneril and Regan? Fuck ‘em! They deserve it, they were more vile and more base than Edmund ever was and they played themselves. He intended to take care of Albany and it’s arguable that Albany would have been an innocent but we’ve also seen he’s a bit of a douche and sometimes incompetent. Sure he comes into his own by the end of the play but at the start I’ve met church mice with louder protestations and frankly there’s an aspect of him that’s just as opportunistic and just as bastardly base as Edmund, it’s how he got to the position he is in. Don’t forget by the rule of ‘cui bono’, when we ask who benefits, it is Albany who is de facto king by the end of the play . Which innocent person did Edmund harm? Nobody, there is none.

Unless you count Edgar, but lets move on to Edgar shall we. Edmund doesn’t kill Edgar, sure he gets him exiled, he has to go on the run, Edgar’s clever enough to disguise himself as a madman, that’s for sure. Edgar has to debase himself, ooh how terrible the prince has to cover himself in muck so as to not die. Isn’t life awful? Boo hoo! Then he has to lead his blind father around a bit, being burdened by him but unable to express that burden for social mores and sympathy, a bit like his bastard brother who has to go around with his dad playing bastard whilst his dad talks about what a bastard he is, and at the end of it all Edgar gets to save the day. Whoop-de-doo, Edgar came to so much fucking harm he ends up a hero.

Speaking of heroes I’m sure you’re aware of ‘the hero’s journey’ concept in narratology (the study of narrative, not the study of Japanese Shonen Anime Naruto)? Right? It’s the journey a hero takes on their path to saving the day. They start with a call to adventure, often obtaining supernatural aid, cross a threshold that leads to a transformation period, undergo challenges and temptations often aided by a mentor, then they have a revelation generally inspired by a death/rebirth metaphor (or literally in some cases, a return from the underworld in the Aeneid for example), they undergo their transformation, atone for their past mistakes, are gifted by the gods and/or fortune and return a hero. Edgar and Edmund both do that.No that’s not a fucking typo, Edgar and Edmund both do that.

A simplified diagram of the hero’s journey (Credit: Reg Harris)

This is why I love the Edgar/Edmund arc in Lear so much is because to an extent they both do that…but sort of…counter to one another – They each start on different parts of the wheel and that rather decides the moral direction of their journeys.

Edgar has a classic hero’s journey. He is cast-out by the works of Edmund, gains the aid of foul flibbertigibbets and the evil spirits by debasing himself as Poor Tom and thus crosses the threshold of transformation, then he meets Lear, Kent et. al. who begin to mentor him, but he doesn’t truly begin to his rock bottom until he meets up with his father again, only blinded. By this point Edgar is at rock bottom, in the abyss, Poor Tom must die and Edgar must be reborn, to atone for his past Edgar challenges and slays Edmund, gaining fortune’s favour and the title of hero.

Edmund starts off in the challenge, in the abyss, in the underworld. There’s no call to adventure, he has to transform from the start, from a bastard into a respectable person. He lies to gain atonement from his father, and is gifted the power, influence and legitimacy he craved setting him off on his adventure where, with the aid of the Gods (Stand up for bastards!) he manages to connive his way into the highest offices and bawdiest beds, only then he crosses a threshold. Instead of mentors he meets enemies, instead of helpers he gets hindrances. He cannot be tempted because he already stands to gain everything and then…Boom! Edgar undoes it all and he’s right back in the underworld. This time he doesn’t get to transform or be reborn, he dies a villain. But not before revealing his true nature and trying to save Lear and Cordelia. He tries, he tries so hard to make that wheel turn again, to get atonement, but he can’t. It’s too late.

The only difference between their two journeys is the starting point and what they have to do to get to where they want to be. You start a man off in a normal life you’ll make a hero of him by sending him on ‘the hero’s journey’ – but what about when that man starts off as ‘base’ and a ‘bastard’? What about when your life has no legitimacy to start? What about when it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never be the hero? Are you supposed to settle with your place? Are you supposed to forgo all ambition and accept your place as bastard?

Well in a world like that there’s no abolitionism, no civil rights movement, no gay rights, no feminism, no fucking point to being anything but a rich man in whatever culture or country you’re from. In a world where what Edmund did is nothing but villainy there’s no change. In a world where all bastards must stay bastards, the powerful will make bastards of us all. Edmund worked with the tools he was given to try to become, if not the hero of everyone, at least the hero of himself. A selfish goal, yes, but aren’t all goal selfish to some extent? And when it is such a shock to him that he is beloved can we really fault Edmund for working hard for Edmund. From the moment he was born few other people were.

I’ve read and re-read Lear, I’ve watched and re-watched Lear. I’ve read it in different moods, different places, I’ve watched different performances. The more I do the more I see that the villain here is us. It’s society. It’s life. It’s nature. It’s expectation. Death is the greatest villain in King Lear. Life is the greatest villain in King Lear. Breathing is the disease. Society is the problem. Nature is the vile base bastard. Every time I get a little more sympathy for Edmund and a little more sympathy for everyone. They’re all victims, victims of the same forces as you or I.

Edmund and Edgar are the same. In order for Edmund to realise he is worthy of love he must foppen, become a fop, I’m verbing it, fuck off. He has to infiltrate the court and become the spineless, brainless fool Edgar is at the start. In order for Edgar to smarten up and stop being such a posh fop he has to basen, I’m verbing it, fuck off. He has to become the base, accept the misery, become the wretched and learn what wretchedness is. In order for these two brothers to achieve what they need to achieve they must each become more like the other. It’s actually fucking beautiful, their tale. Tragic and beautiful and I wish I could see more analysis than just “Ooh, isn’t that Edmund a bit of a cunt…” It’s like we don’t even question it. The more knowledge we gain, anthropologically, sociologically, psychologically, how much humans are a product of their environment, we still don’t even question it. Edmund’s a villain, I know because my GCSE English teacher told me so he must be a prick. Nah, dawg. Fist-bump to Edmund, ya boy did what he had to do to get his, it didn’t work out and not every move he made was righteous but, in a world with no sinners there’s no need for a saviour.

So where were we? That’s right, sobbing old man with a dead woman, his dead daughter in his arms. He wailing and Kent says;

          “Is this the promised end”

Edgar adds;

          “Or image of that horror?”

A reference to heaven and hell,  and a question of religious justice. Why would such an innocent woman, a true woman, have died in a just world? The whole notion of justice, particularly with reference to natural laws, as well as man-made, is, besides love, the biggest theme in King Lear.

Kent reveals to Lear that he is Kent, and was also his other servant. Lear, by this point, is shot to pieces. Kent informs him his other daughters are dead, too. Lear doesn’t have quite the visceral reaction to that one…funny that. Albany suggests he knows not what he says but I think there’s a part of Lear that is cruel enough that he doesn’t give a shit about Goneril and Regan at this point, especially if he holds them partially responsible for the death of Cordelia. There’s some musings, some lamenting and then we get Lear’s final words.

          “And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
          Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
          And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
          Never, never, never, never, never!
          Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
          Look there, look there!”

He had previously been assessing Cordelia’s lips to see if breath was coming from them, he had imagined words had passed them. What is it with Shakespeare, lips and death? Anyway I don’t think finer last words could have been spoken by Lear, protesting life’s injustices to the last and yet he was ever a great injustice himself, but couldn’t see it.

Kent says, of Edgar trying to awaken Lear;

          “Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! He hates him much
          That would upon the rack of this tough world
          stretch him out longer.”

And it is heartbreaking.

I am going to assume all of you have had a relative die and have all had some of these same thoughts. ‘Why does a rat, a dog, that particular uncle, still live whilst this person is dead?’ And also, particularly in the case of the elderly or terminally infirm, ‘I am sad that you are gone but I am glad you are no longer suffering.’ That these have been universals of grief for at least half a millennium is both comforting and frightening.  

This is what makes King Lear, in my opinion, the finest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and since I think the tragedies are his finest plays, this is it. This is Shakespeare’s peak, to me. Not only is it Shakespeare’s peak I think it’s one of the reasons annoying posh bastards shove him down everyone’s throats because I cannot name a better piece of theatre. Not one, since 1606 to this date, I do not think this play has been bested by anyone. People will disagree with me on that, but I’m one base bastard and they don’t want to know what I’ll do to be proved right.

A photograph of a statue of Lear kneeling before a dead Cordelia. From King Lear’s Lake, Watermead Country Park, Leicester (Credit:  Mat Fascione)

I chose to follow up Romeo and Juliet with King Lear because people foolishly think Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy and it isn’t. They get it confused because unlike Shakespeare’s other comedies, it’s subtle and not shit. Romeo and Juliet is the finest parody of romance we would see for many a year, at least until movies started doing send-ups of the genre. King Lear stands alone. It is a cultural wonder of the world, it is to literature, certainly performative literature, plays, what the Pyramids of Giza are to human monument making. It is a timeless monument of writing. Ambition, power, lust, love, loyalty, honesty, humour, the powerful falling, the downtrodden rising, through all history these topics, themes, ideas and events have played and played and played and Lear has them all, it takes every trope, every step, stage, character and format of the ‘monomyth’ and wraps them up in that most tragic of inevitabilities. At the end of the day, we’re all dead, those who remain at the end of the tragedy only persist to contemplate their ends.

We can make that journey kicking and screaming and raging like Lear, we can have our neck broken chasing a stone down a hill like the Fool, we can be undone by our ambitions like Edmund, we can poison ourselves with daggers as we poison our sisters with drugs, or we can comfortably follow our masters. Who can say what the right way to die is? All I can say with anything approaching a truth is it will happen to you and no one, yet, has discovered a glorious way to do it.

Albany’s words at this point are so much pomp and ceremony so I’ll end on Kent’s final words.

          “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
          My master calls me, I must not say no.”

Found your way here without reading our previous parts? Go back to Part 4 – “It Smells of Mortality” by clicking here.

Or else make your way back to our introduction to Shakespeare and why he’s worth studying.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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