The end of King Lear

Sunday afternoon, I went to a reading of King Lear hosted by the San Diego Shakespeare Society. It was my first visit, and the group, which had been reading King Lear for months, had come to Act 4 Scene 7, after Cordelia has rescued Lear and he’s just waking up.

Before I attended, I re-read the play and re-watched two different productions of King Lear. I also for the first time looked more deeply into the Quarto differences. All that, combined with hearing the last scenes spoken again yesterday afternoon, made me feel, strongly, that the usual ending is wrong.

I think the play is about redemption. And for that to work, I think Lear’s journey is one from ignorance to awareness. Having him tip into delusion at the end may make the audience feel better (“aww, he died with hope”), but it rings false for the story.

Bear in mind that Shakespeare invented this ending; his source material has Cordelia and Lear winning the battle and ruling jointly over a reunited kingdom. Also bear in mind that the play as it comes down to us is much too long for two hours’ traffic on a stage – directors need to make cuts.

So, as to the ending, my version of King Lear (which I have yet to see outside my imagination’s theater) would dispense with everything from 5.3.311 to 5.3.322, combining Lear’s “Howl, howl” speech with “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all.” So, as Lear bears Cordelia’s limp body to center stage, his part would read,
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone forever!
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou sayest?

And here I’d have him pause for a half line of silence as Cordelia says … nothing. It’s a dead echo of her living response to him in 1.1, which Lear is very consciously, painfully re-enacting. Then:
I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.

And, yes, that cuts the well-known “Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman” line, but I’ve never been fond of it and I think it distracts from Cordelia’s later role as a warrior queen. Like her sisters, she’s very much Lear’s child.

Later, when Kent informs Lear that
All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly,
Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,
And desperately are dead.

And Lear responds,
Ay, so I think.

I think Lear is, in fact, fully aware of the possibilities. Cordelia’s death was the moment of his awakening.

So, when Albany says, about Lear,
He knows not what he says; and vain is it
That we present us to him.

And Edgar agrees,
Very bootless.

That’s merciful, but wishful, thinking on their parts. Lear has an elevated state of Zen-like clarity, seeing beyond what’s right in front of him. It’s something Albany and Edgar lack just now.

Finally, I’d have a re-punctuated Q1 death scene for Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged! 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.
O, o, o, o, (dies)

I like that Lear’s final coherent words are words of genuine gratitude to an anonymous servant. The Q2 death scene varies in that it has one more O, which matches the number of nevers, but I like having that fifth O hanging unspoken.

And I would end the play there, the lights going black on a devastated stage filled with bodies. We don’t need to know the post-war management details. The play is named King Lear; it is Lear’s story, and with him the story ends.

Yes, this may seem an ending cheerless, dark, and deadly. But I like that Lear, in death, has all the awareness in the world: he knows Cordelia is dead, dead, dead, and that the ruination of his house and kingdom is all his fault. That’s a glorious, beautiful triumph. Lear is awake; he sees the truth of things as they really are. He doesn’t live to profit by it, but that’s the beauty of it, too. It’s an end, and that achieved, I think, is the end.

One final thought. If ever an evening’s entertainment needed a closing jig, this would be it. And I would have one.