In scene one personal considerations and desires seem more important than the battle: Goneril and Regan are in dispute over Edmund, with Goneril avowing that she would rather lose the war than him. Both want to be with him and their tactics are crafty and obsessional. Evil wills are once more seen as divisive and cunning. Albany, as Edmund notes, vacillates, because of moral issues:
… for this business
It touches us, as France invades out land,
Not bolds the King, with others, whom, I fear
Most just and heavy causes make oppose.
[This matter concerns me in so far as France is an aggressor upon my soil, not because he supports Lear, along with others whom, I recognise, have come to be our enemies for serious and honourable reasons.] His moral approach is welcome but untimely and leads to weakness. Although there are the trappings of war, there is no convincing sense of a battle, with strategies, losses and set-backs. Edgar produces Goneril’s letter and will reappear as an anonymous champion, yet another unlikely role. Edmund’s soliloquy breaks the tone of a fateful military encounter as he ruminates on which sister to take: “Both? one? or neither” – the problem seems light in the context and is dealt with in a manner that would be closer to comedy than tragedy were the eminence of death less threatening. Finally he leaves it to them to dispose of Albany (whose authority for war he is using) in a nonchalant fashion: “Let her who would be rid of him devise,/His speedy taking off.” He is without conscience over all this as he is when he resolves to prevent the mercy Albany intends towards Lear and Cordelia, claiming he needs to defend his state rather than ponder, whilst, in fact, he has gained more than he ever coveted.
Scene ii is brief but shows Edgar looking after his father, whose pessimism has returned, and philosophising in an aphorism “Ripeness is all” that “Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither”, hardly comforting to an old blind man. By scene iii the battle is over and Edmund makes the most of his control, sending Lear and Cordelia to prison, claiming that this to await the “greater pleasures” of those in power whereas he intends their deaths as he knows Albany will be merciful. Cordelia’s acceptance is rhymed which gives it an oddly proverbial flavour in its resignation over her own fate: Lear, with characteristic repetition refuses to see his elder daughters and sees confinement as a beneficial isolation with his favourite, an ironic pastiche of what he first wanted: to be in her care.
In memorable poetry he paints their life together in happy exclusion: “We two alone will sing like birds i’th’cage” but the world of the court and “gilded butterflies” [courtiers or actual butterflies or both] is still present in his thoughts with its rivalries and jealousies. The language of blessing and forgiveness has Christian undertones as does the sense that he has been resurrected after a death. They will be like “spies” [angels reporting to God or the Gods] and will explain the mystery of human life, outliving the cliques of temporarily powerful people; they are now sacrifices or scapegoats but will never be parted. The “good years” seems to be a reference to Pharoah’s dream (Genesis xli) but he threatens the destruction of their enemies and forbids weeping. Edmund, who never does the physical evil himself, gives detailed orders for their murder and will not answer questions about it: his one motive is advancement and his purposes clear and unmixed, unlike the others on his side. The Officer chillingly defines man’s work as killing as he cannot do that of a beast.
Albany requests the prisoners but Edmund hypocritically claims to have sent them under guard to await a fitter moment for a trial as their presence draws sympathy for their cause, Lear retaining two bonds with his people, age and title. Albany suspects foul dealing but, horrifyingly and with human failing, forgets to rescind the orders so that the pair are attacked because of his neglect rather than any overarching purpose or theme. The women quarrel and lose sight of their main direction but Regan has been poisoned by her sister and cannot respond fully. She gives Edmund everything in language reminiscent of the first scene of the play as Albany arrests Edmund and his own wife, the “serpent” which could again recall the Eden myth. With heavy sarcasm he tells Regan she cannot have Edmund and offers himself instead.
All this is occupying his mind as he overlooks his inner knowledge that Lear and Cordelia are under threat of death. Goneril recognises the play-acting mode: “An interlude” and Albany challenges Edmund to fight a duel with the person who will appear. Regan’s death from “medicine” [a euphemism for poison] is barely noticed as Edmund responds to the challenge with a certain grandeur and sprezzatura. Edgar, the anonymous knight, lists his reasons for a duel: Edmund is a traitor despite his attributes and new position as he has plotted against “this high illustrious prince”, Albany, (the evidence being Goneril’s letter) and is false to the gods and his family. With casual nonchalance and reckless gallantry, Edmund refuses his privileges of knighthood, (that he need not fight anyone of unknown or lower rank), and, in a resonant speech accepts the challenge. At last Albany turns on Goneril in forthright fashion after the wounding of Edmund and threatens to stop her mouth with the letter (which is the one she wrote to Edmund, suggesting the murder of Albany, which Edgar found in Oswald’s pocket and gave to Albany.) She tries to get at it and destroy it but cannot and rushes off in a wild fashion typical of her. The whole act is a see-saw, handy dandy progression of good interpersed with evil.
It is difficult to feel what one senses one is intended to feel towards Edmund and Edgar here as the former has stature and the latter a rather cruel complacency. Edmund accepts his own fate and knows his actions will be revealed but, at the point of death, recreates himself in almost existential mode, as resigned and able to forgive. By contrast Edgar’s moralising suggests that Gloucester deserved his torment because of the conceiving of a bastard and villainous son:
The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us;
The dark and vicious place where thee he got [the adulterous, sinful bed]
Cost him his eyes.
This harshness is impossible to reconcile with the developing movement towards forgiveness and the coldness is repellent. The idea of Fortune’s wheel returns and bonds are reattached between Edgar and Albany as the former recounts his tale, providing clarification in the narrative, with the story emerging from monologue and broken syntax (at lines 181 and 183), but also being a further distraction from the crucial issue of saving Cordelia and Lear. It contains a well-worn generalised statement: “That we the pain of death would hourly die/Rather than die at once” and an acknowledgement that he should have confessed his identity sooner and that the final revelation of the disguise caused Gloucester’s death not out of “ripeness” but out of the stresses of the conflict of grief and joy.
Despite being an apparent agent for good, Edgar inadvertently causes a great deal of harm. Edmund is moved and promises to rescind the order of death but fails to do so. The constant underlining of the casualness of the fate of Cordelia and Lear emphasises the bleak morality of the drama: even when the forces of good have conquered and further suffering could be prevented they simply forget to do it. It is Edgar’s long speech at line 203, with its recounting of the tale of Kent (whom he omits to name) and its frame narrative of the sufferings on the heath, that again contributes to the side-lining of the latent tragic occurence. The speech is unnecessary as the audience knows all this already but is needed dramatically and thematically. The probable death of Kent and the certain death of Goneril at the hands of Regan follow in quick succession and Edmund comments on the irony in his situation: “I was contracted to them both: all three/Now marry in an instant.” They have preyed upon each other as the imagery of cannibalism earlier foretold.
This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
Touches us not with pitywould seem to draw a distinction between the two emotions of the Aristotelian perception of tragedy: this outcome is fearful but does not produce pity because the judgement on Goneril and Regan is rightful and therefore not tragic. There is no time for “compliment” [ceremony] when Kent enters with his reaffirming of a double bond to Lear as King and master which reminds Albany: “Great thing of us forgot” about his duty to Lear and Cordelia but he immediately forgets it again. This is off-hand, further pushed aside when the bodies of the sisters are brought in and it is the wicked Edmund who finally sends a messenger, he hopes, in time. Even here, Albany is ineffective and neglects to send a token of reprieve: the incompetence of the well-intentioned is all too human and disastrous whilst Edmund reveals his cunning and plausible plot, that Cordelia’s death should appear like suicide.
The last powerful visual image of the drama is that of Lear, newly strengthened enough to carry his youngest dead daughter in his arms, and, with repetition and broken syntax lamenting her. It is an inversion of the image of his waking in her arms earlier but he knows the feared reality now: “She’s dead as earth” and yet he also is aware of the need to test facts and asks for a glass and feather to see if she has nay breath left. Kent, Edgar and Albany are given brief choric comments accentuating that this could be the Day of Judgement or its reflection. Elements of this scene recall much of the earlier part of the play, such as Cordelia’s voice: “soft,/Gentle and low” which could not speak when required and there is a touch of the old Lear when he boasts that he killed the servant in the act of hanging his daughter. Kent tries to gain some recognition but it is summary and Lear does not connect him with the servant he disguised himself as, though his action of striking out has stuck in his mind. He is still not fully recovered mentally and emotionally and cannot attend to Kent or the murders of his other daughters. Shakespeare seems to have saved all the revelations and actions for this final scene where some of them are virtually ignored, showing human life in its dark chaos.
Albany tries to effect a restitution of order, giving Lear back his power as King and rewarding Kent and Edgar. He summarily equates his friends with good and his enemies with punishment for evil, but it is not clear what he sees at line 303. It could be the recrowning of Lear or the bringing forward of Cordelia’s body. Lear’s use of the word “fool” recall his Fool but does not necessarily mean that he was hanged as the term could refer to Cordelia in a common term of endearment. Yet it emphasises the inexplicable connection between the two. Animal comparisons enter again as she has no life when the lowest creature may have it and the poignant repetition of “never” strikes our hearts as does the pitiful request for someone to undo his button as he, presumably, feels himself choking with grief. This recalls both his earlier sense that emotion suffocated him and the need in the storm to undo a button to throw off his clothes. The simple, domestic nature of this need contrasts with the pomp and ceremony of majesty and brings us and him to acceptance of the basic requirements of mankind. He dies believing he can see a breath on Cordelia’s lips, a final delusion.
The ending is brief and lacking in conviction: those left to rule are weak, dying or unwilling and Edgar’s words take us back to the start: “Speak what we feel not what we ought to say” sounds acceptable until we realise that it was Cordelia’s refusal to say what she ought that started the explosion towards chaos. Sometimes duty is more important than feelings. We are left with ambivalent emotions since there has been redemption and the evil destroyed but there has also been an arbitrary and violent nature to the way it has happened and not even perfunctory reassurances are uttered after Lear’s death. The last two acts are constructed around a series of advances and regressions of hope and Lear can seem exhausted rather than redeemed. The pattern of order and hierarchy is not reconstituted and completed in a neat fashion and morality is not underwritten as Nature seems to have no need of either good or evil so that these are seen as superflous in an amoral universe and therefore cannot be measured against each other.
(For a more explicit account of the dangers and resulting chaos of breaking the Chain of Being, see Ulysses’ speech in Troilus and Cressida Act I scene iii at the point where he says “Degree being vizarded” line 83, meaning if the order of degree or hierarchy is removed.