It is difficult to see any positives in the ending of King Lear. Shakespeare’s other tragic works such as Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, all have some sense of hope and renewal as order is restored however, King Lear opposes these traditions by avoiding an optimistic ending. This bleakness that is carried throughout the entire play, from Lear’s disastrous actions in Act 1 Scene 1 to the climactic catastrophe in Act 5 Scene 3, has earned King Lear many criticisms over the years from such people as Nahum Tate, Samuel Johnson and A.C. Bradley who all believed that the play was too tragic to be satisfactory.
In the end of King Lear there are few positives to take, so few so that even the characters begin to articulate the bleak sense of realisation, Kent in the final scene questions “Is this the promised end?” (V.iii.262). There are however many positive points exhibited throughout the play that in their own way give hope for the future. First of all, in the first scene Cordelia demonstrates hope through her actions. She refuses to participate in her father’s egotistical ‘love trial’ by simply saying “Nothing”(I.i.88). Cordelia is portrayed as a symbol of hope in Act 4 Scene 4 where she is attempting to help her father despite the fact that Lear banished her. Additionally there is one moment of anagnorisis from Lear that helps show hope He finally begins to realise what he has done as a parent and shows anagnorisis and begins to act more paternally in Act 3 Scene 2 when he says to the Fool “Come on my boy”(III.ii.67). This shows that even the most ignorant, blind and self involved of men will finally see the error of their ways.
Another Character who shows hope is Edgar. Throughout the play he has been wronged by his brother Edmund and his father, Gloucester, but despite this he guides his blind father and helps him regain faith in humanity in Act 4 Scene 6 . In spite of this there is one glimmer of hope at the end in the form of Edgar, Kent and Albany who represent the final few truth tellers left, This point is summed up by Edgar “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (V.iii.324) Despite this idea that truth will prevail the fact that Edgar and Kent symbolize truth is ironic as they spend the majority of the play in disguise.
The form exampled in the last four lines of King Lear in the form of two rhyming couplets from Edgar:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” (V.iii.323-326)
This links back to the Fool who throughout the play has spoken the truth via rhymes and riddles. The link helps show hope as it is showing the audience that there are still truth tellers left. Imagery, shown throughout out, helps to give the audience an inkling that there are to be few positives within the closing scenes. The strongest use of imagery is within the play is through the setting. The majority of scenes where disorder is happening are in traditional scenes for order, castles, we see Cordelia banished, Cornwall being turned on by his own servant and Lear being thrown out by his daughters. The scenes of order and times when we see hope take place primarily on the heath in Act 3.
The heath which would be a natural place for disorder helps reform corrupted characters such as Lear. This constant reversal of order through the use of imagery help build up the misery and tension which manifests itself in the last scene to ultimately show there is no hope. This leads on to the next point that the form of the play helps destroy the hope at the end. The play is set out in the form of a Senecan tragedy; these tragedies show a lot of revenge and blood thirst, and this play follows that traditional sense although the ending is not traditional and continues in this revengeful manor and as Samuel Johnson said “There is no scene which does not add to the aggravation of distress.”1
The ending of King Lear has many criticized many a time throughout its history primarily for its bleak ending. The plays final scene was considered to be so bleak that Nahum Tate rewrote the ending in the form of The History of King Lear (1681). This alternative play changed the ending to see Cordelia and Edgar married and allowing Lear to survive. The original was so widely believed to be too hopeless that Tate’s version was the performed version for nearly 2 centuries until Samuel Phelps, who performed both versions, helped reinstated the original. Another critic of Shakespeare’s work is A.C. Bradley who felt that the play was “Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his best play.” and said “the deaths of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester should be followed by the escape of Lear and Cordelia from death,” he also goes on to say that “I believe Shakespeare would have ended his play thus had he taken the subject in hand a few years later…”2 Aside from Bradley there are many other critics of King Lear and works that have come from this criticism. One of the more famous judgemental works would be “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” by John Keats who in the poem scornfully condemns Shakespeare by calling him a “Chief Poet!” This scathing review is almost implying that Keats expected more from King Lear as Shakespeare is widely considered the “Chief Poet”.
Contextually, not only does the play abide by Aristotle’s view on tragedy via the use of it’s a tragic villains and heroes and it’s moments of anagnorisis and peripeteia it also follows form of a Senecan tragedy as the play has 5 acts. Ultimately this play is the perfect tragedy in all respects except for the ending. This play would have been understandably bleak at the time as this play was performed to a Jacobean audience who would have perceived the barbaric nature and the pagan setting of the play to be the cause of all the disorder and negativity in the conclusion of King Lear. In addition to this pagan theme the moment when Edmund commits suicide should not be considered so negative as in pagan religions suicide was considered noble and honourable.
Another reason as to why it is understandable that the ending is incredibly depressing is that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11, may have had an effect on Shakespeare’s work. We can see this as King Lear was the last of the Shakespearean tragedies and after this we see a constant stream of comedies and King Lear is effectively his final tragedy, this in a way explains why the end is so incredibly sombre and all Shakespeare wanted to do was to rid the last of his grief. Finally this play may seem to confront traditional tragedies as when Shakespeare originally intended the play to be a history in the form of The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters which was first performed in 1608. The fact that the play was originally intended to be a history clearly shows that the reason as to why there are few positives to take away compared to a traditional Shakespearean tragedy allows the play to follow its own pattern meaning it should be safe from criticisms of the end.
To conclude the final Act of King Lear may be widely considered negative but I disagree with this belief as there some moral positives that can be taken away. One of the primary lessons that can be learnt is that one should not be deceived by appearances and should look further than just appearances. This is a theme that is heavily featured throughout and this blindness and egotistical nature of Lear is the birth of all the play’s chaos. Also this theme is featured in the last lines when Edgar says “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” (V.iii.324) Additionally the play shows us that honesty shall prevail and dishonesty shall fail, this point is shown as the characters that have been the villains all finish the play dead. Despite this, one negative aspect, the play does show us that occasionally the innocent do suffer, for example Cordelia, but even this negativity has a positive side as this suffering lets the ignorant characters such as Lear finally see their way.