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Of the two opposing views presented by many critics concerning Lear?s temperament at death: Joyful or angry and blind, neither of them fully embraces the situation?s complexity. When Lear dies it is angrily and blindly as well as joyfully, both in tandem. At the end of the play King Lear, similarly to Gloucester (although his situation is more complex), dies betwixt two alternating extremes of passion: joy and grief. As for the blindness it is difficult to say as I will elaborate on further on.
The joy centers around two issues. The first is Lear?s reconciliation and achieving of atonement with his good and loving daughter Cordelia, whom he unjustly wronged previously in the play. She has forgiven him entirely and this sets his heart partially at rest. Secondly he also partially redeems himself and his faults as he has learned through betrayal and hardship, a great deal about his own nature, others? natures, as well as the hierarchical nature. About his own nature he learns that he is not always right and is headstrong. About the nature of others he has also learned a great deal, he understands that love cannot be measured by superficial praise as he discovered with Goneril and Regan, oftentimes the one who says what you need to hear not what you want is true to you, this is the case for both Cordelia and Kent. About the nature of hierarchy, Lear has understood that he was wrong in assuming that he would be able to maintain the powers and train of a king while not upholding the responsibilities. Lear has also learned humility from his experiences throughout the play. At the end of the play he has a much better understanding as to many aspects of the past, he can now release the resentment that he felt at some point for each daughter as he is partially liable for the entire situation.
The combined anger and grief that Lear carries to the grave is due to a multitude of factors. The first concerns his state of distraction as a result of Cordelia?s murder, which robs him of the joy that he anticipated at spending time with her in prison, so that he could begin life with her anew this time more conscious and enlightened than before, her dying he does not have the option of cherishing the deeper connection that has been forged between the father and daughter.
?No, no, no, no! Come, let?s away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i?th?cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I?ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we?ll live,
And pray and sing and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk the court news; and we?ll talk with them too,
Who loses and wins; who?s in, who?s out;
And take upon the mystery of things,
As if we were gods? spies: and we?ll wear out,
In a wall?d prison, packs and sects of great ones
that ebb and flow by th?moon.?
(Act 5 scene 3 line 8-19)
As we see in this passage he envisions a happy future for the two of them, where it does not matter where they are as long as they are together. His joy that what was utterly wrong is now partially right is replaced with complete grief. And yet it is difficult to know what he believes at his time of death. He is distracted, not in his right mind imagining or ?clinging onto the supposition? that Cordelia is still alive. Lear alternates between berating the others present for not howling for her in mourning,
?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 for ever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She?s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then she lives.?
(Act 5 scene 3 line 256)
And yet at the same time self delusively imagines finding signs of life on her lips. His losing of Cordelia physically is highly important to him as he sees her continued life as the redeeming of all his sorrows. Thus her death would represent, for Lear, a lack of redemption.
?This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so,
it is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.?
(Act 5 scene 3 lines 264-6)
At this point we are presented with two possible interpretations. He may have died ?blindly? believing that Cordelia was alive, which would have resulted in his death being much less guilty-ridden, painful and angry, resembling then, Gloucester?s death. On the other hand if Lear died knowledgeably grieving her death, then he went to the grave angry at himself yet at the same time ?seeing? the truth of the situation. At his time of death, Lear also suffers from having learned his lessons about the nature of man too late to save his beloved daughter (which is unredemptive knowledge). He is largely a victim of his own and others? natures, and although he consciously understands this fact, the realization creates inner turmoil. The burden of guilt is upon him. Had he pursued a different course of action earlier in the play (namely the retaining of power as opposed to the division of his coronet among Albany and Cornwall), his daughter would still be alive and well, the war against France would not have been, and the loyalty splits within the once-his kingdom would not have been. This realization culminates at the end when Lear no longer has the facade of folly to hide behind, he must thus face these truths frankly. His suffering moves us closer to him as we identify with his fate: to move towards his true daughter then immediately after their reunification to be separated from her.
We can therefore conclude that of the two opposing views, a joyful death versus a death surrounded with anger and blindness, neither is entirely correct. King Lear?s death is shrouded in much complexity which leads one to believe that Lear must have simultaneously felt both joy and anger at the former at his daughter?s having forgiven him, the latter at himself as well at ?nature?.
Copyright James McGuire 1999
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