A Fitting End for King Lear?

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The conclusion of”King Lear” has not always been seen as a suitable and successful conclusion to the play. Nahum Tate’s rewriting was accepted for 150 years, with its happy ending. However, grim though it might be, this final scene is a most fitting finish.

A first reason for its appropriateness lies in the traditional expectation of tragedy. Lear has erred in his decision to relinquish his kingly responsibilities while maintaining his status and privilege. He further blunders by misjudging the motives of his daughters, and those of his retainer, Kent, and ejects the loyal and good while allowing the rise of the corrupt and power-seeking. This tragic error brings disaster and chaos on Lear and his kingdom. Lear and others suffer greatly, but the only possible result is Lear’s death, along with the suffering and death of both innocent and evil. All Shakespeare’s tragedies end with the final death of the central character, and this play cannot be different.

The world of “King Lear” is a bleak and painful one. It has seen great cruelty, as in Gloucester’s blinding, and deprivation and madness visited on the central characters. Our sympathies have been aroused on Lear’s behalf despite his earlier arrogance and stupidity. Prior to this final passage we have seen Lear reunited with Cordelia, reconciled and forgiven. Lear regained his clarity, and in simple humility, reached peace with his daughter. To some readers and viewers the death of Cordelia and Lear’s grief and death, as shown here, are excessive.

Such an interpretation assumes that with Lear and Gloucester’s moral and social education, their learning of humility, patience, humble love and self-understanding, they should automatically be granted peace and forgiveness with their loved ones. But the world of this play is not one of neat, simple natural or divine justice. The imbalance and disorders that accumulate rapidly through the course of the play must be paid for and corrected, and order and peace established. This is clear from these last lines of Albany, Kent and Edgar. But this righting of the balance is not especially considerate of particular individuals. Throughout the play Lear and others have called to the Gods and higher powers , but with no conviction of any response from above.

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In fact, the “King Lear” world is one of impersonal hubris. Lear and Gloucester earn dignity and respect in their final acceptance of their lot. But there are no easy righting of wrongs, and only a broad, crude form of justice in human affairs. It is a “tough world”, and people do suffer in it. It would be false and unrealistic if a facile “happily ever after” ending prevailed.

This muted, sombre conclusion is the only fitting ending to such a play. There have been positive values established in the acceptance, dignity and endurance displayed by Lear and Gloucester. In the end, “ripeness is all” in the face of a chaotic and painful universe.

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