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King Lear. Fourth lecture. Endings. Strange to say, King Lear hasn’t always ended with the almost unbearable ending Shakespeare assigned it. In the late 17 th cent. Nahum Tate, a poet and theater director, produced a version of the play that ended happily, with a romance-like conclusion.

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King lear

King Lear

Fourth lecture


  • Strange to say, King Lear hasn’t always ended with the almost unbearable ending Shakespeare assigned it.

  • In the late 17th cent. Nahum Tate, a poet and theater director, produced a version of the play that ended happily, with a romance-like conclusion.

  • He cut the King of France from the first scene, and instead suggested a potential love between Cordelia and . . .

  • Edgar!

  • And at the end of his text of the play (extensively revised throughout), he had Lear save Cordelia from hanging.

  • Edgar and Albany enter and in turn save Lear.

  • Lear is returned to his kingship.

  • Cordelia becomes queen and agrees to marry Edgar.

  • Gloucester survives, and he, Kent, and Lear retire together, while Cordelia and Edgar take over the kingdom.

  • Obviously Tate had to write a new final scene.

  • Fool is also cut.

  • And this is the version of King Lear that played throughout the 18th century.

Nahum tate s ending
Nahum Tate’s ending

  • Tate’s ending seems a travesty to us.

  • (Of course we also need to acknowledge what we do the text of Shakespeare’s plays – the cuts and rewriting of contemporary productions – and wonder how those will look a century or two hence.)

  • But does the trajectory of the plot demand tragedy?

  • Samuel Johnson (“Dr. Johnson”), who was used to the Tate version on stage, said he could never bear to read Shakespeare’s actual ending until he had to edit the play.

  • Lear’s “journey” from a foolish decision, rejection, madness, insight in madness, recovery and finally his return to Cordelia might seem a narrative pattern that could lead to a romance ending.

  • From a purely narrative point of view, Tate’s ending may not seem entirely inappropriate.

The meeting with cordelia
The meeting with Cordelia

  • There was a climactic scene in the old morality plays when the penitent protagonist was given a “garment of repentance” by the saving Virtue character.

  • IV.7: Lear brought in, freshly clothed, asleep in chair.

  • Cordelia slowly wakens him with music, kisses him.

  • Lear’s “true” delusion: “Thou art a soul in bliss . . .”

  • And in kneeling plays the part in old the morality play.

  • And slowly recovers a sense of himself.

  • But only in a relational sense to Cordelia? “as I am a man, I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia.”

  • His guilt? “No cause. No cause.”

  • And then in V.3 he imagines a contented life in prison with Cordelia.

  • The meeting and penitence would be the denoument of the morality play.

Justice in the gloucester plot
“Justice” in the Gloucester plot

  • Edgar’s “miracle” scene analogous to Cordelia’s meeting with her father.

  • But despair is cured abstractly, by the staged “miracle”?

  • “Bear free and patient thoughts.”

  • Reiterated at V.2: 9-11: “Ripeness is all.” (Cf. Hamlet’s “the readiness is all.”)

  • But still Edgar doesn’t reveal himself.

  • After the battle, Edgar and Edmund “exchange charity.”

  • And Edgar holds to a sense of absolute justice: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got/ Cost him his eyes.”

  • But seems to admit his own fault in concealing himself from his father: ll 193ff.

  • The circumstances suggest a dark and rigid justice playing itself out: Edmund and Gloucester both die.

  • And Edgar, the just son, survives.

  • But how does it compare to the Lear story?

Irrelevance of justice in the lear plot
Irrelevance of justice in the Lear plot?

  • By contrast, everything seems excessive in Lear story.

  • Lear’s anger at Cordelia, his utter rejection by older daughters, his suffering.

  • And clearly “justice” seems irrelevant.

  • The loss of Lear’s kingdom to the evil forces.

  • And finally the terrible stage direction: “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms.”

  • The play gives us no hint that this will happen.

  • And no “poetic justice” in the death of the one “redeeming” daughter:

  • A nameless gentleman had said of Cordelia: “Thou hast one daughter/ Who redeems nature from the general curse/ Which twain have brought her to” (IV.6.204-06).

  • If death had indeed been implicit in the first scene, it was not for this death.

Enter lear
“Enter Lear . . .”

  • Lear enters with one long sustained cry of anguish: the text’s “howl, howl, howl!” are more a stage direction, I suggest.

  • “O, you are men of stones” is as much directed to the audience as to those on stage.

  • And Lear’s words tell the audience what they need to know about the actor’s body he carries on stage.

  • Kent’s, Edgar’s, and Albany’s words speak also for the audience: is this an image of the terror of the Last Judgment?

  • Lear’s words and actions try to verify Cordelia’s death: “She’s gone forever.”

  • Or is she, “What is’t thou say’st?”

  • But the feather apparently doesn’t stir.

  • Can we imagine a more heart-breaking scene on the stage – or a more sustained stage meditation on the fact of death?

All s cheerless dark and deadly
“All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly”

  • Kent’s despairing words.

  • Lear attends only to the dead Cordelia.

  • At l. 311 Albany cries out “O, see,see!”

  • What are we to see? What does the actor playing Lear do?

  • Lear’s lines heart-breakingly focus on the lifelessness of Cordelia and the finality of death.

  • So if death was implicit in the opening scene, we get an uncompromising vision of it.

  • The gesture of the help with the button: where have we seen this before?

  • And finally Lear’s insistence that we see Cordelia’s lips.

  • Does he think they’re moving, that she’s saying something?

  • Clearly he’s deluded.

  • Or does he see something we can’t see?

Stage and audience reaction
Stage – and audience -- reaction

  • Kent encourage’s Lear’s death: for him the world is a “rack,” an instrument of torture.

  • And Kent seems to envisage his own death: “I have a journey shortly to go . . .”

  • Edgar’s final formulation: what we feel, not the usual comforting words.

  • Gloucester’s earlier words about the world: “I see it feelingly.”

  • He meant the need for touch in his blindness, but the word has resonance.

  • Will Edgar ever be the same after these experiences?

  • Will the audience?