Review of the Ending of King Lear
April 3, 2007
I think I give nothing away when I describe the ending of a Shakespeare play. I mean, what, he wrote this stuff over 400 years ago. It’s not like I’m giving away the trick ending to an M. Night Shymalan movie. (Psst. He’s dead the whole movie.)
Endings are hard. All kids (seriously, ALL of them) who write stories, struggle with endings. They either can’t end at all, or suffer from “spaceship syndrome,” a variation of deus ex machina, where aliens appear and sort everything out. If the Greeks can’t end without God, why should we expect kids to end without aliens?
But Shakespeare—I expect more from him. And I’m telling you, Bill botched the ending to King Lear. And no, I’m not talking about the way he changed the usual ending of the Lear narrative from happy to his favorite “everyone dies” scenario. I’m all for everyone dying. I love the ending to Hamlet, where not only is there war and dying without, but no fewer than four of the main characters lay dead on the stage within. Perfect.
So don’t think I don’t like Lear and Cordelia dying. Oh, I think they should die. It’s how they die that kills me. Or rather, not HOW they die, but WHY they die.
Let’s compare: In Hamlet, Gertrude the Queen dies because the King accidentally poisons her, while meaning to poison Hamlet. Laertes dies when Hamlet stabs him with his own poisoned blade. And the King dies when Hamlet forces him to drink his own poison, intended for Hamlet, but drunk instead by Gertrude. Hamlet himself dies, after some lovely speechifying, when he finally succumbs to the poison blade poked into him sneakily earlier by Laertes. And Horatio almost dies when he tries to kill himself by drinking the same poison that killed Gertrude and Claudius.
Good solid dying all around. Nothing to complain about here. High marks.
But in Lear, well, to bask in tragedic genius for 3 solid hours, and to be subjected to an ending such as this? Makes me want to go to Stratford and deface some buildings.
It goes like this:
Lear and Cordelia are captured in battle by Edmund. Edmund sends them to jail and instructs a Captain to kill them. Edgar arrives and fights and wounds Edmund, who admits his treacheries to all. Goneril mortally poisons Regan, then stabs herself. Edmund reveals that he and Regan ordered the Captain to hang Cordelia and kill Lear. Lear then emerges with dead Cordelia, and tells all he killed the Captain that hung her. Edmund dies and King Lear, in grief over Cordelia, dies.
Well, if that’s all that happened, I’d be quite happy. Lots of hanging and stabbing and dying. Good on ya. But we must look closer. What really happens is that the Duke of Albany shows up and starts TALKING. Lear and Cordelia are in enemy hands, and the Duke knows this. He has won the field, the day is his, yada yada yada. But he does nothing. In fact, Kent enters, and says “I am come [which I’ve decided is how I’m always going to announce my presence with authority from now on, no more fastballs], To bid my king and master aye good night: Is he not here?”
And what does the Freaking Duke of Albany say? Does he say “hey, don’t worry about it, it’s all under control, they’re in the tent, having dinner?” Does he say “actually, the bummer is, Kent, they’re dead, they were dead when we got here, sad story.”
NO. Here’s what he says: “Great Thing of Us Forgot!”
Are you kidding me? GREAT THING OF US FORGOT!? This is how King Lear and Cordelia died? Because the Duke of freaking Albany was busy acting like David Caruso, investigating Goneril’s bloody knife?
I am disappointed.
King Lear gets 9 out of 10 stars. The ending gets my big fat middle finger.