I’ll go a ways into act 5, but leave the final scene for our mutual response.
Edgar’s plan to challenge Edmund is quite briefly, perhaps even obscurely, mentioned in his exchange with Albany at 5.1.39ff. I hadn’t thought of this before, but his later response to the trumpet must seem strange to the audience. He’s now disguised again, this time in armor that keeps an audience from recognizing him. In reading the play we have the character identified, but an audience cannot know unless they can recall and put together what he says to Albany some minutes of playing time earlier, which seems unlikely. I wonder what the effect is of Edgar’s defeat of Edmund, the audience, as I think, puzzled by who this is. Does Edgar appear a kind of nemesis or sacred avenger? Of course a director may choose to have Edgar reveal himself in some way, but the text does not suggest this, and there’s something that remains mysterious about him.
The gentleman with the bloody knife wraps the sisterly contest up rather neatly; we had earlier seen Regan complain of oncoming sickness, but not known of Goneril’s act of poisoning her. If it’s too neat, we don’t seem to notice that in what comes right after. What motivates the nasty Edmund to want to do some good “Despite of mine own nature”? Are we to suppose his exchange of charity with his brother and the account of his father’s death have somehow changed him? The three “marry[ing] in an instant” had seemed a kind drain of evil in the play, but now Edmund tries, vainly of course, to do some good.
So let’s both comment on the last part of the scene, from 255 on. I think this is the part that Dr. Johnson said he could never read again until he edited it.
I think you are right that the political situation comes to seem less important by Act 5. It’s even less important to Goneril and Regan, who are more interested in Edmund than in winning any war.
In 5.1 the talk between Edmund and Regan is pretty raunchy: she asks him if he has ever found a husband’s way to “the forfended place”!
It’s quite convenient (for Edgar) that everybody but Albany leaves the stage so that Edgar can enter solus to Albany solus. Is Shakespeare straining probability here?
5.2 Interesting that Shakespeare provides no “battle scene.” The whole war — off stage — is over in 11 lines, again suggesting that politics have faded and we are now faced with familial treachery, sister against sister, wife against husband, brother vs. brother.
5.3 Lear and Cordelia are captives, but calm. And Lear is now comforting her, rather than vice versa. It’s as if the play comes to a close at 5.3.26, as Lear and Cordelia exit.
The trial by combat scene is indeed strange. I had not noticed before that it is introduced by Regan, who at l. 82 seems to call for combat between Albany and Edmund (who has just insulted Albany) to decide which sister gets Edmund: “Let the drum strike . . .” And Albany interrupts her to accuse Edmund of capital treason, which shifts the trial to focus now on Edmund’s alleged crime: “Let the trumpet sound.” (Does Albany wave Edgar’s letter, his only evidence?) If nobody shows up, Albany says, he himself will fight Edmund. It’s odd that nobody seems to have any real evidence against Edmund: Edgar’s letter is perhaps only an accusation. Maybe — since there’s no hard evidence — that’s why there has to be trial by combat. I think you are right that the audience cannot be sure who the helmeted knight is. The trumpet is a clue that’s it’s Edgar, but then Edgar had only said that he could “produce a champion” — i.e., does not say that he himself will appear.
Edmund repents, and I’m not sure why. He was at least as guilty as Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Oswald. Some of his guilt seems to be sloughed off on Gloucester: “the dark and vicious place where he thee he got/ Cost him his eyes.” But Edmund’s one attempt at a good deed — trying to recall his order to kill Cordelia — fails. Too bad he didn’t speak up about his order at l. 202 instead of l. 245. The delay was perhaps just enough to let the hanging take place, and it means that Cordelia is lost and Shakespeare gets the ending he wants.
Lear’s entrance with Cordelia in his arms is heartbreaking: she was almost saved. Lear is sure she is dead, then not sure: the feather stirs, he seems to hear her soft voice. But then Lear seems to get foggy: he is distracted by Kent, and has a verbal exchange with him. By this point Lear seems to be losing it: “he knows not what he says.” Again an interruption, as the audience is invited to think about Edmund’s death and then to hear words from Albany that are meant to be reassuring. He declares that he will “resign . . . our absolute power” — in a weird echo of what Lear did back in 1.1, but does Albany have “absolute” power? He then promises that the wicked shall be punished and the virtuous shall be rewarded. Another false and complacent ending, and its peace is shattered when Albany looks at Lear: “O, see, see.” Again Lear seems to be unsure whether Cordelia is dead or not: on the one hand “Thou’lt come no more” but on the other “Look, her lips.” When he asks someone to “undo this button” he could mean Cordelia’s button or his own.
When Edgar says, after Lear’s death, “Look up, my lord,” does he imagine he sees Lear’s “ghost” hovering over his body and passing into the other world? Is he dead or is he not? It’s another version of Lear’s uncertainty about Cordelia’s death, with the same verb: “Look there, look there.” But while Lear looks for any indication at all that some life remains, Kent says, in effect, ‘let him go’.
In the closing lines Edgar asks us to think about what Lear has borne, what he has seen, and how long he has lived. Odd that the emphasis, at the closing word, is on how long he has lived — as if length of life means length of suffering.
Edgar’s lines to Edmund about their father, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/ Make instruments to plague us:/ The dark and vicious place where thee he got/ Cost him his eyes” may suggest that there’s a kind of distributive justice in the Gloucester family story, but in contrast to the Lear family, where everything seems in extreme unbalance. Lear’s awakening and repentance seem to forecast a fortunate ending, and his projection of their life together in prison appears to respond to that. But the too late arrival of Edmund’s note undoes all, of course, and the scene of Lear with Cordelia in his arms” brings on the most painful scene Shakespeare ever wrote. I find it interesting that we as playgoers may not be sure of her death at first. Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl” I think is more stage direction than dialogue; clearly the actor is meant to convey a sustained cry that leads to Lear’s certainty that she’s dead. But then his play with the mirror and the feather leads to his attempt to hear her voice and may raise a momentary hope. I suppose we understand fully that she is dead during the exchange between Lear and Kent, then hear it confirmed in Lear’s painful lines after “No, no, no life” and the reiterated nevers. I’ve always thought the business with the button reiterates his line when he throws off his clothes on the heath, but it doesn’t really have to mean anything.
Albany’s “See, see” suggests something happens just before Lear speaks these lines, so it must give actors and directors suggestion of some stage business then. Does Lear suddenly rise up? It does put an end to any thought that Cordelia still lives. It must be a physical action that draws the focus entirely to Lear and his grief. Following these lines his “O, o, o, o” from the Q text must be like the earlier repeated howl, an indication of some extreme cry of Lear. Or maybe it’s a deluded vision of some sort, and his insistence that they all look at her lips suggests again that he sees her live. But if so, it leads to his immediate death, as if perhaps he dies “into” Cordelia’s death. Kent seems appropriately to encourage Lear’s dying. Edgar’s final lines seem to cancel his earlier attempts to encourage a positive understanding of Gloucester’s situation; he’s been the one to say what we ought to say. Albany of course speaks these lines in the Q text, but it seems right (to me at least) that Edgar speaks them.
Yes, the suggestion that long life has meant long suffering seems strange, but maybe it’s just to emphasize that Lear’s long life exceeds what the young can understand.
If Lear’s death was implicit in the play, as my understanding that the summons-of-death pattern was somehow woven into it, the tragedy doesn’t appear to allow for any redemptive or uplifting sense of death. Cordelia’s death is simply unexpected and unmotivated, and Lear responds to it with suffering and his own death.
I agree that the play does not seem to allow for any redemption. I think “lived so long” supports that: the longer you live, the more you suffer. As Kent says, “The wonder is he hath endured so long.”
The Gloucester plot in some sense acts as a modest counterweight. Gloucester suffers horribly, but at least he dies happy, and reconciled to Edgar, knowing he is loved. But we don’t get to see his happy death. And maybe knowing you are loved is not enough: even Edmund knows that he “was beloved.”
As you suggest, there is some sense of “distributive justice” in the Gloucester story, though I’ve always thought that having your eyes gouged out is an excessive penalty for adultery.
Agreed — having eyes gouged out seems an excessive penalty for adultery! Then we think of Leontes.