King Lear Act 5, Scene 3
Edmund orders the two to be taken away to confinement so he can decide their fates. But right before the departure, Cordelia makes a statement. She says she is upset that Fortune's Wheel has yet again turned--this time away from her favor. She is not as much upset for herself as she is for Lear. But Lear doesn't feel the same way. For him, prison will be a clear retreat away from the hubbub and chaos of recent days. He is happy--almost content. The possibility of death does not faze him:
"No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage." Act 5, Scene 3, lines 8-9
As soon as Lear and Cordelia are taken away, Edmund gathers his officers and commissions the death of prisoners Lear and Cordelia.
The officers depart, and Albany enters with Goneril and Regan. He asks to see Lear and Cordelia. Once Edmund says they are in detention, Albany chastises him for making such a rash decision to do away with them. Regan steps up at this point and tells the crowd that it was she who ordered Edmund to do away with Lear and Cordelia. The two sisters begin to fight over Edmund.
But Albany, who has at this point read Goneril's letter to Edmund, accuses Edmund of treason and decides that Goneril is a top accomplice. Albany invites a fair trial and asks for a champion to challenge Edmund. Regan says she is not feeling well so she won't do it. Goneril says she is the one who administered the cause, so she can't do it. Edmund is growing more confident. Regan is led off the stage and right into Albany's tent.
The trumpet sounds three rhythmic times as Edgar enters the scene, ready to challenge his opponent. He is now armed in disguise, all the while claiming a nobility equal to Edmund's. He tells everyone that Edmund has committed crimes against the natural order of the gods, against his own father and brother, and against Albany. He calls Edmund a traitor and swears he can prove it in combat. Yet Edmund is so confident that he accepts this challenge, thinking his opponent is some anonymous fluke. They fight and Edmund loses quickly. The injury is fatal, though death is not instantaneous.
Goneril screams that she has lost her lover. Albany rapidly sees to her silence by taunting her with her love letter. She snarls at him and his accusations and runs quickly offstage. Albany recognizes how desperate she is, so he sends an office to keep watch over for her.
Edmund is lying on the ground, dying, and he asks to know who his opponent is. He acknowledges that the accusations made against him were true. Edgar, now a hero, reveals himself. He lashes out against the illegitimate Edmund, reminding him of his birthright status. Edmund is too weak to fight. He says: "The wheel is come full circle" (line 175), referring to fortune's wheel.
Albany welcomes Edgar back. Edgar tells him everything that has happened--his disguise, his friendship of the mad Lear, and his anonymous care for Gloucester.
A messenger runs onto the stage, screaming and holding a bloody knife. Apparently, Goneril has confessed to poisoning Regan and then killing herself. Edmund has now lost both of his fiancées and must submit to his own horrid fate.
Kent now comes to the scene, "to bid my king and master aye good night," (line 235) which reminds everyone: where did Edmund send Cordelia and Lear?
The bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought out, and Edmund is prompted to reverse his commission against Lear and Cordelia. He has changed his mind and decided not to kill them. Edmund reveals what the exact commission was: to hang Cordelia and call it a suicide. He doesn't say anything about Lear. He dies and is carried off the stage.
But it is too late. The commission had already been executed. Lear enters with his dead daughter in his arms. He is tortured over her death, and asks for a mirror to see if there is any faint breath against the glass:
"Howl, 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 forever!
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 of stain the stone,
Why, then she lives." Act 5, Scene 3, lines 255-261
Even as Lear hopes for Cordelia's life, Kent and Edgar ask each other:
"Kent: 'Is this the promised end?'
Edgar: 'Or image of that horror?'" Act 5, Scene 3, lines 261-262
A messenger enters the scene and declares that Edmund is dead. But no one really cares. The bigger issue, according to Albany, is restoring absolute power to Lear, the proper monarch of the time:
"You lords and noble friends, know our intent.
What comfort to this great decay may come
Shall be applied. For us, we will resign,
During the life of this old majesty,
To him our absolute power; you, to your rights." Act 5, Scene 3, lines 294-298
But there isn't much time left for Lear. He is pained over the loss of Cordelia. He is weaker than ever before. Still, he is hopeful that there is life in her.
"And my poor foll is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!" Act 5, Scene 3, lines 303-309
After the faint words of hope, Lear dies.
Edgar starts crying out that perhaps Lear has merely fainted. He runs to Lear's side, but Kent holds him back, telling the young Edgar that Lear deserves nothing but peace.
Now that Lear is gone, Albany passes on the ruling responsibility to Kent and Edgar, but Kent refuses it, blaming old age, and Edgar accepts his rule with a heavy heart, saying that they must bear "[t]he weight of this sad time" (line 321).
All leave the stage in a sorrowful death march.