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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 5, Scene 3

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 5, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare's play King Lear.

King Lear | Act 5, Scene 3 | Summary



Edmund and his soldiers enter, with Lear and Cordelia as captives. Edmund sends them to prison and then dispatches a captain to follow them and kill them there. Albany, Goneril, and Regan enter, followed by more soldiers. Edmund explains what he's done with the king, and Albany objects, saying Edmund is his subordinate. Regan disagrees, saying that it is her decision to make. After a brief squabble with Goneril, Regan claims Edmund as her "lord and master." When Goneril asks if Regan means to sleep with Edmund, Albany arrests Edmund for treason and forbids Regan's declaration of marriage to Edmund.

As Regan bemoans her feelings of illness, Albany and Edmund request a herald to call anyone who will prove Edmund's guilt through combat. Edgar arrives on the third trumpet blast. He won't show his face or give his name, saying he has lost it through treachery, but he also says his blood is as good as Edmund's. The brothers fight, and Edgar wounds Edmund mortally. Goneril runs away. Edgar reveals himself and explains how he disguised himself and took care of their father, Gloucester, and how Kent likewise disguised himself to take care of Lear. Gloucester dies after hearing this news.

A servant enters, carrying a "bloody knife." Goneril has killed herself, prior to which she confessed to poisoning Regan. Kent enters. Edmund repents his plan to kill Lear and Cordelia and calls for someone to stop it. Edmund is carried offstage. Lear enters, carrying Cordelia, lamenting her death but hoping she's alive. Lear has killed the man who hanged Cordelia, and finally he recognizes Kent for who he is. A messenger arrives to say that the wounded Edmund has died. Lear says that the Fool has also been hanged, and then the old king dies of grief. Albany tells Kent and Edgar they will rule the kingdom together. Kent says he has a journey ahead, which suggests he will soon die. Albany speaks ambiguously, saying, "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long."


This final scene wraps up all of the plot threads and provides final flourishes on a number of themes. The exchanges among Regan, Goneril, Edmund, and Albany at the opening of the scene are chaotic. The audience will remember Lear arranging Cordelia's marriage in Act 1, Scene 1, so for Regan to claim Edmund as her "lord and master" shows an inversion of social norms, as does her proclamation that Edmund should be considered Albany's equal. Because Edmund is both younger and illegitimate, he should rank lower than an older man of legitimate birth. It also shows conflicting roles for women's power and the struggle that was in many ways taking form during this era.

The fight between Edmund and Edgar resolves the contest between them started by Edmund in Act 1, Scene 2 and proves Edgar to be the superior brother. Edmund does attempt to redeem himself by rescinding his execution order for Lear and Cordelia, as if his reconciliation with his brother has raised his ethical standards.

This final scene is emotionally rich. It has almost every element of drama an audience could want: a dramaticcharged argument, a lovers' spat, a treason charge, trial by combat, two characters dying of broken hearts, two revelations of hidden identities, Edmund's change of heart and subsequent death, the assassination and suicide of Regan and Goneril, revenge against the man who hangs Cordelia, a change of dynasty, redemption for Cordelia and Edgar, and Cordelia's tragic demise.

This incredible climax is needed to cleanse the disorder created through the two crises that open the play: Lear's division of his kingdom, and Edmund's challenge to Edgar. Order is restored through Albany's directive, but with the ambiguous ending, King Lear does not promise happiness for its surviving characters. This is the cornerstone of great tragedy: the resolution ends higher than the introduction, but falls from the climax. However, this resolution— while mournful—results in an overall better future for the country as it will no long have the machinations of the "evil" characters to deal with.

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