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ACT V, SCENE 3
In this final scene, Edmund enters triumphantly, having captured Lear and Cordelia. He plans to have both of them put in prison. Lear, seeming somewhat sane again, realizes the danger that threatens Cordelia and him, but he refuses to be unhappy with Cordelia at his side. She is not concerned about herself, but is grieving for her unfortunate father. Before they are taken away, Edmund orders his Captain to kill both Lear and Cordelia while they are in prison.
Albany, Regan, Goneril, and their soldiers return from the battlefield. Albany demands that Edmund release the prisoners. Edmund informs him that they cannot be released, for their freedom would jeopardize the loyalty of the British soldiers.
Regan, bickering with Goneril about Edmund, suddenly announces that she will marry him. Albany steps forward and forbids the marriage. He accuses Edmund and Goneril of high treason, arresting them both. Having finally read the letter that Goneril has written, he reveals her plot to murder him with the assistance of Edmund. Regan, horrified at the turn of events, feels ill and is led away.
Albany offers to let Edmund fight a duel, allowing him to die with some honor. The trumpet is sounded to call for a champion to come forth and fight Edmund. Albany states that he will enter the duel if no one else rises to the challenge. An unknown opponent, dressed in armor, comes forward to duel with Edmund. In the fight that follows, Edmund is fatally wounded. Goneril, realizing her own pathetic state, runs out.
As Edmund is dying, he confesses his treachery and forgives his adversary. Edgar then reveals himself. Albany welcomes Edgar, who informs them of the death of Gloucester. He tells Edmund of how he looked after their father after he was blinded and how Gloucester has died knowing the truth about Edgar's identity. Edgar also praises Kent's loyalty to both Gloucester and Lear, helping them both when they were full of misery and madness.
A gentleman enters and announces the deaths of both Goneril and Regan. In her jealousy over Edmund, Goneril poisoned Regan, causing the illness seen earlier in the scene. Goneril then stabs herself, joining her sister in death. Edmund is also dying, gasping for breath. He has admitted that he led a vile life and was unworthy of the love shown him by Regan and Goneril. Kent enters to say that he is taking leave of his King. Albany then remembers that Lear and Cordelia are still prisoners and needs to get them released. In an attempt to do some "last good" before he dies, Edmund states that he has instructed Cordelia to be hanged and wants to rescind the order. He tells an officer to go and stop the killing and hands him his sword to take as proof.
As the officer departs to save Cordelia from certain hanging, a grieved Lear staggers in carrying her dead body. The punishment was not stopped in time. The King, obviously shocked and bewildered, lays Cordelia on the ground and kneels beside her. He calls for a mirror, holding out hope that Cordelia's breath will appear on the looking glass. Kent kneels beside Lear, who is totally grief-stricken. He believes that the world is a nightmare, where men and women are barbarians and murderers.
After an officer comes in with the news of Edmund's death, Albany begins to plan the future. Wanting goodness to replace evil, he reinstates Lear as King and says that Kent and Edgar will be rewarded for their loyalty. Lear's condition, however, is rapidly deteriorating. His rambling words make no sense, and he thinks that Cordelia is alive again. Then with everyone watching him, Lear simply topples over and dies.
The bodies of Lear and Cordelia are taken away. Albany wishes for Kent and Edgar to rule England, but Kent has no interest. He declares that he will soon follow his master, King Lear. The play ends with a brief, logical speech by Edgar, who has been made the new ruler of Britain. It appears that order will finally be returned to the kingdom.
In this complex final act, all of the threads of the plot and subplot are brought together into a great series of tragic events. First, Gloucester dies, "twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief." Although blinded, he had at least lived long enough to gain true vision and realize that Edgar was his champion. Lear and Cordelia are captured during battle and brought forth to be imprisoned; amazingly, Lear has found happiness and sanity with his youngest daughter by his side. Cordelia, the symbol of purity in the play, realizes that good deeds are not always rewarded and says of Lear and herself, "We are not the first who with the best meaning have incurr'd the worst." The worst is symbolized by the evil Edmund, who gives his command that both Lear and Cordelia are to be killed while in prison.
Goneril and Regan, symbols of evil, cruelty, and greed, meet their just end. Out of jealousy over Edmund's attention to her sister, Goneril poisons Regan and then stabs herself. Edmund is also undone by Albany, who becomes a symbol of goodness in this last scene. He reveals the plot of Edmund and Goneril to have him killed, so that Edmund can marry Goneril and assume the crown. Albany arrests them both and calls for Edmund to fight a duel. The noble Edgar, another symbol of goodness, steps forward to fight his evil stepbrother and mortally wounds him. As he dies, Edmund, trying to regain one ounce of goodness, reveals that he has ordered Cordelia to be hung. Unfortunately, his warning comes too late.
Lear comes in carrying the body of his beloved Cordelia. Shocked out of sanity, he at first refuses to believe that she is really dead and calls for a mirror, sure that he will see her breath on it. When he finds no life in Cordelia's still body, he topples over and dies of grief.
The tragic play does, however, end on a small note of hope. Edgar's words foreshadow that there will again be a world restored to its proper order, where respect for elders is honored and evil is quelled.