Edmund and Regan are leading armies and Albany still seems to be opposing Cordelia's army. Regan puts the moves on Edmund and grills him jealously about his relationship with Goneril, which he denies is anything other than honorable. Goneril enters, jealous of her sister's chances with Edmund. Albany enters also, insisting that he fights not against the King but only because of French invasion. A council of war is planned. When Albany is momentarily alone, the disguised Edgar delivers the letter regarding the murder pact against him.
Edmund gives a status report and reveals that he has sworn himself to both Goneril and Regan but is undecided between them. "So cool a negativity is unique, even in Shakespeare.... His insouciance is sublime" (Bloom 502). When Albany has served his purpose he'll be killed, and there will be none of his planned mercy for Lear nor Cordelia.
Cordelia leads her French army forth, accompanied by Lear. Edgar leaves Gloucester at a tree and soon returns with news that Cordelia and Lear have been captured: "King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en" (V.ii.6). So the entire war "all takes place behind the scenes and exactly one line of text is devoted to the account of it.... The brevity of it is a measure of how insignificant the mere clash of arms becomes in comparison with the moral convulsion that is its cause, and the strife between and within the human beings who are its agents" (Goddard, II 157). Gloucester despairs again.
Edmund gloats over the capture of Lear and Cordelia, but Lear is simply happy that he and Cordelia have reconciled:
Come let's away to prison:Edmund sends them to prison with written instructions for the captain. Albany and the sisters enter and Albany objects to Edmund's detention of the prisoners. All parties bicker viciously now [and Regan has occasion to assert, "Jesters do oft prove prophets" (V.iii.71)], with Albany trying to arrest Edmund and Goneril for their treason. Edmund and Albany will fight. Albany has also wisely discharged Edmund's soldiers, which were technically Albany's. Regan grows more and more ill.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too--
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out--
And take upon 's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, pacts and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th' moon.
In accordance with the rules of trial by combat, a disguised Edgar appears in order to take Albany's place in a duel with Edmund. They fight, and Edgar fatally wounds Edmund. Goneril is outraged but Albany produces the letter revealing the treacheries. Edmund admits to his crimes and, as Edgar reveals his identity, they acknowledge the (sort of) final justice here. Albany hears Edgar's story, which ends with the recent fact that when he revealed his identity to Gloucester less than half an hour ago, the old man had a heart attack in happiness and died. "The recognition encounter, which kills Gloucester, is one of Shakespeare's great unwritten scenes.... Why did Shakespeare choose not to dramatize the event?" (Bloom 481). In any case, significantly, Edgar's name was lost and finally comes to light (Anderson 356).
A man holding a bloody knife reports that Goneril has killed herself after having poisoned Regan. Edmund, still slowly expiring, notes the appropriateness that they all die together: "I was contracted to them both; all three / Now marry in an instant" (V.iii.229-230). The arrival of Kent triggers Albany's memory about Lear and Cordelia. Edmund, "The dying nihilist reminds himself that in spite of all he was and did, he was beloved" (Bloom 505). He confesses, though, that he and Goneril ordered Cordelia to be hanged and her death reported as suicide. Despite efforts now to countermand the orders, Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms:
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. (V.iii.258-262)
Lear will have no interaction with anyone else except to curse them. He
wants a mirror to test Cordelia's breath and then thinks he sees a
feather stir, indicating that she's alive, but it seems to be just his
imagination since a moment later he thinks he hears her voice and says,
non-sequitur, "I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee" (V.iii.275).
He is told about the deaths of the other daughters but although he seems
to recognize Kent somewhat, Lear appears to be mad again. Edmund's death
is announced, but who cares?
It is part of Shakespeare's genius not to have Edmund and Lear address even a single word to each other in the entire play, because they are apocalyptic antitheses: the king is all feeling, and Edmund is bare of all affect. (Bloom 479)Albany yields his power to Lear and insists justice will be meted out. Lear says, "And my poor fool is hang'd" (V.iii.306), probably referring to the Fool who disappeared a couple acts ago; but see Bob Marks' King Lear Notes regarding the Cordelia/Fool link.
Lear seems to detect signs of life in Cordelia, but he dies of a broken heart. Note how the 1608 Quarto edition of the play has him going out:
no, no life, why should a dog, a horse, a rat of life and thou no breath at all, O thou wilt come no more, neuer, neuer, neuer, pray you vndo this button, thanke you sir, O, o, o, o.Like Hamlet's final and invariably censored "O, o, o, o" in the First Folio (!), this close-to-death moment may also have served as de Vere's signature, the four Os being his court code number 40.
Preempting revival attempts, Kent says, "O, let him pass, he hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer" (V.iii.314-316). "This ending of Lear can easily be viewed as the cruelest and most unbearable in Shakespeare" (Asimov 51).
Albany appoints Kent and Edgar as rulers of Britain but Kent cannot live in this world any longer: "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go: / My master calls me, I must not say no" (322-323). [The impulse resembles Horatio's at the end of Hamlet.] Edgar offers the final mournful words:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
"Hamlet and King Lear now constitute either a kind of secular scripture or a mythology" (Bloom 476). "Lear seems less a consciousness than a falling divinity, Solomonic in his sense of lost glory, Yahweh-like in his irascibility" (Bloom 482).
"Love is no healer in The Tragedy of King Lear; indeed, it starts all the trouble, and is a tragedy in itself.... Maternal love is kept out of the tragedy" (Bloom 484). "For those who believe that divine justice somehow prevails in this world, King Lear ought to be offensive" (Bloom 493).
In King Lear, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and Hamlet, we get Oxford's "concluding thoughts" (Anderson 339).