Shakespeare’s King Lear is a tragedy concerning the broken, irreparable bonds in the family. This sense of dissolution, nothingness, and turmoil is embedded throughout the play. It is most notable in the ending through the demise of Cordelia.
In the play, the recurrence of death seems to be a profound motif throughout, but it is ever more abundant then in this final scene, ending the play on a note of relentless melancholy. In Act V, Scene III, when Lear howls over his beloved daughter, Cordelia, asking “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”, this reveals the stark but formidable truth that death is inevitable, regardless of an individual’s virtue. Within this passage, this character voices the question that we all ask when a loved one dies, mourning the death of his daughter, which suggests that divine justice does not exist in this world of misery. Therefore, King Lear is bounded by his state of depression. Despite his grief, King Lear misguidedly thinks that Cordelia is coming back to life but realises that he will “Never, never, never, never, never” see his daughter alive again. Through this repetition as well as the use of hyperbole, this point is emphasised further. It could perhaps foreshadow the impending doom of the death of King Lear himself. In a sense, this final, futile hope in thinking Cordelia is breathing is suggested as the most disheartening moment of the text. It implies that love seems to lead solely to death. Here the reader is left to wonder about the presence of justice in the “tough world” of this powerful yet painful play. When the character of Edgar says that “we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long”, this in particular highlights the inequity of youth as well as the brevity of life, which is reflected through Cordelia. During the seventeenth-century, it can be suggested that it was never Shakespeare’s intention for his audience to escape the painful doubts that arises from Cordelia’s death. It is often suggested that the deaths of Lear and Gloucester are deserving, whereas Cordelia is a character of righteous being; she is an innocent victim of the destruction that surrounds her. Her unforeseeable death descends Lear back into a state of insanity, as there is no other option but to handle such a tragedy with madness. The end of this play is one without the clear denouement of many of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. Therefore, the audiences must make the decision for themselves if this constant and unchanging will of God to give everyone what is owed has prevailed or not.
In King Lear, the deaths of these characters are symbolic of the injustice that occurs, in particular through the character of Cordelia, as a result of her acts of innocence and loyalty towards her father. This sense of discrimination can be suggested as the concluding example of man’s inhumanity to man in the world of King Lear. The play’s final sense of barbarity can be seen to parallel Shakespeare’s nihilistic point of view.