The last two scenes of King Lear are some of the most complicated and violent scenes in all of Shakespeare. Almost every character dies by the end of the play save Edgar and Albany (Kent proclaims that he is near death) giving Lear one of the bloodiest ends of a Shakespearean tragedy. What makes these deaths interesting is that several of them are at the hand of a relative as both Goneril and Edmund murder their siblings in Act Five, though in very different ways. Goneril murders Regan in a very passive way while Edgar forces Edmund to think about what he’s done and how he’s hurt his family.
Edmund’s death is the most thought provoking of the deaths seeing as he is such a rich and layered villain who ultimately dies trying to right the wrongs he committed earlier in the play. The two sisters are portrayed as pure evil throughout the play and die as such. Edgar forces Edmund to confront the evil he has committed before he dies. As I wrote about in my last blog post, despite Edmund’s evil, I’ve always read him as a sympathetic character. His evil was created, not something he was born with, as Goneril and Regan seem to have been. Very few of Shakespeare’s villains ever atone for their wrongdoing, which is what makes Edmund so fascinating. It is completely justified for his brother to kill him after what Edmund put him through in his selfish quest to fortune, but the exchange between the two brothers does contain some dignity. Edmund knows that his brother is right, but still wonders why Edgar has been blessed with all the good fortune. “What you have charged me with, that I have done;/ And more, much more;/ the time will bring it out. /’Tis past, and so am I. But what are though/That hast this fortune on me?” (5.3.161-163).
From a feminist point of view, it does bother me that the sisters are portrayed as vapid and evil women, Goneril poisoning her sister out of jealousy for her relationship with Edmund who she wishes to become involved with as well. The brothers get a very redeeming ending to their relationship while the two sisters die offstage quite passively, never sharing a moment of forgiveness or compassion. Goneril and Regan are unique female characters in their ruthlessness and extreme hunger for power and take an active role in their own lives without answering to any of the men in their lives whom they traditionally would be secondary to power-wise. I do appreciate that aspect of the characters but I wish their ending in the play could have paralleled that of Edmund and Edgar a bit more.