Having finally finished the tragic play of King Lear there is a hollow taste left in my mouth seeing as almost every main character, whether virtuous or villainous, meets their end. Was there any poetic justice performed or revealed within the play? Or is there supposed to be a sense of stark depression and despair with no hope to cling onto? Was there any retribution to be realized or is the cruelty of reality with King Lear the only plausible outcome?
When the inkling of hope came to be as Cordelia finally reunited with Lear and their relationship was on the verge of becoming whole and pure again, where Lear fantasizes about the two of them finally spending their time together, “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/ [ . . .] and we’ll wear out / In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones” (5.3. 9 – 18). The innocence surrounding Lear’s fantasy completely separates Lear and Cordelia from the rest of the world, where there is no suffering nor is suffering brought upon them. Unfortunately that ceases to be the case since both Cordelia and Lear die. One could argue that their death is the only way Lear and Cordelia could ever enter that pure fantasy, or possibly even escape the chaos and madness and the despair that revolved around their lives.
Even though Goneril, Regan, Edmond, and Cornwall get their just desserts, those who had remained virtuous throughout the entire play see nothing but banishment, insanity, and death, a fate far worse than the villains of Shakespeare’s play. When the order of Cordelia’s hanging does not reach the executioner in time, the pained Lear goes, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And though no breath at all?” (5.3. 282 -3) Lear’s question evokes the truth of how death touches the lives of anyone, no matter how they fair in life. The bleak truth regarding this matter dissolves any remaining form of justice to appear in the play, for the death of Cordelia, symbolic of purity, love, and innocence wipes out any sense of redemption or a hopeful ending. All that is left to offer is despair, especially when Lear finally passes away with the false hope that his daughter had begun breathing once more, that striving hope is upsetting to read, when even the reader is grasping for straws, like Lear does, in order to have just one inkling of hope to hold onto in the depressing, hollow world of King Lear.