(O’Toole’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 11/19.)
Even by its own standards of extremity, King Lear ends on a note of extraordinary bleakness. The audience has just been through the most devastating scene in all of theater: Lear’s entrance with his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms and the words “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” coming from somewhere deep inside him. All is, as Kent puts it, “cheerless, dark, and deadly.”
Albany, the weak, widowed, and childless man who is all that remains of political authority, goes through the ritual end-of-play motions of rewarding the good and punishing the bad, but these motions are self-consciously perfunctory. When he says, “What comfort to this great decay may come/Shall be applied,” we know that the comfort will be small and cold. Albany promises to restore Lear to his abandoned kingship, but the old king utterly ignores the offer of power, and promptly dies.
Albany then tries to appoint Edgar and Kent as joint rulers, but Kent replies that he, too, intends to die shortly. No one, it seems, is willing to perform the necessary theatrical rites of closure, to present even the pretense that order has been restored. And so the only possible ending is the big one. Because the play cannot end, the world must end. In the original version that Shakespeare completed in 1606, the last lines are Albany’s:
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