King Lear’s Death

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At the end of King Lear, King Lear along with a slew of other characters dies. He doesn’t die from poison or the painful blade of a sword; he dies on his own, but what exactly does he die of? The general concensus will tell you he dies of a broken heart, but if we examine closely the text, it may paint a slightly different picture:

“Lend me a looking-glass;

If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,

Why, then she lives.”

Lear is in the initial stage of grief, denial. 

Kent can’t believe the way things have unfolded as he questions: “Is this the promised end?” King Lear then continues with this theme of denial as he thinks he believes he sees the feather he’s holding over Cordelia’s lifeless face flitter:

 “This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,

It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt.”

But as he looks on Cordelia’s death-still body he becomes more and more resigned to what has transpired:

“And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never!”

After this heartwrenching speech, Lear can feel the end knocking on his door; likely a heart attck from his colossal grief. He can feel his own breathing getting shallow and asks for some help;

“Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.”

As he feels himself fading towards death but not quite there yet, he thinks he is witnessing a most rare miracle:

“Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips”

It is obvious from the text Lear is back to thinking Cordelia is alive as he thinks he is witnessing her lips moving, but this time it is not from denial; it is from his deliriousness that has been set upon him from his grief, but what kills Lear is not his grief; it is the overwhelming joy he feels in that last moment when he believes she is alive:

 “Look there, look there!”

King Lear’s grief gets him ripe for death and his delirious state of mind leaves him vulnerable to the apex of credulity; mistaking death for life. His pinnacle joy following his fiend-low grief was too much of a roller coaster for his heart to take, and that is what finally takes him to the other side.

“Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer.”

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