King Lear’s Death


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 might 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 first 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 sees the feather he is holding over Cordelia’s 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 lifeless 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 his end knocking on its door–presumably a heart attck from his colossal grief. He can feel his breathing getting shallow and asks for assistance:

“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 (from being so close to death) 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 delirium leaves the door wide open for him to be fooled into a miraculous resurrection that in reality never took place. His exuberant joy at that point was too much 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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