Edmund and Regan are getting ready for the battle, waiting for Albany and Goneril. Regan is jealous about Goneril. Albany finally arrives and he is not particularly keen on fighting Cordelia and Lear – he fights them only as an invading force, but he thinks they were wronged. Edgar arrives and gives Albany Goneril’s letter, asking him to read it. After the battle, if Albany’s side wins, he should order the heralds to sound the trumpet and Edgar (who does not reveal his real identity) will arrive to take up the challenge. If Albany loses, then presumably he won’t be interested in his wife’s adultery anymore, being dead or imprisoned. But Cordelia and Lear lose and Lear reacts with a surprising joy about the prospect of prison, saying that he and Cordelia are going to be there like two birds in a cage. But Edmund gives secret orders to murder them.
Goneril and Regan start to quarrel over Edmund, but Albany cuts this short, ordering the arrest of Edmund as a traitor and ordering to sound the trumpet. Edgar arrives, but does not disclose his identity. Edmund is mortally wounded. Goneril seeing this storms off. Edgar tells his whole story – he did reveal himself to Gloucester, but his father’s heart burst with joy and pain. They are interrupted by a courtier coming on stage with a bloody knife and informing them it comes from Goneril’s chest – but he does not make clear who put it there, herself or her sister, who by this time is already dead from poison Goneril has given to her. Edmund in the last attempt to do one good thing before he dies calls off his orders, but it is too late. In a famous (and as we know from The Dresser, notoriously taxing for older actors) scene, Lear enters carrying Cordelia’s body and wailing over her. In the legends recorded by Holinshed and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cordelia actually survived, so Shakespeare plays very cleverly with his audience’s expectations – whenever raving Lear exclaims “She lives!” they thought they were going to see the story they knew. But no, Cordelia is dead. Never never never never never, as one of the most famous lines in Lear declares, will she come back. Lear expires. Albany, depressed with the general situation, wants to hand over his power to Kent and Lear, but as Kent indicates obliquely, he does not intend to live any longer either.
At the end NAEL prints the comparison of the two versions of Act III scene 1 from the older version (Quarto) and the newer (Folio). The discussion about which version should be the definitive one is still open and most publishers use a kind of collated version combining the two variants. Some scholars prefer Folio, arguing it is the version the author finally decided on, but who says older Shakespeare should be smarter about it than the younger one? If we assume that the Folio version is Shakespeare’s final say on it, unencumbered by the demands of production, I find it interesting that Folio version is actually the shorter one. Usually “director’s cuts” are much longer than the original versions. In the Folio the long description of the storm and the raging king delivered by Gentleman is omitted, and the emphasis is on the impending civil war between Cornwall and Albany rather than the invasion from France.
Does it make me a horrible person to admit that I find a lot of extenuating circumstances for Regan and Goneril, at least at the beginning? (William Hazlitt, the nineteenth-century critic, hated them so much he didn’t even like to write their names.) Cordelia was clearly Lear’s favourite from the start, making them compete in public in declarations of love is humiliating, and Lear’s one hundred armed knights do seem excessive. Of course they knew what they were getting into when they accepted the conditions and of course right from the beginning they don’t intend to keep up their end of the bargain. In Shakespeare’s time the respect for the elderly was a very strong social norm and the mistreatment of Lear was even more shocking for the Jacobean audience.