In Shakespeare's King Lear, there is a stunning amount of coldness and cruelty shown between characters, especially family members. Fathers banish their children, brothers betray brothers, sisters betray sisters, and children neglect their parents. All of these events are sparked by one demand made by King Lear: for his daughters to display love to him. (Roberts-Smith) The subsequent actions in the play are displays of love, and conspicuous absences of these displays. One such instance is Albany's speech towards the end of the play, in which he tries to show love to the characters that have been neglected: Lear, Edgar, and Kent. (5.3.297-306)
In this speech, his objective is to be kind to Lear, Edgar and Kent, in order to make up for their pain and suffering. His obstacle is that he cannot possibly make up for such suffering, and his action is to give what he can: he gives comfort, kingshi p, honours, titles and belated justice. However, not only does he give, but he also makes a show of giving, before all the lords and nobles. He does so by replying to the news of Edmund's death, by promising a kind of justice he can never deliver , and by spurring Lear on to his merciful death. Through his metaphor of the wages of virtue and the cup of deserving, he promises an almost divine retribution. By making such promises, he can finally fulfill his wish of helping people, which had been t hwarted throughout the play by Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund.
Albany's speech is sparked by the announcement by the messenger that, "Edmund is dead, my lord." (5.3.297) Albany replies, "That's but a trifle here." (5.3.297) He continues to explain, to the " lords and noble friends," (5.3.298) that he intends to bring everyone comfort after such a distressing time. A battle has taken place, and soldiers, lords and nobles are gathered to listen to Albany, the sole remaining ruler of the kingdom.. His speech is a show that he performs. For example, he gives Lear "our absolute power," even though he had just stated before the messenger's appearance that, "He knows not what he says, and vain is it / That we present us to him." (5.3.295-296) He seems to believe that he is doing Lear a kindness by returning his ki ngship to him. However, Lear had stated in Act 1, scene 1, that he wanted, "To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburdened crawl toward death." (1.1.41-43) Although Lear may not want the kings hip, it is all Albany has to offer him.
Albany makes a grand show of kindness to Lear, Edgar and Kent by restoring their positions and titles, and in the case of Edgar and Kent, even augmenting them, "With boot, and such addition as your honors / Have more than merited." (5.3.303-304) Howev er, this gesture is not well-received by Lear, who is still holding Cordelia's dead body. After hearing that friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and foes the cup of their deservings (5.3.304-305), Lear is reminded of the one who will never tas te the wages of her virtue: Cordelia. To Albany's list of reparations, Lear adds, "And my poor fool is hanged . . .. ." (5.3.307) He then further questions such a form of justice: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all ?" (5.3.308-309) So grief-stricken is he by the reminder of his dead daughter that he dies from that grief. Such a conclusion may make Albany seem insensitive and cold-hearted, or it may illustrate his perceptiveness. Perhaps he spoke of justice to del iberately upset Lear, so he could die and be released from his pain. Albany's speech was not merely a show of love, but it turned out to be the most merciful thing done for Lear: it ended his pain.
Albany's speech captures grief very well. It has many sentence breaks mid-line, creating a halting, fragmented effect. (5.3.300, 302, 304, 306) His speech is not a thing of beauty, since beauty would be out of place at such a grave moment. The metre has a few deviations from iambic pentameter. Line 297 has two extra syllables: Albany replies to "Edmund is dead, my lord," with, "That's but a trifle here." The rhythm and metre of Albany's response mirror that of the messenger's statement, thereby sho wing the cause and effect present in their exchange. Line 303 also has an extra syllable: "With boot, and such addition as your honors . . . ." The inflated line reflects the inflation to the positions of Edgar and Kent that Albany proposes, and this proposal is another show of love, kindness and compensation. It was not the kind of love they were looking for: Edgar wanted the love of his father, and Kent wanted the love and recognition of Lear. However, it is all Albany can offer them.
Albany's speech uses sound very well, in trying not to sound poetic: the speech may be formal, but the lines do not rhyme. His dismissal of Edmund's death, "That's but a trifle here," has three harsh "T" sounds, showing his dislike for the hurtful Edm und. When addressing the lords and noble friends, he uses many long "O" sounds, such as "you", "lords", "noble", "know", and "our". He makes it clear through his speech who the enemy is and who the friend is. He refers to Lear as "majesty" (5.3.301), a ppealing to his dignity and greatness, and thereby paying a tribute to him, in another show of love; he does so again in his use of the hyperbolic "absolute power." (5.3.302)
After appealing to Lear, Edgar and Kent, Albany appeals to everyone else present, with his metaphor, "All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings." (5.3.304-306) He promises an impossible kind of jus tice, one that will reward all goodness and punish all badness, in his effort to show love and pay tribute to those whom he had failed before. It is almost an omniscient, divine kind of justice or judgment, and this divine aspect is echoed by the taste a nd cup imagery, which have long been a form of communion in religions, from the ancient Bacchic cults to the modern Christians. Obviously, Albany cannot deliver such justice, but he promises it nonetheless, to make up for the wrongs that have been done, and to show everyone the extent of his love.
Albany's desire to recompense people for their woes is very much in keeping with his character: throughout King Lear, he has been concerned with displays of love, and he has desired to help people. When Goneril is first rude to Lear, Albany doe s not agree with her, and tells her, "I cannot be so partial, Goneril, / To the great love I bear you—" (1.4.318-319) He then advises her, "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." (1.4.353) However, he does not press the matter any further, acquies cing with, "Well, well, th'event." (1.4..355) When he learns that Cornwall had blinded Lear's loyal friend Gloucester, he says, "Gloucester, I live / To thank thee for the love thou showed'st the King, / And to revenge thine eyes." (4.2.94-96)
However, he does not have his revenge. Albany wants to show people love, but the interference of other people prevent him from doing so, combined with his own weak character. He wants to act, but he is all too easily put down by Goneril, who calls hi m, "Milk-livered man!" (4.3.50) He is too easily deflated and manipulated her, and so he is unable to show love until Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund are all dead. He takes action, and says, "Edmund, I arrest thee / On capital treason; and in thy at taint / This gilded serpent," referring to Goneril. (5..3.82-84) He then throws down his glove, instigating the trial-by-combat between Edgar and Edmund, and thus ridding him of Edmund, one of his obstacles. Soon after he stands up to Edmund and Goneril , they are dead, and he is free to do as he wished. By the end of Act 5, scene 3, Albany has finally overcome his obstacles, and so he finally shows love, to Lear, Edgar, and Kent.
He shows his love by trying to recompense them for their suffering, by promising an ideal justice, and by indirectly causing Lear's death, and his release from pain. He portrays grief very well, appearing sympathetic to the people who have suffered. He tries to compensate for their sorrows, and by doing so, Lear can be released from life. In a true act of love, they let him go freely, as Kent says, "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / St retch him out longer." (5.3.315-317) Thus, Albany's objective is to recompense them for their pain, his obstacle is that he can never truly make up for it, and his action is to give the kindness that he has to Edgar, Kent and Lear.
Roberts-Smith, Jennifer. "Lear Line of Action." E-mail to ENG220Y class list. 28
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Russell Fraser. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.