The forces of the evil two sisters defeat the French army, and Cordelia and Lear are taken prisoners. Cordelia is then hanged in the prison cell right before the messenger that is supposed to free the two arrives. Lear then lashes out in a mournful lament that stirs the reader:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones: Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever! I know when one is dead, and when one lives; Norton, 257-260.
Lear perceives that his audience does not think him capable of rational thinking, for his past actions lead to a decaying state of his kingdom and cost Cordelia her life. Lear seems to be saying in the above quotation that, despite his madness, he has realized what is of most value to him, and he can tell whether that what is most precious to him is still alive.
At this point, Lear loses all. His kingdom is in political ruins, and he loses all his children. Hence, his legacy and name are as good as dead. But Lear is not concerned about the state of his kingdom or his two evil daughters. Instead, he tries to find the smallest signs of life in Cordelia:
This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so, It is a chance which does redeems all sorrows That I ever have felt. Norton, 265-7.
Lear realizes Cordelia's value only when he does not possess her any longer. Despite his clouded vision, he is able to see, perhaps for the first time, that Cordelia is worth more than his kingdom and more than all the sorrows that he suffers. But his revelation is a belated one, for his most prized possession will never again come to his rescue or embrace him, as a child should:
Once Lear acknowledges that Cordelia, his fool, is hanged, a part of him is hanged with her. Cordelia's untimely death devastates Lear, and, heartbroken, the old Lear pants his last breath of life for his life's sustenance, Cordelia, has ceased to be.And my poor fool is hanged! 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! Norton, 305-8.
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