Difference between revisions of "King Lear"
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'''''King Lear'' Plot Summary'''
'''''King Lear'' Plot Summary'''
Revision as of 20:12, 23 July 2007
King Lear Plot Summary
The beginning of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy shows King Lear, the rapidly aging monarch of Britain, making the decision to step down from his throne. He has decided to evenly distribute his land between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Before he does so though, he decides to test them all by asking how much they love him. Both Goneril and Regan offer the flattering answers of unconditional love that he seeks. Cordelia however, remains silent and claims there are no words to describe her love.
Lear becomes incredibly angry and disowns her, forcing her to move to France to marry the King there. Despite her being disowned, the planned wedding between the two goes forward with the King of France still interested in her, despite the lack of Lear’s blessing.
Soon enough though, it becomes apparent that Lear’s decision to disown his youngest daughter was poor. Goneril and Regan both quickly go about removing Lear of any remaining power and divvying up the land between them and their husbands. While his daughters slowly betray him, Lear begins to go mad, even running into the midst of a thunderstorm at one point with his Fool and Kent, a disguised nobleman.
Another nobleman and confidante to Lear has his own problems in Gloucester. The father of two sons, Edmund and Edgar, he is soon betrayed by the illegitimate of the two. The illegitimate son, Edmund manages to convince him that Edgar is trying to kill him, sending Edgar into hiding as a beggar named “Poor Tom”. He also heads to the heath where Lear had gone during the thunderstorm.
Gloucester makes the decision to assist Lear after he learns of Regan and Goneril’s treachery. However, it is not long before Regan and her husband Cornwall discover his assistance to Lear and take their retribution. Accusing him of treason, they blind him and set him to wander the countryside. Edgar, disguised as Tom guides him to Dover where Lear is currently staying.
It is in Dover that Cordelia finally returns to the scene, leading an army of French forces to invade and save her father. Edmund, after betraying his father Gloucester has taken to a romantic involvement with both Gonerial and Regan. Because of his growing sympathy for Lear’s plight, Albany becomes the target of a plot by his wife Goneril and Edmund to be killed.
Gloucester attempts at one point in his despair to commit suicide. Edgar though, keeping careful vigil over his father, tricks him into walking over an imaginary cliff and saves his life. Back in Dover, the English troops arrive and take on the French forces led by Cordelia. They defeat the French and capture both Lear and Cordelia.
The final scene of the play is full of deaths, betrayals and fights. Edgar and Edmund finally duel, with Edgar defeating and killing Edmund. He then reveals that Gloucester died upon realizing it was Edgar who had saved him and that he was going to fight Edmund. Goneril poisons Regan in her jealousy of her relationship with Edmund, then kills herself after her plot to kill Albany is revealed. Because Edmund betrayed Cordelia, she dies unnecessarily in the prison, and finally Lear dies in grief over Cordelia’s death. The only survivors of the blood letting are Albany, Edgar, and Kent.
King Lear Characters
As the elderly king of England and the title character of the play, Lear’s main fault is his pride and controlling nature as displayed in the first scene of the play. He does not accept contradiction or challenges and when Cordelia does not immediately speak her love for him, he disowns her, a mistake he will later regret unto his death. For him it is the appearance of love rather than literal devotion that he values most. Driven mad by the horrible acts of his family later in the play, he eventually realizes the errors of his ways and the true love Cordelia had for him.
As the only one of Lear’s daughters (and the youngest) to refuse the flattering attention he demands, Cordelia is quickly disowned. She leaves the country, marrying the King of France even after the disowning. Regardless of her father’s anger and cruelty, she remains loyal and returns to England with an army of French to fight her sisters and their power grabbing. She is reticent to speak and quiet in her actions, and eventually dies for her convictions after being imprisoned by her sisters.
As Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril is frequently jealous, prone to treachery, and completely lacking in morals. Married to the Duke of Albany, her strong and aggressive character was atypical in the time in which Shakespeare penned the play. She not only removes her father from power, she has a torrid affair, and removes military power from her husband before eventually taking her own life in the final scene.
As the middle of Lear’s three daughters, Regan is just as treacherous and ruthless as Goneril and shows it many of the same ways. She is considerably similar to her sister in almost every way. They never work together in their treachery, but prompt further cruelty from each other until they both fight for the adulterous attentions of the same man and lose their lives in their jealousy.
Gloucester is an Earl loyal to Lear who at one pointed had an affair and fathered a bastard son, Edmund. His story in the play is very similar to that of Lear’s, following the same cycle of close mindedness and betrayal with his children. He trusts the wrong child and drives away Edgar, his loyal true son and pays for it with his sight and eventually his health. After helping Lear, he is blinded and stripped of his title by Lear’s daughters. Eventually he dies in grief over the fate of his two sons.
Edgar is the older and legitimate of Gloucester’s two sons. At first he is easily tricked by his brother, after which he takes on the guise of a beggar to hide from the men hunting him on behalf of his father. He uses this persona to aid his father and Lear, and eventually returning triumphantly to defeat his brother.
Edmund is Gloucester’s illegitimate younger son who is unhappy as a bastard son and soon plots to take both Gloucester and Edgar’s titles and worldly possessions. He is incredibly sly and almost manages to succeed in every aspect of his plans. Everyone he encounters and speaks to is hurt.
Another of Lear’s loyal Earls, Kent spends much of the play in disguise, assisting Lear after he is banished by the King, still loyal. He is very loyal but also too outspoken, a trait that causes his banishment and creates problems in various other situations.
Goneril’s husband and a Duke, Albany is naturally good at heart and eventually turns against his wife and Regan, unhappy with their actions. He is unfortunately too indecisive though and is not nearly so cunning or intelligent as his wife. He takes much too long to realize what horrors his wife is wreaking.
Regan’s husband and another Duke of Lear’s. He is very much like his wife, working with her and sister-in-law to destroy the rule of Lear and take control of the nation, wreaking violence and persecution on both Lear and Gloucester.
He stays with Lear throughout the play and offers seemingly empty songs as advice for the maddening King.
King Lear act and scene summaries
The beginning of the play opens with Gloucester and Kent, two nobles loyal to King Lear, in the throne room discussing how he plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. They change the topic though as Kent asks to be introduced to Gloucester’s son Edmund. Gloucester tells Kent that Edmund is a bastard son raised away from his home, but that he loves him all the same.
Lear then enters the throne room and continues describing how he plans to divide the kingdom. He wants to retire from the throne and enjoy his old age, visiting his children, free of the burden of the government. In deciding how, he declares that each of his daughters must announce how much they love their father. The daughter to display the most love will receive the largest share.
Goneril and Regan, the oldest and most conniving of Lear’s daughters flatter him immensely, describing their love in flowering, over the top forms. When he comes to his third and youngest daughter (also his favorite) though, he is greeted with silence. She doesn’t say anything except that she loves him as much as a daughter should love a father. She describes how neither of her sisters could possibly be married if they loved Lear so much as they said. Lear is unhappy with the response though and disowns her in a rage, giving her share to Regan and Goneril.
Kent is the only man willing to speak up and tell Lear the error of his decision, disagreeing with what he’s done. He calls the king insane and states that Cordelia clearly loves him more. Lear then banishes Kent as well, giving him six days to leave the kingdom.
Awaiting a decision as to who will marry Cordelia are the King of France and Duke of Burgandy. When Lear tells them of his disowning of Cordelia, Burgandy immediately withdraws his offer and leaves. The King of France however is impressed and still wishes to marry her. Lear does not give his blessing.
At the end of the scene, Goneril and Regan speak in private, planning how to best utilize their complete power of the kingdom. They decide to limit their father’s power and take full control.
Edmund returns to the stage again alone, delivering a soliloquy about how bastards are treated and his unhappiness with society. He angrily denounces his legitimate half-brother Edgar and decides he will do in his brother and take the lands and privilege that he feels he’s been denied.
He begins by forging a letter that depicts Edgar as plotting to kill his father, Gloucester. Edmund pretends to hide it from Gloucester who then demands to read it. Edmund carefully lies to his father and lets on that Edgar is plotting against him to more quickly inherit his land and money. Edmund goes on to tell Edgar that Gloucester is angry with him and to avoid him and carry a sword at all times.
For the first part of his retirement, Lear visits Goneril and her husband in their castle. Goneril is angry and complains to her steward Oswald that Lear is being obnoxious and his men are too rowdy. She then orders her servants to behave rudely in turn to provoke confrontation.
Arriving at Goneril’s castle disguised as a peasant named Caius, Kent finds a means to intercept Lear and convince the King to take him into his service as a blunt servant.
When Goneril’s servants begin ignoring the orders of Lear’s men, Oswald makes a show of being rude to Lear as well. He is rude and eventually provokes Lear to strike him, bringing Kent in to help push the Steward away.
For the first time, Lear’s fool arrives and through a series of doublespeak begins to tell Lear of the mistake he has made in giving so much power to his daughters. Goneril finally arrives and tells her father that she wants for him to send his servants and soldiers away as they have been too rude and ill-mannered in her home.
Shocked by his daughter’s behavior, Lear has no choice but to accept his daughter’s decision that half of his men must leave. He angrily curses his daughter for the treachery, wishing he had never given her the power. In tears, he calls for his horses and decides to leave for Regan’s castle instead, believing her to be a better daughter still.
After Lear leaves, Goneril’s husband Albany is upset about how she treated her father. She describes how she wrote a letter to Regan and her sister will not house Lear’s knights either.
Lear sends Kent to Gloucester with a message about his situation. The Fool continues to assail Lear for his poor decisions and describes how horrible Regan will likely be to Lear as well. Lear feels himself beginning to mad and readies himself to leave for Regan’s home.
Back in Gloucester’s castle, a courier announces to Edmund that Regan and Cornwall will arrive in the evening to visit and that Cornwall and Albany have been feuding. Because he hopes to use Cornwall against Edgar, Edmund grows excited by the visit. Because things are looking promising, Edmund convinces Edgar to slip away that night, to protect himself. He then draws him into a fake battle and wounds himself to discredit his brother and make his father sympathetic to his cause.
Because of the attack and Edmund’s machinations, Gloucester is convinced that Edgar has done something horrible and vows to make Edmund his heir instead.
Regan and Cornwall finally arrive and quickly and easily fall for Edmund’s lies and turn against Edgar. Cornwall joins forces with Edmund. Regan then attempts to flatter Gloucester by asking for his advice about the letters her father and sister sent to her.
Kent and Oswald arrive outside of Gloucester’s castle to present letters to Regan. Oswald is confused at first as Kent condemns him for his lack of honor and when Oswald states that he does not know him, Kent attacks him with his sword.
Oswald calls for help and when Cornwall arrives, Kent describes how horrible Oswald has been, stating that he lacks any virtues. Cornwall takes up Oswald’s side and tries to have Kent placed in the stocks. Gloucester stops this from happening however, stating that putting a servant of the king into stocks would be a grave injustice. However, Regan states that the acts against Goneril’s servant are a worse injustice. Everyone leaves except Gloucester and Kent who then reads a letter from Cordelia stating she will soon send help for her father’s cause.
Edgar is alone in the woods and speaks a soliloquy about his running from the law. He hides inside of a tree and decides he must disguise himself to remain safe from the authorities. He decides he will disguise himself as a beggar covered in dirt, and buried in a blanket. His name as a beggar will be Poor Tom.
When Lear arrives at Gloucester’s castle, he is greeted by Kent in the stocks. He demands to know who put his messenger in the stocks and can’t believe that his other daughter would do such a thing. Regan however, refuses to speak to him, stating that they are fatigued.
Gloucester goes about finding Regan and Cornwall to have Kent released, and the Fool arrives again to comment on the proceedings. Regan finally arrives to greet her father, pretending to be affectionate as he tells of the horrible deeds Goneril committed. Regan tells Lear he must calm himself and seek Goneril’s forgiveness, making him even angrier. Cornwall then admits to Lear that it was he who ordered Kent to be put in the stocks.
Regan angers her father further when she refuses to house his retinue of knights and along with Goneril, she conspires to refuse him harbor for any of his men. In his anger, Lear once again calls for his horse and states he would rather live outside or in France than with his daughters. Regan and Goneril tell Gloucester to let Lear leave and in the process allow him to venture forth into a wild storm at night.
Kent speaks with a random gentleman about how Lear and his Fool disappeared into the storm, and that Albany and Cornwall are pretending to be nice. Kent discusses how the King of France has heard of what’s happening and will soon send an invasion force to assist Lear and his ailing kingdom. He sends the gentleman to Dover to announce how horribly Lear has been treated and to deliver a ring to Cordelia to disclose the identity of the letter’s author as Kent. He then leaves to find Lear.
On the heath the storm rages on with Lear’s mood equally matching its intensity. He angrily rails against his daughters’ horrible treatment. The Fool tries to reason with Lear to go inside and enjoy the safety and warmth of a dry house in shame rather than the pain of his rejection. When Kent arrives he leads the three to a hovel where they can wait out the storm. He then returns to Gloucester’s castle to request space for Lear out of the weather.
Back in Gloucester’s castle, Gloucester and Edmund discuss how Regan and Cornwall seized his home when he asked them to leave. He is a prisoner of sorts now and is forbidden to speak to the King. He divulges the plans to avenge Lear’s daughter’s acts, unknowingly telling someone who is secretly plotting against him. When Gloucester leaves, Edmund reveals his plans to tell Cornwall of the plans to gain more favor.
As Kent tries to get Lear to go inside the Hovel, Lear resists, stating he is too anguished mentally to care and that he can barely feel the wrath of the storm. He sends the Fool inside and prays in the storm. He decides that while he was King he didn’t take the necessary time to care for the homeless and poor.
The Fool flees the hovel though, running from a spirit within. The spirit in question is Edgar dressed as the beggar Tom. He pretends to be mad, stating he is chased by a devil and that a fiend possesses his body. Lear is already losing his mind and isn’t fazed by Tom’s statements. He empathizes with Edgar and decides that his daughters will destroy him.
Lear questions Edgar on his life before being a beggar to which Edgar replies that he was once wealthy and a courtier who had relations with many women and drank much wine. Lear tears the clothes from his body in sympathy of Edgar’s plight.
Gloucester finally arrives with a torch, looking for the king. He is upset that Lear is with such men and tries to bring him back to his castle, regardless of Regan and Goneril’s decree. Kent and Gloucester finally get Lear to return, but they must allow Tom to come with him.
Cornwall vows that he will get revenge against Gloucester for helping Lear. Edmund has given Cornwall the letter from Gloucester supporting the French invasion and pretends to be distraught by his father’s acts. He is secretly overjoyed for the situation and is given the title of Earl of Gloucester by Cornwall and sent to find Gloucester. Edmund decides that he must find and catch Gloucester in the act of helping Lear to convince Cornwall of his treachery.
Leaving Lear and his friends in a farmhouse outside his castle, Gloucester searches for food. The Fool and Edgar along with Lear present a mock trial of his daughters after which Gloucester reenters and announces that he has uncovered a plot to kill Lear. They prepare to leave for Dover where friends await.
Back in Gloucester’s castle, Cornwall sends Goneril to Albany with a letter telling him of the invasion force from France. He also orders Gloucester to be brought back to him. Edmund is to leave with Goneril to not be present when Gloucester is punished. Before he leaves though, Oswald arrives and describes that Gloucester has told Lear of the plot and helped him escape to Dover.
Gloucester soon enters the scene and is bound down, where Regan begins to call him a traitor and physically harass him. Eventually their torture advances to gouging out Gloucester’s eye. A servant attempts to step in and is slain by Regan for helping and Cornwall proceeds to gouge out Gloucester’s other eye.
Gloucester calls for Edmunds help and Regan discovers that Edmund betrayed his father. Gloucester learns that Edgar was not the evilest of his sons. Regan throws him out of the castle, blinded, to find his way to Dover alone and helps Cornwall out of the room. Everyone leaves for Dover.
While talking to himself on the heath, commenting on how bad his situation could be, Gloucester arrives, blinded and wandering. An old man that Edgar recognizes as an 80 year long tenant of their household leads him while Gloucester tells him that he wants nothing more than to touch his son once more. Edgar doesn’t give up his disguise but speaks to the men as Tom, the beggar. Gloucester has clothes brought him and requests to be led to the highest cliff.
Back in Goneril’s home palace, she and Edmund arrive to find that Albany is displeased by her actions and hasn’t greeted her. He is glad for the arrival of the French and not happy to see her. She turns on him immediately, declaring him a coward and taking control over his military might. She then sends Edmund back to Cornwall’s home and tells him to raise Cornwall’s troops to fight the French. She announces that she will send Oswald out with numerous messages and before Edmund leaves, gives him a kiss farewell, hinting at a potential affair between the two.
Albany finally enters the scene when Edmund departs and assails Goneril for her actions. He does not even know about Gloucester’s treatment yet, but is angered greatly by Lear’s madness and treatment by his daughters. She argues back that he is a coward and that he she prepare for the French. He condemns her for her evil and calls her a monster.
Shortly after, a messenger arrives announcing that Cornwall has died from wounds received while torturing Gloucester. At the report of Gloucester’s treatment Albany is outraged and sees Albany’s death as a divine commentary on his actions. Goneril is happy that the death has weakened her sister’s position, but upset that Regan might pursue Edmund on her own now that she is a widow. She leaves the room to respond to the messages from her sister.
Albany immediately questions why Edmund allowed such a thing to happen and when he learns that Edmund was Gloucester’s betrayer and took over the house by decree of Cornwall, he vows revenge upon Edmund and assistance for Gloucester.
Kent, in disguise still, speaks with a nobleman in the French camp at Dover. He learns that the French recently landed but that the King returned quickly to deal with his own problems at home. As the Queen of France, Cordelia receives Kent’s letters and has taken control of the army herself. The nobleman comments on Cordelia’s sorrow over what had happened to her father.
Kent informs him that Lear has also arrived in Dover, though he is floating on the border of madness and sanity. He refuses to see Cordelia in his shame though, and sits alone, wallowing in grief. The nobleman confirms for Kent that both Albany and Cornwall’s armies are marching to Dover to fight the French.
With Lear hiding among the cornfields among flowers and singing madly, Cordelia enters and sends soldiers to retrieve him for her. Talking to a doctor, she wonders if it is possible for him to recover his sanity and safely resume normal living. The doctor responds that he needs sleep more than anything and gives her sleeping pills. A messenger arrives with the same news that Kent received about Cornwall and Albany’s troops approaching Dover to fight the French. She readies her troops for the ensuing battle.
Oswald arrives to inform Regan that Albany’s army has finally set forth with Goneril having taken control. Along with a letter to her, there is a letter from Goneril to Edmund that causes Regan to become rather upset. She guesses that the two are having an affair and tells Oswald that she desires Edmund as well. She has already discussed the matter with Edmund and how much he should be with her instead as a widow, in a situation that makes more sense. It is not a crime nor adultery in that case. She then gives Oswald something to deliver to Edmund and offers a reward for Oswald if he can find and kill Gloucester.
While in disguise, Edgar leads Gloucester forward to Dover. Despite his request, Edgar only pretends to take Gloucester off a cliff, convincing him that they are climbing and they are near the sea. When he informs Gloucester that they have reached the pinnacle of the cliff and that he has vertigo from the height, he allows the blinded Earl to stand at the spot, saying his goodbyes and prayers before walking off what he thinks is a cliff, fainting in the process.
When Edgar wakes Gloucester, he takes on the demeanor of a gentleman and throws off his disguise as the beggar. He doesn’t admit that he is Edgar but says he saw Gloucester fall and that his survival is a miracle. The Gods must not want him dead for some reason. He tells Gloucester that a devil of sorts was with Gloucester at the top of the cliff not a man, prompting Gloucester to accept the story and accept Edgar’s explanations.
Still wandering on his own, Lear stumbles across the two and with a crown of wild flowers on he babbles on madly. He is at times incredibly mad and at other strangely perceptive. He does recognize Gloucester though and mentions the adultery that has plagued him all his life. He pardons the crime though and begins to babble onward about adultery, womankind, and sexuality, eventually breaking down completely and abandoning the constant iambic verse of Shakespeare’s play with “Fie, fie, fie ! pah! Pah!”
Cordelia’s men find him in this state and when they try to take him in, the runs away with them in pursuit. Soon Oswald arrives as well intent on killing Gloucester and collecting the reward Regan has offered. Edgar disguises himself once again with the Western accent of a peasant and kills Oswald with his cudgel, taking the letters Oswald is carrying.
Though Gloucester is unhappy to still be alive, Edgar is intrigued by Oswald’s letters, including the letter to Edmund from Goneril urging him to dispatch of Albany so they can be together. He holds the letter so as to offer it to Albany later and buries Oswald before leading Gloucester to safety.
Back in Dover, Cordelia is in conversation with Kent, having discerned his true identity. She agrees to keep it secret, and soon Lear is brought before her. He barely recognizes her in his madness and babbles on about how she likely wants to kill him as her sisters do. Cordelia however is happy to see her father and offers forgiveness for his earlier banishment. The camp learns of Cornwall’s death and that Edmund is now at the head of his forces. The battle between the French and English is soon to begin.
Between Regan and Edmund, the question of his love for Goneril arises. Edmund denies any feelings for her and that he has slept with her while Regan expresses her jealousy for Goneril and begs Edmund to not take up with her in any way.
Goneril and Albany soon arrive with their troops. Albany states his case that Lear is with the French and may have a legitimate right to be angry and fight them. He does not reject his role in fighting the French though and announces he will remain by his wife and sister-in-law in the ensuing battle. Regan and Goneril display their jealousy over Edmund once more before they leave.
Albany is greeted by Edgar slightly before he leaves and receives the letter from Oswald detailing his wife’s plans to have Edmund kill him. He tells Albany that he will provide a champion to defend the claims of the letter if he and the English win the battle that is about to begin.
Edgar then leaves with Edmund soon entering and telling Albany to go to the field where the battle is nearly underway. Edmund delivers a soliloquy in which he describes his dual claims of love for both Goneril and Regan, relating his inability to decide what to do. He decides to wait until the battle is won to make his decision and that he will leave Albany for Goneril to kill if she likes. He reiterates his plan to show no mercy for Lear or Cordelia if they should be captured.
After the battle begins, Edgar leads Gloucester to the woods and leaves him their in safety. He goes to fight beside Lear and very soon after returns announcing that the French and Lear have lost, with Lear and Cordelia captured. Gloucester tries to stay where he is, but is convinced by Edgar to go with him, willing his father to not so readily accept death.
With Edmund leading the way, Lear and Cordelia enter, preparing to meet Goneril and Regan. Cordelia is ready but Lear does not want to meet his daughters, instead expressing a fantasy in which he and Cordelia are birds in a cage, listening to the world but not being bothered by its frivolities. He sends both off with the captain of his guards and a note with unspoken instructions as to their fates. The note isn’t made clear to the audience, but the ominous tone it is written in is.
With Goneril and Regan beside him, Albany arrives and gives praise to Edmund for his skill in the battle. He orders him to bring Lear and Cordelia forward, to which Edmund lies and says both were sent far away to keep the British from a mutiny. Albany angrily chides him for taking too many liberties but Regan jumps to defend Edmund declaring that he will marry her. Goneril declares that this will not happen, but Regan, who is suddenly ill, claims him as her own.
Albany however, ignores the proceedings and arrests Edmund for treason and gives him the opportunity to defend himself in trial by combat. He sounds the trumpet to summon Edgar, who arrives in his full armor and bring charges against Edmund for treason. He quickly defeats Edmund, with Regan having gone to Albany’s tent with her illness. Albany request that Edgar leave Edmund alive and produces the letter for Goneril to show he has learned of her plot to have him killed.
Edgar finally reveals who he is by taking off his helmet and tells everyone how he disguised himself as Tom and led Gloucester through the wilderness. As he prepared to fight Edmund, he revealed his identity to his father as well, but the revelation of such grief and happiness in Gloucester brought about his death. A gentleman soon enters with a knife and declares that both Goneril and Regan are dead. Goneril poisoned Regan and committed suicide in one fell swoop.
After entering the scene, Kent requests the location of Lear and Albany remembers that he never learned from Edmund their whereabouts. Edmund finally reveals his crimes and decides in his final moments to repent. He had ordered Cordelia to be hanged and so they send a messenger to intervene before the deed is done.
However, as Lear enters, it is learned that the messenger was too late. He carries Cordelia’s body in his arms and in a grieving state of insanity he weeps over her body. He barely recognizes Kent and soon Edmund’s death is announced as well. Lear thinks he sees a bit of breath in Cordelia and asks for her button to be loosened. When he sees what he thinks is a mote of life, he dies.
Albany returns Edgar and Kent’s powers and titles and invites them to assist in ruling the nation. Kent is old and near death so he refuses, but Edgar apparently takes up the offer and the very few survivors exit with the funeral march playing in the background.