September 2, 2002
In the last few weeks I have been reading and rereading King Lear, my favorite Shakespeare play since I was in college. It may be that I have been drawn back to it because of its reverberations in our own era — an era, like Lear's, of rage and catastrophes; an era, too, with its bitter taste of tragic despair.
For all the times that I've read King Lear, in school and out, I've only seen it on stage once or twice, and not so memorably as I'd have wished. But I have tapes of a BBC radio production with the late John Gielgud as a roaringly eloquent King Lear. I listened to these tapes as I reread the play. And, like any good student, I read some of the commentary, old and new, by Shakespeare scholars.
An amateur's report on a work of art — the sort of report you will write over and again in class — can never have much authority: This is what I saw and felt, this is what I thought, this is what I learned. Yet works of art derive their powers from effects like these, effects on those of us who come to love them and study them. Few of us can be experts. The ideal of a liberal arts education is that there is something worthy — something essential — in the amateur's experience and reflection. What does one get, what does one learn, from a great play? I'd like to answer that question with a report to you on my own understanding of King Lear, a play I love but with an amateur's affection and not an expert's.
Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have sought to give very general answers to questions about what art does for us. Aristotle, in particular, reached conclusions that remain satisfying and insightful more than 2,000 years later. Contemporary critics typically seek to understand particular plays or playwrights in the context of a culture, a time, a craft. Amateurs, like you and me, will necessarily have a more limited sense of the power and beauty of such things as plays, poems, or paintings.
The story of King Lear is simple to tell: An old king decides to retire, thinking to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. At the ceremony of retirement and division he asks each of them for a declaration of love and gratitude. The two older sisters comply, saying that their father is ‘all in all' to them. The youngest sister, Cordelia, balks: "How can I heave my heart into my mouth?" she asks. She tells her father the truth, that she loves him as a father, "no more, no less. . . ." Enraged, the old king denounces and disowns Cordelia. He then redivides his kingdom between the two older daughters, Goneril and Regan. Cordelia, spurned by her father, is nonetheless taken as wife and queen by the good King of France. There follows a series of confrontations and conspiracies leading on to civil war and disaster: The old king is driven out by the two older sisters, Goneril and Regan, who then turn against one another. Cordelia and her husband bring an army against them, but evil seems to triumph: Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned together.
As if to drive home whatever lessons we may take from this plot, Shakespeare fits it out with a second, shadowing plot: Again an old and powerful man, the Earl of Gloucester; again children, this time two sons, one legitimate and the other illegitimate; this time a plan to overthrow the old man, betray the good son, and take the earldom. The bad son, Edmund, who sets out to do this soon has his eye — and more than his eye — on the two sisters and the kingdom as a whole.
In the end, nearly everyone is dead: by murder, suicide, dueling, heartbreak. The two scheming daughters take their own lives. The good brother kills the bad. Cordelia is murdered in prison; her father dies of grief. There is enough blood, betrayal and sheer badness here for a whole season of The Sopranos. It may come to more than one stage can hold of an evening.
Like many others, I find in all this some of the greatest poetry ever written: King Lear is shocking, witty, poignant, tragic. It is worth asking why I and so many of us react this way. What makes the words into poetry, and what makes the poetry so powerful?
First, it can't be the sound of the words, though there are beautiful sounds throughout the play. Words carry meaning, and the music in them needs, nearly always, to be meaningful to us to be pleasing and, more than pleasing, moving. Second, the poetry must capture feelings, and with feelings settings and scenes that are recognizable to us and powerful for us. And, finally, great poetry will cause us to reflect, to think about what matters most to us and to others, what we should care about and what we should not care about at all.
Take Lear. He is an odd hero in the drama. He is more than 80 years old and often doddering. He is vain, hot-headed, and foolish. Only a reckless fool would divide up a kingdom without a thought to the likelihood of civil war. Only a fool ignorant of his own passions would surrender so much while giving no thought to his own craving for the power he is giving up. Lear has long favored one daughter over the other two, which is a foolish thing in itself. In a blast of anger at his favorite's honesty he thrusts her aside — seemingly forever.
In one of the most powerful exchanges in all of Shakespeare, Lear's loyal and courageous courtier Kent protests all of this: "Check thy hideous rashness," he tells the angry king. Lear shouts him down, but Kent holds his own: "Thou dost evil," he says. In the midst of their argument Lear seizes on what Shakespeare will make the central metaphor of the play: "Out of my sight," he tells Kent, as he must have told a hundred others before. But Kent defies the King. "See better, Lear," Kent says, a striking phrase for an even more striking idea.
We can all see better, always. There is always more to see and learn. And perhaps never in our lives is this advice better given than when we are enraged with those around us, particularly those we love or have loved, those who may somehow have hurt us. At those times we miss what should be most present to us, our own deepest wishes for ourselves, for our own good and happiness. In missing these, we can only rarely make out what others wish and need.
In this blindness, this foolishness, of his, Lear is every one of us, perhaps not every day, perhaps not often, but still crucially and dangerously. For Lear, for his mythical Britain, this one act of willful moral blindness leads straight to catastrophe — for him, for his family, for his kingdom. Our own tragedies are never so momentous as this, or so plain to see. Lear's greatness fascinates us and attracts us. Aristotle made it a rule that tragedy required such greatness — precisely so as to hold our attention. But the lesson is the same, writ large or writ small. Moral blindness in the midst of passion, in the midst of crisis, can play havoc with lives.
There are in King Lear three casts: First there is the cast of the good, even the saintly. Cordelia is the most notable of these, more eloquent than anyone, even or especially when she is silent, faithful and true in her love right to the end, almost without anger. Her only fault is bluntness, which she may take from her father. Then there is Edgar, the good son of Gloucester. He is patient, steadfast, deeply spiritual but playful and brave. And there is Kent, less brilliant than Cordelia, less spiritual than Edgar, but the courageous standard bearer of the play's great truths about our moral lives. The second cast is the cast of those who are evil, in most cases more and more evil as the play progresses. The eloquent and ambitious Goneril, the oldest daughter, leads this cast in its scheming, its ambition, its lust. She makes her way from treachery to treachery as a kind of fiend or devil. The next sister Regan is no better, though less interesting and less noisy. Most interesting — and noisiest — of all is Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. He sneers, laughs, philosophizes and conspires with wit and gusto.
We hear or watch the play stunned and fascinated by the evil — the daring, uninhibited evil — of this second cast of characters. At one point — as bad as any B movie — Regan presides as her husband jabs out old Gloucester's eyes. When a servant tries to stop them she kills him with a knife in the back. I laugh to think how the first English crowds must have reacted to this gore.
The good characters in all this are relentlessly good. Shakespeare puts them beyond us, almost from the outset. Cordelia speaks with shocking honesty to her vain old father. Kent defies his lord, risking his life to do so. Only the court jester, the boy who is Lear's fool, seems to have a plausible, near-at-hand goodness, teasing Lear and needling him sarcastically while remaining attached to him and faithful to the end.
But then there is the third cast, of those more like the rest of us, not saints or devils but fallible mortals struggling between good and evil. Gloucester is like this. He is mercurial and gullible but endearingly decent and courageous. Albany, Goneril's husband, is a minor figure but important in that he moves, gradually but decisively, from evil towards goodness. And, finally, there is Lear himself, who commits the original sin of the play, but then suffers in every possible way as he sputters and declaims and ponders his way towards wisdom, towards "seeing better."
The Tragedy of King Lear may be the greatest play in English but it is a wild, even grotesque, melodrama, full of calamity and exaggeration. We only believe in these characters, we only take them seriously, because of their words. Their words convince us to listen and to watch. Their words speak to us and for us. We too have felt these emotions and we feel them still.
In an artist on canvas it is often the technique that startles and draws our unschooled attention. "Look at this amazing brushwork or that startling deep blue," we say. As we look more we can begin to see the composition, the art, in this. Whether it is notes of music or forms on canvas or characters on stage, the composition holds our attention and makes us feel and think in ways that the great artist in some way intended.
What kind of composition is Shakespeare's King Lear? We must each take from art what we can, provided only that we give it the attention, the study, it requires. For me, Lear is a composition about fallibility and wisdom in our lives, the passage from great wrong to something right and true, however sad. In the end, we see better, even if what we see is very sad.
Cordelia seeks to tell the truth about love. She can reason and argue well, and does. But it is her fierce honesty about love that sets her apart and that brings on the wrath of her father. Her love for him was measured and not all-consuming, she said. It was better understated than overstated. "Obey you, love you, and most honor you," she says to him. But this is not "to love my father all. . . ." She will soon have a husband and perhaps children and she will love them too. Love can be shared and must be shared, Shakespeare seems to tell us.
This simple truth might not seem enough to bring down a king, his family and his kingdom. But Shakespeare never frets too much about the motivation of his characters: Lear's anger, Othello's jealousy, Macbeth's ambition, Hamlet's perplexity — these come before us as forces or facts. They are suddenly in front of us, eloquently and passionately in front of us, and few of us take the time to fret over where exactly they came from. Yes, something is exaggerated or excessive here. Of course it is; it has to be.
What Shakespeare exaggerates is emotion that we all live with, in smaller settings and for smaller stakes, with few or none watching us — hearing us — as we struggle to adjust our judgments and our actions to our passions and furies, to our wants. These in turn are almost always exaggerated, sometimes grotesquely, as we watch a roommate or neighbor obsess over some slight or as we feel ourselves go round and round about some missed chance or other.
Madness has a large place in King Lear. Anger itself, as Kent says, is a kind of madness. The king spends much of the play raving on a heath. Gradually, though, he learns his other feelings, mulling them, and reasoning them through. At one point he refuses Kent's offer of shelter in a hovel, saying that he prefers the distractions of the thunderstorm to "the tempest in his mind." He sends Kent into the shelter ahead of him and then turns to the fool, his young jester: "In boy; go first," says the recently all-powerful king. Alone then, outside in the dark, Lear thinks suddenly of all who are too poor to find shelter on this night of rain and wind and thunder:
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this!
And then he recommends both reflection and action to those with powers like the ones that once were his:
Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
Lear sees here what he had not seen before, and what he had not cared to notice: the sufferings of others, his subjects, not just from rain and cold but also, we guess, from taxation, oppression, war. In the strange-sounding phrase "shake the superflux to them" Lear seems to say that now in the wilderness he feels that all that was superfluous and excessive at court should go to his subjects, the poor. It is a thought he will not live to implement but no matter: We hear him say it and we are struck by the change in him.
In King Lear, Shakespeare tantalizes us with a concluding vision of redemption through love. Lear and Cordelia are captives of the English forces of the two sisters, led by the treacherous Edmund. Cordelia says to her father, "we are not the first who with best meaning have incurred the worst. . . ." She wonders if as prisoners she and he will meet up with Goneril and Regan: "Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?" But Lear is impatient with that forgiving notion. His old anger stirs and he says: "No, no, no, no!" And then in an echo of his old possessiveness of Cordelia, he adds: "Come let's away to prison: [w]e two alone will sing like birds i' the cage." In one of the most beautiful poems in English, he has a vision of happiness in prison with Cordelia:...[s]o we'll live" he says,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.
Now there are many things to say about this vision of Lear's. Some see in it a kind of redemption: At last Lear achieves wisdom — renouncing all the power and intrigue of court for contentment locked away with his beloved daughter in a cell. This is true, I think, but no wisdom comes without its touch of folly. Lear is old and near death; Cordelia is a young bride without children. For her to spend her life in prison in his company would not perhaps be the utopia of renunciation that it might be for her father.
In the end, neither of them reaches anything that I'd call redemption. The play is a tragedy, after all. Samuel Johnson said that for a long time he could not bear to read Lear through to the end because of its unspeakable sadness. The great Victorian scholar A. C. Bradley summarized all of Shakespeare's tragedies in a short sentence: "Th[e] central feeling," he wrote, "is the impression of waste." All the beauty, all the greatness, all the intelligence that Shakespeare sets before us, all of it comes to nothing. All of it goes down to desctruction — and for no good reason.
In Lear, Edmund has given orders that Lear and Cordelia must be killed in prison. But as Edmund dies, after the duel with his brother Edgar, he confesses to his wrongs. "I pant for my life," he says,
some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature
Be brief on it, to th' castle;
for my writ Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia. . . .
In the next scene Lear carries the dead Cordelia in his arms: "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" Lear says, ". . .she's gone forever. I know when one is dead and when one lives. . . ." But he asks for a looking glass — a mirror — to hold up to her lips to see if she still breathes. He imagines for a moment that she does; but she's gone; she's dead.
What is it that Lear sees, as he dies?
He sees first how much happiness rests within us and not without. Wealth and power mean very little up against death. Love, truly felt and truly spoken, love is what counts for most in our lives, as in his.
Second, he sees how important truthfulness is — not just to him and to his daughters but to his kingdom and to his world. The human world of Shakespeare rises and falls on words truly spoken. Our own world, your world, does as well.
Third, and what may be most important, is what I will call Lear's wisdom: he learns through his own sufferings how much others suffer and how hard we must try to see this, to know it, and to act on it.
In the end Lear does see better, much better. Like the rest of us, though, he does not see everything. He is neither a saint nor a god. His old possessiveness is still there at the end, chastened and improved. But he sees others at last — not just Cordelia and her sisters but his subjects, his friends and enemies, his young fool. His last words are like injunctions to us all. "Look there, look there."
Look hard, see well. Good luck in your studies.