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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: June ::
Re: Lear
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0678.  Wednesday, 18 June 1997.

[1]     From:   Syd Kasten <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 16:49:01 +0200 (IST)
        Subj:   Lear

[2]     From:   James Marino <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 12:10:46 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0677  Lear

[3]     From:   Ed Pixley <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 14:49:23 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0670  Re: Lear


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Syd Kasten <
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Date:           Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 16:49:01 +0200 (IST)
Subject:        Lear

Stuart Manger (SHK 8.0670) ended his citation against Lear with the
comment:

>This century is littered with examples of corrosive,
>destructive masculine dictatorship, the terrifying exercise of power for
>incredible and discreditable ends, and yet we are still bidden to
>sympathise with the archetypal careless dictator? Sorry. I can't.

Poor Lear, after all he went through, being compared to the likes of
Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and others whose name I don't like ennobling
in print.

Lear's main fault, like those of some others in the play was to be out
of synch with the times.  Cordelia's fault, for example, was to be to
stuck in the old values of directness, truth and simplicity of
expression.  Lear on the other hand, was ahead of his times. Much of the
excess of rule and its eventual failure, to this day, can be laid to the
unwillingness of the autocrat to relinquish rule. This is true not only
in national politics, but in just about any social organization one can
think of, down to the family business and even to the nuclear family.
Recognizing the approach of infirmity, appreciating the need of young
blood and young ideas to maintain the vigour of the kingdom in changing
times, anticipating the internecine strife that is liable to follow the
death intestate of a long-lived king, he sought obviate disaster by
dividing the heretofore peaceful kingdom among his supposedly loyal and
fraternally (sororally?) loyal offspring.

The symmetry of his plan was destroyed by his reaction to Cordelia's
response.  One can argue that this was due to a constitutional tendency
to explosiveness or need to dominate.  The persistent loyalty of a
person like Kent and the continuing devotion of Cordelia tend, for me,
to deny this. I see, rather, the author portraying in Lear the emotional
lability typical of mild organic deterioration of brain function, which
was to show itself so starkly as the play developed.

Goneril and Regan don't give us a clue as to why they went bad.  Perhaps
Lear should have remarried to give his children a mother's upbringing;
perhaps he should have spent less time at the office. Was he too
indulgent?  We will never know to what degree he was responsible.  But
his contemplating peaceful transition of power and its decentralization
can only be admired as an attempt at a thoughtful, even insightful, act
of modern statesmanship.  Unfortunately his world wasn't ready for it.

Soncerely
Syd Kasten

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           James Marino <
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Date:           Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 12:10:46 -0600
Subject: 8.0677  Lear
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0677  Lear

Stuart Manger joins the others in what is certainly an accurate
indictment of Lear.  I can't agree that the catalogue of his sins
sufficiently overwhelms any possibility of redemption, but, more
importantly, I think there is a mildly surprising confusion of the
demands of Christian charity and the interpretive response of a given
audience.  The sermon on the mount lays it out clearly for Cordelia
(Matt 44-48): You don't wait for your enemy to merit forgiveness or
love; it is to be given regardless of crimes against you.  Cordelia
doesn't just forgive Lear.  She refuses to recognize that he has done
her harm,  Her "No cause" transcends forgiveness.  (This Christ-like
charity is the part that exceeds my ability to accept her as believably
human-which I fear is self-revelatory) Because she is a plain dealer we
must accept that she means what she says, or believes what she says; we
certainly are given no reason to doubt her honesty at this point.  The
lesson is one of true love, of the sort one usually associates with
parent and child.  ("I can't believe my Sonny is a serial killer, he was
always such a good boy").  On the other hand, I react as audience and
share the general revulsion at the high cost of Lear's infantile
egocentrism.  As I do that of Romeo and Coriolanus and of the monstrous
imaginations of Othello and Leontes.  They DON'T merit forgiveness; but
I think that is the point.

Regards,
James

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Pixley <
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Date:           Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 14:49:23 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 8.0670  Re: Lear
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0670  Re: Lear

> I have been very slow in catching up with this debate- UK often is many
> ours behind, I fear. What I simply cannot get to grips with is the
> enormity of Lear's crimes - dismemberment of a kingdom (prime
> Shakespearian crime, surely?), the dismemberment of a family - nay TWO
> families indirectly - being the catalyst of horrors beyond belief (Glos'
> eyes), and then having the temerity to presume upon our sympathy, our
> compassion. And IS he ever mad? In what sense? Lear makes me both very
> angry and very chilly, and very inhumane: perhaps that is the subtle
> savour of the play's power? That it invites the kind of cold-heartedness
> in its critics and students that creates the kind of crimes perpetrated
> by Lear and Cornwall? I simply cannot go along with the notion that he
> is a poor old great old man brought low by maltreatment,
> misunderstanding by two heartless daughters, and then suffering a series
> of punishments out of all proportion to his crimes. I have indeed seen
> some wonderful Lears on stage, I have sat in audiences sponsored by
> Kleenex tissues, but in 30 years of theatre going and many fine shows, I
> have never been moved by it. I have taught it at least a dozen times to
> a variety of students, and never been able to explian my reticence to
> them. The postings I am replying to encapsulate a real problem with the
> play that I think much of the critical consensus seems to avoid: they
> all seem to assume (at least the ones I read!) that we collectively
> share compassion and awe as we watch the grand old man tottering towards
> death with the daughter in his arms he has effectively persecuted and
> sent to her death. This century is littered with examples of corrosive,
> destructive masculine dictatorship, the terrifying exercise of power for
> incredible and discreditable ends, and yet we are still bidden to
> sympathise with the archetypal careless dictator? Sorry. I can't.
>
> Stuart Manger

I'm not a Lear scholar, so my feelings about the play and its power may
not carry much weight.  Thus, I decided to reply off list.  If once you
have read my thoughts you are moved to any reconsideration, you may want
to put them out where others can react as well.

I am moved by Lear in my reading of the text, though among productions,
only that of James Earl Jones (New York Shakespeare Festival-mid l970s)
has moved me.

You are absolutely right in describing his crimes, even to effecting the
transformation of Goneril from a graceful and aristocratic lady into a
monster.  Regan seems to be suffering, from the start, from a second
child syndrome, but she is hardly a monster.

In many ways, I would agree with the person to whom your response was
addressed, Schmecker, I think, that Lear undergoes significant change
during the play. But I want to address aspects of that change that he
overlooks-as well as your question about his "having the temerity to
presume on our sympathy and compassion."  Bear with me, but I don't
believe he does presume on our sympathy-though perhaps Shakespeare
does.  That's another story.

Shakespeare has, from the beginning, introduced a technique for giving a
character sympathy by extension, a method he builds on as the play
progresses. At the very onset of Lear's arrogance, as he god-like usurps
the very role of nature by asserting "we have no such daughter," as he
gives life and death dictums from the royal power which he, in fact, has
already given away, etc., Kent steps in with his full support of the
welfare of Lear as a human as well as a king. He is, of course, banished
for his pains, but will soon reappear to provide that support again.  He
says he has no purpose in this world but to serve Lear, and,
functionally, he certainly has no purpose in Shakespeare's plot but to
do the same, a support that will extend up to his final line of Act V.

Cordelia, briefly at the end of I.i, expresses a sympathetic concern in
warning her sisters, but that we will not see developed until late in
the play.

To Kent's sympathetic support, the Fool is added in I.iii.  Whereas
Kent's and Cordelia's bluntness in I.i added to Lear's arrogance, both
Kent's and the Fool's bluntness in I.iii begin to humanize him.  His
raging curse on Goneril, however, shows us still dealing with a man who
is not worthy of any sympathy. You are absolutely right in saying that
Lear dismantles both the kingdom and the households.  His actions drive
Goneril and Regan into the monstrous actions that they finally
perform-but they do allow themselves to be so driven, and Shakespeare
holds them accountable for those actions.  Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar
preserve their moral judgments when they are driven from grace, and,
thus, become the instruments of grace that will bring absolution to
Lear.  (BTW, the "more sinned against than sinning" line is not a valid
judgment.  It is Lear's own judgment early in Act III, when he is still
far from being ready for absolution.) Edgar and Gloucester, of course,
also provide sympathetic extension.  Both of them fit the "more sinned
against than sinning" description far better than Lear, and yet both
find a part of them that feels deeply for Lear.  In fact, they claim
that their own sufferings pale in front of his.  I still may not like
him or sympathize with him, but I like and sympathize with the
characters who do.

In the storm scene, Lear, for the first time, begins to notice the
suffering of others, first the Fool, then creatures of the night who
"love not such nights as this," then "poor Tom."  "Here's three on's are
sophisticated.  Thou art the thing itself, poor unaccommodated man. . .
." Moreover, he wants to learn from "this philosopher": even to taking
off his sophisticated clothes and donning Poor Tom's weeds.  To me,
then, he is starting to earn my sympathy:  as someone who has discovered
pity and as someone who has acknowledged his own ignorance.

Shakespeare now makes an unusual choice at this point, following all the
history plays and even the earlier tragedies of state (Hamlet and
Macbeth), where restoring the health of the state was an important part
of resolving the tragedy.  He divides the action into what appears to me
to be two parallel worlds-which are shown to us in alternating scenes:
the world of the state and that world out on the heath where Lear is
being schooled.

Once we learn of the invasion by France and Cordelia, for the purpose of
restoring the crown to Lear, that world of the state becomes a
melodramatic world of "the good guys vs. the bad guys." Cornwall,
Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Oswald have become the villains we love to
hate; while Cordelia, Edgar, Kent, and (gradually) Albany are the good
guys, righting the wrongs, stamping out evil, etc.

The world of the heath is a philosophical one, where a very human
Gloucester and Lear, oblivious to the melodrama, struggle with
definitions of power and life and humanity-two old men, one mad, one
blind- uttering profundities, such as, "the great image of authority; a
dog's obeyed in office."-so much for crowns. Other lines in the scene
dismiss the validity of justice.

Lear, of course, will be rescued from both the heath and the ire of the
villains-by Cordelia. But notice how in this scene, where he perceives
her as a "soul in bliss," they outdo each other in asking for
forgiveness, and Shakespeare has indicated through dialogue that Lear is
now garbed in simple white gown-suggesting simplicity and purity.  Both
will next be captured by Edmund's forces, but here one only has to see
how Lear perceives freedom, not as power but as a state of mind. James
Earl Jones, in this scene, as they were being led off in chains, took
the chains in his hands and flipped them as though they were reins by
which he was directing the movement of his jailers.

Even though Lear has been brought back into the world of melodrama, he
has brought with him his schooling from the world of the heath, and he
shares his new-found perspective with Cordelia, and they are united
through it.

Meanwhile, back in the melodramatic world, notice how the bad guys are
getting killed off, first Cornwall, then Oswald, then Regan, then
Goneril, and finally Edmund.  Hey, how can we not have a happy ending
with all the bad guys dead?  and all of the good guys are still
standing.  "Oh, see.  Oh, see." Lear enters with the dead body of
Cordelia.  It is important that it is Cordelia, not Lear, because we
must see the change in him and the change in what he deems important.

Albany, as the only monarch still standing, proceeds to restore the
order that is supposed to resolve tragedies (and melodramas) by meting
out poetic justice all around-to reward the good and to punish the
evil.  But Lear's arrival has interrupted that melodramatically expected
resolution.  He tries to resolve the order in an even more appropriate
way by offering Lear back his crown.  After all, isn't that what the war
was all about?  In fact, isn't that what started this whole mess back in
Act I?   But Lear does not even notice. Only the breath of life in the
angelic Cordelia matters now. When Lear himself dies, presumably of a
broken heart, Albany tries to offer the crown to Kent.  But he has to
follow his master, and in Jones's production, he lay down and expired
right there on the stage.

So there is Albany, still holding the crown.  Nobody wants the damned
thing.  If order has been restored, nobody understands what that order
is, because Lear's arrogant and reckless action set in motion a power
that dismantled not just families and kingdoms but an entire value
system that now no longer makes any sense. I can sympathize with Lear
because he came to know and act upon what his foolishness had brought to
light, but it was too late.  Had the old value systems still been in
place, he would have accepted the crown and the old kingdom would have
been restored.  But out of this waste, something new has to be formed.
Perhaps that is why Samuel Johnson found the play too awful to be
endured, or why Jan Kott sees it parallel to the absurdism of Endgame.
 

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