The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0962 Wednesday, 7 October 1998.
From: Jason Vernon Starnes <
Date: Tuesday, 6 Oct 1998 18:48:35 -0700
Subject: Thesis Proposal
Hello all. I thought I'd send in a rough draft of my proposal for my
fourth year honors thesis. Having never taken on such a large project
in the past, I have no idea what to expect. Perhaps some learned
advice/brutally honest criticism might help me in my investigation of
Shakespeare, his critics and their God.
I propose an investigation of critical responses to "the most terrible
picture that Shakespeare painted of the world," (Bradley) _King Lear_.
Reaction to and interpretation of Shakespeare's perceived "pessimism" in
this work is so various as to provide an intriguing opportunity, and
indeed, compulsion, for close scrutiny of these disparate views.
A brief survey of some of the major critical thought on _Lear_ reveals
an interesting critical tendency to "show the heavens more just" by
utilising aspects of Christian doctrine to add an element of hope to
what Johnson calls "a play in which the wicked prosper." A.C. Bradley
asks, "Should we not be. . . near the truth if we called this poem The
Redemption of King Lear, and declared that the business of 'the gods'
with him was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a "noble anger,"
but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very
end and aim of life?" This language, the use of "redemption," points
out a curious irony in Bradley's criticism: just as Shakespeare's
helpless characters are seen appealing and deferring ceaselessly to the
heavens in order to endure the chaos of their world, so does Bradley,
consciously or unconsciously, turn to a concept of divinity as a means
of explaining the horrors of _King Lear_.
Mr. Bradley himself points out a differing view held by Swinburne, who
asserts that _Lear_ is Shakespeare's most Aeschylean play: "Requital,
redemption, amends, equity, explanation, pity and mercy, are words
without a meaning here. . . . We have heard much and often from
theologians of the light of revelation: and some such thing indeed we
find in Aeschylus; but the darkness of revelation is here." Contrast
this with Harry Morris' idea that Lear "has been redeemed by play's end
through recognition of his sins, through contrition for them, through
confession that he has severed himself unacceptable from rule and from
daughter, through satisfaction paid by his suffering and death, and
chiefly through the absolution given by Christ himself in the symbolic
figure of his daughter with whom his is totally and lovingly
reconciled." (H. Morris, Last Things, 162) Ivor Morris takes a
diametrically opposed view as he observes, "_King Lear_, uniquely among
the tragedies, I believe, considers religious questions in a pagan
context. In this play S confronts his characters with questions about
the meaning of nature, and the existence of divine justice, but he has
deprived the characters he so confronts of the Christian answers of his
original audience." (I. Morris, God's Judgments)
These few examples give a clear picture of the divergent nature of
Christian and pagan interpretations of the play. The reading of a
Christian world is often accompanied by a sense of optimism, and the
reading of a pagan world often coincides with a more pessimistic
interpretation of Shakespeare's work. I plan to develop and explicate
my own interpretation of King Lear after a thorough investigation of the
ways and reasons that certain Christian and pagan readings are
produced. Using my findings as a calibrating measure, I will outline my
thesis that Shakespeare is advocating a dissolution of the many
hierarchies in the play which make human beings subject to one another
and to an idea of divine justice: subjections which result in the
abdication of moral responsibility by the characters of _King Lear_. I
will show that a pagan interpretation of _Lear's_ world does not
necessitate a reception of Shakespeare's message as pessimistic. I hope
to elucidate a middle ground where Shakespeare's characters and
audience, though alone in their respective universes, have revealed to
them their capability of upholding a redemptive, humanist morality.
Jason Vernon Starnes