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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: May ::
Re: Lear and Suffering
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0893  Monday, 24 May 1999.

From:           R. Schmeeckle <
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Date:           Saturday, 22 May 1999 10:27:01 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 10.0844 Re: Lear and Suffering
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0844 Re: Lear and Suffering

>From:           Carol Barton <
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>Eric Swan writes:

>Something that I can not resolve is the fact that everyone in the play
>seems to suffer greatly, including the extremely virtuous, almost to a
>fault, Cordelia.  Edgar claims in Act 5 Scene 3 that the "gods are just,
>we bring punishment on ourselves."  Since that is basically the last
>mention of a philosophy in the play, is this how we are supposed to
>interpret everything that went on?  Am I to accept this philosophy as
>the meaning that Shakespeare was trying to get me to understand?  I am
>just having a hard time accepting this explanation as the truth and
>reality of justice.

Yes, everyone in the play suffers.  In this respect it is like life.

I wouldn't call it a  "philosophy," preferring to use the phrase "world
view."  It seems to me that Edgar's claim that the gods are just, and
that we bring punishment on ourselves, goes a long way to explain both
the play itself and what Shakespeare is communicating.  It is not so
much a philosophy, as a reflection of the Christian view that suffering
is a consequence of sin, either personal, original, or both.

This is not so much the truth about justice as part of the truth about
justice.

Carol Barton:

>If you think about it in terms of the "sins of the fathers," Eric, even
>Cordelia is not as utterly virtuous as she seems: she could after all
>mend her speech a little, as requested, but she is as hard-headed as her
>father, and as proud and unwilling to bend.  Edgar, though a loving son,
>is a gullible one; and Gloucester, like Lear, fails to believe the
>evidence of his own heart (and takes on faith Edmund's false witness
>against his legitimate brother without questioning it).  More like "what
>fools these mortals be," especially when their egos get in the way.

I believe that Cordelia is without fault, representing virtue, sanctity,
saving grace, and, perhaps, being a Christ figure.  Her alleged
hard-headedness, is a reflection  of Christ's injunction that if we love
God, we should keep His commandments.  Her love for her father is based
on obligation, not sentimental affection and certainly not on
hypocritical flattery, to which her blunt but truthful recognition of
obligation is opposed.

>From:           Richard Bovard <
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>
>Edgar continues to seek an explanation for his own and others' suffering
>throughout the play.  His efforts usually fail before the reality of the
>suffering that he experiences and observes.  When he thinks that he has
>an explanation, he learns that the explanation is undercut by his next
>experience(s).  After he says that "The gods are just," he must tell his
>literally heart-breaking tale and then the story of meeting Kent. Then,
>swiftly, he experience the news of the dead sisters, the entrance of the
>dying Kent, the entrance of Lear with Cordelia, and the news of his
>brother's death.  What efforts to explain can help?  His experience is
>much like the experience of many readers/audiences.  At the end, we
>stumble over "what we ought to say," as does Edgar.

Shakespeare echoes Sophocles in portraying the fact that whenever we
think our suffering has reached a point at which it can get no worse,
sometimes it does just that: gets worse.

>From:           Julia K. Taylor <
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>
>One cannot read Shakespeare without reflecting upon life's important
>questions.  So on that note:  what do you think is Shakespeare's
>overarching worldview?  Particularly, does he portray a chaotic,
>nihilistic universe in Lear, or does he attempt to reinforce the
>stability and order of the Great Chain of Being?  From my point of view
>he seems to reflect the tension in a time period between the Great Chain
>Era and the coming Age of Science, although the age of science hardly
>presented a chaotic world either.  Hmmm.  Where does the nihilism come
>from?  The Plague?  Arbitrary suffering around him?  Any insights would
>be great!

Shakespeare's worldview seems to me to be Christian.  In Lear he
portrays not a nihilistic universe exactly, since there are easily
discernible relations between the actions and the weaknesses of the
characters and the consequences of those.  Lear's suffering is a
consequence of his pride and his anger, Gloucester's suffering is a
consequence of his lust.  Cordelia represents innocent suffering, but it
is caused by the sins of others, not the gods.

The play manifests a progression from sin and folly to purgation and
reconciliation, so it is not chaotic if one recognizes the spiritual
transformations of the characters Lear and Gloucester.  As far as the
external state of affairs, all ends in defeat and death.  Life ends in
death.  Each of our lives will end in death.  This is the truth of human
mortality, not, in itself, nihilistic nor chaotic.  Whether the play
and, by implication, our lives, are nihilistic and chaotic or meaningful
depends on our reaction to life, with its necessary suffering and death
for all.

Roger Schmeeckle
 

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