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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: March ::
Pessimism in Lear
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0832  Tuesday, 19 March 2002

[1]     From:   David Wilson-Okamura <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Mar 2002 14:48:38 -0600
        Subj:   Pessimism in Lear

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Mar 2002 22:58:02 -0800
        Subj:   13.0818 Re: Shakespeare and Catholicism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Wilson-Okamura <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Mar 2002 14:48:38 -0600
Subject:        Pessimism in Lear

Brandon Toropov <
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 > wrote:

>If the point is that man can never expect to understand God's
>inscrutable intentions, and that WS should not be described as setting
>forth in this play either a pessimistic or optimistic position on the
>divine role ... how do we square this with Lear's final entrance?

[quotes dialogue]

>That collocation seems to me consistent with a pessimistic authorial
>view of the divine role (or lack thereof) in human affairs.
>
>I know it's tricky, trying to conclude from any single stage moment what
>WS "really meant," but this entrance is so carefully prepared, and so
>central to the action of the play, that it's hard not to feel that
>Shakespeare meant to say *something* important with it...

Bill Arnold can speak for himself, and I hope that he will. In the
meantime, I'll offer my two cents on whether or not "Shakespeare meant
to say *something* important." To my mind, there's a difference between
wanting to *say* something and wanting to make an audience *feel*
something. Let me take another example from the final scene. When Kent
says "All's cheerless, dark, and deadly" I'm assuming that he means it
_when he says it_. Ditto for Edgar when he wonders whether this present
scene might be an image of the final horror. Both of these are dramatic
statements about what it feels like when you're standing on a stage that
is littered with bodies. (Well, the bodies aren't actually on stage in
this instance, but you know what I mean.)

Fortunately, real life isn't usually like the end of King Lear. The end
of King Lear is art: a deliberative intensification and elaboration of a
mood that we don't usually encounter in its pure form. It is a mood in
which we make statements like Kent's, and in which it seems as if heaven
is either powerless or unwilling to defend the innocent. It may have
been, for Shakespeare, a mood that recurred frequently at this point in
his life, and in that sense we might say that the mood, sustained over
the course of several plays and several years, achieves the status of a
statement. On the other hand, Lear _is_ a tragedy, and according to
Aristotle, tragedy works by making you feel really, really bad.

Was Shakespeare trying to write an Aristotelian tragedy? That's more
than we know--and so is the thesis that Shakespeare was trying to make a
statement about the universe.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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 >
Date:           Monday, 18 Mar 2002 22:58:02 -0800
Subject:        13.0818 Re: Shakespeare and Catholicism

Brandon Toropov suggests that the lines and stage directions which
follow seem "consistent with a pessimistic authorial view of the divine
role (or lack thereof) in human affairs."

>EDMUND: He hath commission from thy wife and me/To hang Cordelia in the
>prison, and/To lay the blame upon her own despair,/That she fordid
>herself.
>
>ALBANY: The gods defend her!
>
>(Enter LEAR with Cordelia in his arms.)

They are indeed consistent with such a view.  They might also be
consistent with a view excoriating the characters as pagan, placing
their face in false gods.  More importantly, I think, laying "the blame
upon her own despair" nicely explains the historical tradition which
Shakespeare had inherited about Cordelia killing herself, while
transferring the blame from "her own despair" to the machinations of
Edmund.  Shakespeare, in other words, is going to considerable efforts
to exculpate Cordelia from the sin of despair.

Cheers,
Se

 

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