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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: March ::
Re: Pessimism in Lear
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0863  Thursday, 28 March 2002

[1]     From:   David Wilson-Okamura <
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        Date:   Thursday, 21 Mar 2002 13:23:01 -0600
        Subj:   Re: Pessimism in Lear

[2]     From:   R. Schmeeckle <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 26 Mar 2002 15:46:51 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0849 Re: Pessimism in Lear


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Wilson-Okamura <
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Date:           Thursday, 21 Mar 2002 13:23:01 -0600
Subject:        Re: Pessimism in Lear

ABrandon Toropov <
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 > wrote:

>A comedy that ends in a marriage, for instance, is telling us something
>very specific about the theatrical world of the play: "You and I,
>audience member, live in a place where even the most dire obstacles and
>betrayals can be overcome by a new social order; that new social
>arrangement is exemplified by the formal union of these two lovers.
>Look. Everyone's *happy* that these two are getting married, even the
>people who were giving them a hard time/trying to kill them/spreading
>lies about them/etc.! The whole world has been transformed. Aren't
>fertility and married sex remarkable? When you think about it, death and
>conflict may not be such big deals after all."

The world of Shakespeare's comedies is, as you point out, a fantasy
world.  To be sure, there are usually hints of loose ends; even so, the
outcomes are, on the whole, tidier and more symmetrical than those we
encounter when we go home. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that we go
to plays; if they were really "just like real life," most of us would
_stay_ at home. What the playwright offers is an experience that is like
life, but more concentrated. That concentration may be instructive, but
it is invariably selective -- as are the so-called reality shows on TV.
Can you imagine watching real people 24 hours a day? Well, neither can
the producers. They know that audiences would tune out after about three
minutes of the REAL "real world," and so they edit the footage and
select the most interesting parts. The result is sometimes entertaining,
but it's a mistake to think that it's actually representative. I suppose
a playwright might WANT you to believe that this is what real life is
like. But who does? Certainly not the people who are actually involved
in making the show.

The same thing is true of tragedy. King Lear is just as much a fantasy
as A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is a dark fantasy, in which everything
is improbably cruel and grim; at every point, the darkness and cruelty
are _deliberately_ intensified.

To be sure, we all go through black spells, and I wouldn't be surprised
to learn that Shakespeare was going through one when he wrote King
Lear.  Having said that, I think King Lear exaggerates -- just as the
romantic comedies exaggerate, and for precisely the same reason: because
real life is cheap. You don't need to fork over $8 to get a slice of it.
Everyone gets a lifetime supply at birth. Art is something different;
art you have to pay for, precisely because it's _not_ the real world.

Hmmm. That's not entirely true, either. Try this, then. Have you ever
said something in anger: something that you didn't entirely believe,
even when you said it, but you said it anyway because it felt good to
say it? King Lear may well have started out as an angry saying: an
exaggeration, perhaps in the direction of the truth, but an exaggeration
all the same.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           R. Schmeeckle <
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Date:           Tuesday, 26 Mar 2002 15:46:51 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0849 Re: Pessimism in Lear
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0849 Re: Pessimism in Lear

I will preface my comments by citing my bias:  Lear is a fifth gospel,
reflecting a profoundly Christian view that is between the lines, not
overtly in them.  The profusion of Christian allusions is in a context
of a pre-Christian setting and a very dark vision at the end.  I do not
refer to it as a tragedy, because, to my knowledge, Shakespeare never
referred to any of his plays as tragedies, the term being appended by
editors and commentators, and to apply Aristotelian categories to
Shakespeare is to distort the plays.

I do not intend to prove the above contentions, but rather to support my
personal interpretation of the play, which I have probably read and
pondered fifty or sixty times over a period of a lifetime. If anyone can
show that my interpretation is untenable, as distinct from unconvincing,
you will do me a favor.

The key to understanding the play is in the "nothing" lines, introduced
in the exchange between Lear and Cordelia in the first act, in which the
word "nothing" calls attention to itself by being repeated, I think,
five times in eight words.  The idea that nothing can come from nothing
is introduced, to be reiterated later in the play.  My contention is
that this is an allusion to Christ's statement that "without me you can
do nothing."

The setting is ambiguous, in Britain, but a pre-Christian Britain, so
far as the overt details: specifically, the references to the gods in
the plural or by pagan names.  This is consistent with the claim that
the play is about a world without Christ, on the surface, at least.

This interpretation makes sense of the darkness of the ending, because
Christ did not offer any wordly comfort or happiness to his followers.
Rather, he extolled the blessedness of suffering in this life, and I
bring into play his statement to Thomas: "You have seen and believed;
blessed are those who have not seen and have beleived." So a life or
lives or events that seem to end in darkness, rather than raising the
question of why God permits suffering, is vindication that this world is
a vale of tears and that wordly success, prosperity, and comfort are
ephemeral.  Lear, like Christ's crucifixion, ends surrounded by dead
bodies, including the main protagonist(s)

Having tried to account for the pre-Christian setting and the dark
ending, I will now try to point out some of the evidence for my claim
that Lear is profoundly Christian.  I will cite the spectrum of
characters, the lines describing Cordelia, and the use of the expression
"God's. spies."

There is a spectrum of characters, ranging from the damned to the
saintly, with several gradations in between.  Need I do more than
contrast the one who orders Gloucester's eyes to be put out and Cordelia
as the extremes?  They represent, on the one hand, those, who, so far as
we can tell from their earthly history, are damned, the Hitlers,
Stalins, et al, and those, again so far as we can tell from their
earthly history, are saints, the Mother Teresas.  In between are those
in a state of purgation, slowly trending towards purification through
suffering, purification from their sinful passions.  Lear and Gloucester
are examples, their passions, respectively being anger and lust.  I do
not mean by the schematic character of this to reduce these characters
to a mere function, but to show that they do fill these functions.
There are many variations on the scheme.  For instance, Edmund, who
seems thoroughly evil, manifests a change of heart when he realizes he
is going to die, just as there are in the world those who put off their
good deeds until they have lost all wordly options.

Lines referring to Cordelia are rife with scriptural allusions, all of
which tend to identify her with Christ and his salvific and redemptive
functions, for instance, being about her father's business.  And
incidentally, I interpret Cordelia as representing Catholic saintliness,
Kent as representing Protestant virtue, both of which Shakespeare,
whatever his beliefs and allegiance, was open enough to credit.

Finally, the "God's spies."  A spy is one who, while serving one
country, abides in another to which he/she does not belong, in order to
promote the interests of his/her own.   This is spoken with reference to
Lear and Cordelia, at the end, after they have both lost their own
kingdoms, but after they have attained reconciliation.  Dare I say they
are then in the world, but not of it, their kingdom being elsewhere.
What an ending for a play that begins with a focus on a kingdom of this
world, being foolishly divided to end with the perpetrator and the
victim of injustice being reconciled, having found a better kingdom.

There!  I have had my say.  Shoot it down if you can, but, if it sheds
any light on a play that ends in darkness, welcome the light.  And
consider it appropriate to the week.

Roger Schmeeckle

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