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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: July ::
New and Improved Lear
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1177  Monday, 4 July 2005

From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Sunday, 03 Jul 2005 23:33:04 -0400
Subject: New and Improved Lear
Comment:        SHK 16.1162 New and Improved Lear

If as John Paul Spiro alleges it is impossible to know what specifically
are Shakespeare's own values, it is not impossible to glean from the
values expressed by his characters that he understood the issues
involved since we usually see expressed all sides of a question. I don't
agree that it is impossible to know Shakespeare's views since these show
up in the working out of a play in what happens to the characters or how
issues are resolved.

As to the matter of universal values, how else would you describe such
values as expressed by Hector in Troilus and Cressida? Here is what
Hector says about taking away another man's wife at a time set in the
non biblical world of Troy, many hundreds of years before Solomon:

                                      Nature craves
         All dues be render'd to their owners: now,
         What nearer debt in all humanity
         Than wife is to the husband? If this law
         Of nature be corrupted through affection,
         And that great minds, of partial indulgence
         To their benumbed wills, resist the same,
         There is a law in each well-order'd nation
         To curb those raging appetites that are
         Most disobedient and refractory.
         If Helen then be wife to Sparta's king,
         As it is known she is, these moral laws
         Of nature and of nations speak aloud
         To have her back return'd: thus to persist
         In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
         But makes it much more heavy. Hector's opinion
         Is this in way of truth;

As we learn from these words, Hector knows that abducting a man's wife
is wrong, wrong universally. He knows that someone daring to violate
such laws should expect to be punished. This view could only be put into
Hector's head because Shakespeare thought that he would be believable
speaking it in the play. The line also tells us something about the
thinking of some of the best people of Shakespeare's Troy. The Trojans
know this universal law as if they had read it in the Ten Commandments.
But they don't follow it because they regard the honor and dignity of
Troy as more important and even Hector supports holding Helen. In the
end, they reap tragic consequences for doing so.

Here is confirmation that Shakespeare accepts the existence of universal
laws that he thinks his audiences would have recognized as believable in
his play, though audiences might know such precepts through their
biblically based morality. The point here is that Shakespeare need not
invoke Mosaic laws to assert what are also Mosaic laws since many of
these are universal, as shown operating among the Greeks and Trojans and
as accepted by Christians and all other religions. This is a universal
natural law that would be assumed operating in lawful societies everywhere.

I might note that the lines of Torah law that Larry Weiss cites from the
Bible should be understood in its ancient context, not from the
standards of today:

     "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid,
      with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall
      be surely punished.

     "Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two,
      he shall not be punished; for he is his money.

The precepts above assume slavery was a fact of life, a product of the
social conditions of the time and everywhere in operation. Note the
phrase above, "for he is his money." This makes the point that an owner
has an economic interest in keeping a servant/slave alive and healthy.
Hence, it is assumed that the owner would not have intentionally killed
his slave but only desired to discipline him.

Since forensic evidence was not evolved too far at the time, there
needed to be a lawful rule to distinguish deliberate murder from an
unintentional killing. Thus the words, "if the servant continue a day or
two," served as the test as to whether the blow given the servant was
meant to be lethal or not. Had the blow been fatal, that would speak for
itself and the owner would be held accountable and punished.

Sure, the standard was crude by modern standards with its forensic labs.
  However, such a killing of a servant/slave in some cases might be
unintentional. To save the unintentional killer from the punishment of a
murderer, a standard was needed since masters did discipline slaves. At
times, such a standard might protect a psychopathic master but it would
protect someone who did not intend to kill. Larry Weiss would say that
there should not have been such servitude that was everywhere a fact at
the time, but such a Bible would not even have been understood by the
society within which it originated.

That the Bible conceives the slavery in Israel at the time as an
economic institution is shown by the Biblical law that a runaway slave
could not be returned to his master (a law violated by U.S. pre-Civil
War Southern slave owners). Another Bible law commanded that if an owner
maimed his slave, the slave would be set free.

I apologize to John-Paul Spiro for hypothesizing about him. I merely
wished to point out that his judgements about the situation of Cordelia
and Lear are dealt with as principled abstractions and not as that
between an actual confrontation between father and daughter. Idealistic
abstraction is the way idealistic teen agers deal with discipline
problems. The same young girl that demands that her aunt heavily
discipline her five year old cousin, when she herself becomes a mother
of a five year old, will be a coaxing, cooing loving parent to her child
in the moment of discipline. The difference is the matured, loving capacity.

This mature loving relationship is what Lear and Cordelia achieve by the
time they reunite late in the play. Had that been their earlier mode of
loving interaction, there would have been no play. Their great suffering
was needed to change them, to change their character. Kent saw Lear's
folly and wanted to stop him but was not heard. Shakespeare is a genius
for getting down to characterlogical factors that are not affected by
logical arguments. Words and logical arguments could not affect Lear or
Cordelia at the play's beginning. They were too rigid characterlogically
to understand their predicament and this is what happens to rigid people
in real life.  Only great suffering changed the characters of Lear and
Cordelia. The biblical command to honor parents is a help in keeping
children in check so that they don't use their youthful misconceptions
to attack parents the way Cordelia did when she wrongly thinks love is
limited to a single target, as though we can't love greatly every one of
our ten fingers.

Other biblical precepts are designed to mold the wisdom needed for adult
maturity. For example, Proverbs 13:22 instructs, "A good man leaveth an
inheritance to his children's children:" In other words, a parent is
encouraged to be far sighted to the conditions that will be created for
future generations, something foolish Lear did not do.

Though some on this list would suggest biblical thinking does not apply
to Shakespeare, it is the stuff of his Bible based society and we
regularly find its precepts and commandments applied in the thinking of
his plays and given contextual understanding, unlike many who wrongly
interpret such things because they cannot fathom the context in which
they are to be understood as wisely crafted.

David Basch

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