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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: July ::
New and Improved Lear
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1180  Tuesday, 5 July 2005

[1]     From:   John-Paul Spiro <
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        Date:   Monday, 04 Jul 2005 14:19:25 -0400
        Subj:   RE: SHK 16.1177 New and Improved Lear

[2]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Monday, 4 Jul 2005 20:10:47 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.1177 New and Improved Lear

[3]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 5 Jul 2005 09:45:12 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.1177 New and Improved Lear


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John-Paul Spiro <
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Date:           Monday, 04 Jul 2005 14:19:25 -0400
Subject: 16.1177 New and Improved Lear
Comment:        RE: SHK 16.1177 New and Improved Lear

I thank David Basch for his well-considered response.  I agree that the
best guide to Shakespeare's own views (at a particular moment in his
life) "show up in the working out of a play in what happens to the
characters or how issues are resolved," though I wonder how "resolved"
any issue is in any of Shakespeare's writings.

As for Mr. Basch's example of "universal values" as expressed by Hector,
I also agree.  "Stealing a man's wife" is a bad move in just about every
culture, though Hector's sentiment that "Nature craves/All dues be
render'd to their owners" presupposes that Nature believes in private
property and that wives are property of husbands.  One "universal" in
Hector's speech is the tendency of human beings to justify their
behavior based on universal or natural laws.

However, I'm not sure if I agree with this:

 >Here [Hector's speech in "Troilus and Cressida"] 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.

Shakespeare may "accept the existence of universal laws" but that is not
the same as endorsing them as universal.  Basch is right to say that the
audience would mostly view various values through the Bible, but
Shakespeare and his contemporaries were wary of exploring specifically
biblical morality onstage for various reasons, most of them legal.  This
is one of the main reasons why we should not be quick to make judgments
about Shakespeare's religious sympathies.

 >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.

I try to deal with the situation within the context of the play itself.
  Cordelia has an abstract principle (Always be honest) and Lear has a
concrete lack of principle (Insist that your children worship you in
public).  Cordelia thinks of herself as an immovable object; Lear thinks
of himself as an irresistible force.  I have slightly more respect for
Cordelia: I think Lear sets up the situation that destroys them both.  I
also keep very much in mind that Cordelia loves Lear, regardless of how
he treats her.  Similarly, Kent loves Lear, regardless of how Lear
treats anybody.  In the end, it is Lear who has the weaker understanding
of love and what it means.  This is why Lear says:

If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

This is Lear's confession of guilt.

I agree with Mr. Basch that Cordelia acts like a teenager in 1.1.  Lear,
on the other hand, acts like an infant.

 >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.

Hear hear.

 >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.

Though Mr. Basch admits that Lear didn't think enough about the future,
has he explored the other biblical injunctions that Lear himself
violates?  Harold Bloom and others have speculated that Lear usurps
YHWH's own authority and personality.  That's a no-no, isn't it?

 >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.

Does anyone actually believe that biblical thinking does not apply to
Shakespeare?  Shakespeare obviously read parts of the Bible very
closely.  I would say that Ovid, Plautus, and some of Shakespeare's
older influences were more concrete influences, but the Bible is
obviously a key text for understanding Shakespeare's work.  As for the
Talmud as an influence, well, there people will disagree.

John-Paul Spiro

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Monday, 4 Jul 2005 20:10:47 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 16.1177 New and Improved Lear
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.1177 New and Improved Lear

David Basch writes, "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 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...The precepts above assume slavery was
a fact of life, a product of the social conditions of the time and
everywhere in operation...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)."

Again and again, David Basch refers to the Old Testament as a standing
alone Bible among Christians, now at the time of America before the War
Between The States.  And he is wrong.  If he presumes that the South in
America before that war was literally translating the Old Testament of
The Holy Bible, and ignoring the New Testament, then he is sadly
mistaken.  As well, he needs to study American history of the causes of
that war and shed himself of his implied attack upon the South before
the War Between The States.  At best, he should read the New Testament
before any more of these grandiose sweeps about American mores and in
particular his broad paint brush of a war he has little understanding
of, and The Holy Bible of the Christians, of which he equally has little
understanding.  I can assure him, although I doubt he will be assured,
that Christians paid more attention to the New Testament than the Old
Testament in The Holy Bible.  They were not/are not into interpreting
Old Testament law, all of it, particularly blood sacrifices before the
altar, and other OT law, literally.  For him to suggest so is ludicrous.
Again, I say, The Holy Bible is The New Testament as it refers to God's
Old Testament and in particular how the law of the New transcended the Old.

Bill Arnold
http://www.cwru.edu/affil/edis/scholars/arnold.htm

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Tuesday, 5 Jul 2005 09:45:12 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 16.1177 New and Improved Lear
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.1177 New and Improved Lear

 >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

Of course scriptural precepts should be interpreted by historicist
principles.  My point in citing the passage from Exodus was to point out
the non-universal nature of Mosaic law.  This presents difficulties only
for those who believe that Mosaic law was dictated by Jahweh and
reflects immutable moral demands.  If, as Mr. Basch and I seem to agree
is likely, the commandment I cited represents a crude rule of thumb
enacted by a slave-holding legislator to regulate the practices of other
slaveholders consistent with their self interest, then we can safely
reject any claim of universality. So, too, must prohibitions against
sabbath breaking, dietary regulations and other sumptuary legislation
yield to modern conditions.

Similarly, the precept about honoring one's parents should be understood
in the context of the current society's familial structure.  In nomadic
societies it would have a more stringent application than the merely
hortatory significance appropriate in an industrialized society with a
strong central state organization.

For those who insist that these concepts are divine laws, on the other
hand, the harsh dictates of the Exodus passage I quoted must give pause.
  Is that passage still operative as a moral precept?  If not, when and
why did Jahweh change His mind?

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