The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1136 Thursday, 23 June 2005
 From: Edmund Taft <
Date: Wednesday, 22 Jun 2005 12:22:45 -0400
Subj: New and Improved Lear
 From: David Basch <
Date: Wednesday, 22 Jun 2005 16:40:54 -0400
Subj: Re: SHK 16.1130 New and Improved Lear
From: Edmund Taft <
Date: Wednesday, 22 Jun 2005 12:22:45 -0400
Subject: New and Improved Lear
John-Pal Spiro ends his post by concluding that "Lear knows [Cordelia]
loves him, but he wants more than that: the failure to love properly is
Just so. The fault is clearly Lear's, a point that becomes obvious if we
ask ourselves the question posed by Shakespeare even before the scene
proper begins: Why is Lear holding this ceremonious "division of the
kingdom" when his decision is already made and known? Lear has decided
to add a "love test," which makes the announcement into a trap for
Cordelia. He expects that she will fall for it by giving an expression
of love in excess of her sisters, and thus winning her third of the
kingdom but losing the right to marry, as she hopes.
For if, as Lear expects, she announces that all her love belongs to
Daddy, then he can quote her own words back at her, stop her from
marrying, and have her all to himself. That's what he thought would
happen, as he himself says in a quasi-aside.
But Cordelia is more than up to this challenge. She sees through him
right away, and tries to get out of this situation by saying "nothing."
What more could she do? When that doesn't work, she has to explain that
part of her love is reserved for her lord when she marries.
Lear acts contemptibly here, and he is the one who violates any notion
of "proper" love. He cannot step aside and let a younger man (France)
take his place. He is the guilty one, not Cordelia. She has her faults,
but standing up to Lear (like Kent) in the opening scene is not one of them.
From: David Basch <
Date: Wednesday, 22 Jun 2005 16:40:54 -0400
Subject: 16.1130 New and Improved Lear
Comment: Re: SHK 16.1130 New and Improved Lear
John-Paul Spiro wrote:
>There are many theological and moral ideas explored in "King Lear," but
>Hebraic and Christian monotheism is not one of them.
Just as Job lived in a non biblical society and had friends that judged
him in the light of the beliefs of the day and is understood in
accordance with the biblical morality of those who read that book, so
too does Lear live in a pagan society, sharing those pagan views but
with the play audience seeing it against the background of the
audience's morality through the eyes of Shakespeare that crafted it, a
Shakespeare that shares the very same biblical morality that John-Paul
Spiro says does not apply to the play.
While Shakespeare's assumptions do tap a universal morality, that
morality is encompassed in biblical morality. Thus the moral
expectations of characters in the Lear play are well within that
biblical morality. When persons violate that universal morality,
Shakespeare shows the consequences of it in ways understandable to his
audience. Shakespeare's audiences were obviously familiar with the Ten
Commandments and with the morality stemming from them, including
obligations to parents. It is mistaken to view the play wrested from the
matrix of this biblical morality.
I think it is a further error to dismiss the obligations that grow from
intergenerational relations of parent and child, as though modern
morality and thinking (whatever that is) would consign all of that to
outworn, fossilized history.
Cordelia is daughter to Lear and, like her sisters, is bound by the
obligations that all men have toward those who progenate, nurture, and
raise them. It is from such relations that we learn to love, to respect,
to learn time proven lessons of conduct, and especially to form our own
personality through that passage. It is from those relations that the
cultural wisdom of attitudes and emotional capacities in the deepest
sense are passed on to succeeding generations. It also has certain
advantages of building in a social conservatism that prevents drastic
social changes and experiments that could lead to unforeseen
consequences with devastating ruin, but does not preclude gradual
change. These relations are so life affirming that societies are wise to
see that these relations are avowed.
The point is that this is the background of King Lear. As we witness the
breakdown of these familial relations and obligations, we witness the
consequent collapse of the nation with ramifications that ultimately
extend to the domain of nature, "with storms never before seen." To
ignore this background of the play is not to understand the play.
While the Bible calls attention to the vital nature of such relations by
commandment, the importance of such relations is so ingrained in
societies that it hardly needs the Bible to make this evident and it
would have been seen as part of a universal morality that would have
been recognized and applied by pagan societies. When it wasn't, those
societies would have been weakened. Thus, this kind of morality would
have been operative in the play in pagan times even as it is operative
in the perspective of the play's audience.
Mr. Spiro is wrong in seeing the parent child relation as a mere
expression of loyalty. This fully underestimates the great depths of
such relations that are so important and vital in the lives and ethos of
everyone, making it an act of wisdom to exert much effort and love to
preserve these relations for out own sakes. These relations are the
bedrock of society, a fact that is expressed in Shakespeare's play.
Mr. Spiro is also wrong in misreading Cordelia's "no cause." It is not
the superficial lesson that "we can disagree with no acrimony." It is
nothing less than an admission of her personal role in bringing on the
disaster. The great suffering that she and her father undergo is what
changes them characterlogically so that they are able to see and
understand their flaws and be born anew to enjoy a more depthful, loving
John-Paul Spiro writes about Cordelia:
>she "can't heave her heart into her mouth." She is
>not capable of lying, even exaggerating.
Here he shows that he knows not the distinction between lying and
tempering a statement to avoid being hurtful to a loved one, especially
to an aged parent, for whom there is obligation for a lifetime of prior
kindnesses, imperfect though this may have been.
But, as Mr. Spiro does, to equate the servant's attempt to stop the
blinding of Gloucester, described by the servant as a loyal act to his
master in the highest sense, (or Kent's loyal attempt to intervene with
Lear) as akin to Cordelia's public defiance of her father (her attempt
to raise him), is to blur the different natures of these actions.
Lear was hardly committing something so heinous as blinding Gloucester.
He was guilty of a blindness born of characterlogical egotism. This is
bad enough but Cordelia too, in addition to not honoring her father,
violates many biblical precepts that would have cautioned her away from
her folly, such as, "a soft answer turneth away wrath," and "be not
righteous over much ... for why woulds't thou destroy thyself." These
precepts may be in the Bible but they are universals of wisdom and I
would wager that they are to be found in world wisdom literatures
everywhere and shed light on the nuances of Cordelia's errors.
To divorce Shakespeare from this morality is not to understand where he
comes from. The Deuteronomic lessons of rewards and punishments for sins
and good deeds are everywhere in this play, with the reward for
goodness, at times, shown to be only the good actions themselves in the
"ripening" or maturing of personality, though a partial restoration is
granted Lear and Cordelia in their reuniting and restored love.
Just as Job assumes a higher, divine realm with considerations that
mortals cannot fathom, (intimations of this is given in the opening
heavenly court debate about issues of human conduct and virtue), this
too is the assumption behind the action in the play. This is explicit as
it gets as expressed in Lear's last moments in which he sees or
intimates in the land of the living his daughter alive. Those with faith
live with such intimations and others must be content to live in doubt,
as is true of readers of Job.
Finally, I would note that the rabbis of the Talmud remarked that there
never was this man Job and that the Book of Job was an inspired story to
reveal God's ways. Intimations of these ways appear in the heavenly
court episode that God's concerns transcend what humans can know on
earth. The later episodes in Job, when God points out to Job the
vastness of God's responsibilities and concerns, are read with the
opening episode in mind, though Job does not know of it. Job's feeling
of closeness to God is resolution enough for him in the faith that a
just God would see that all is resolved in a higher sphere. The Book of
Job had to end on the high note of Job's restoration since Job was
defined as blameless and it was all a divine experiment. Not to do so
would have shown God to be sporting with a man's fate and unconcerned
with the system of reward and punishment. (One rabbinic commentator has
even gone so far as to suggest that the servant who reported the death
of Job's large family was in error.) This happy ending was not required
in Shakespeare's play since the lesson of goodness as its own reward
could only be taught that way.
We can at least recognize that, without the downside of earthly
temptations, evil, and man's failures to act morally, there can be no
low points in human existence to contrast the experience of human
greatness that succeeds against all these odds. This range is needed in
order to make life a serious matter and a fit arena for the unfolding of
man's potential. But because of the suffering that is the consequence of
such a world, the rabbis of the Talmud concluded that it would have been
better had the world not been created, resigning themselves to the way
it is, to which situation all must necessarily submit as the price of
living, including Lear and Cordelia.
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