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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: June ::
New and Improved Lear
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1147  Friday, 24 June 2005

From:           John-Paul Spiro <
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Date:           Friday, 24 Jun 2005 00:56:55 -0400
Subject: 16.1136 New and Improved Lear
Comment:        RE: SHK 16.1136 New and Improved Lear

David Basch writes:

 >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,

We should be aware when we are judging the characters in a play with a
morality external to them.  Shakespeare is at pains to show that Lear's
Britain is not Judeo-Christian.  We can read Judeo-Christianity back
into the play, just as, for example, many Christians read Christianity
back into the Hebrew Scriptures, but when we do so we are imposing a
morality that would be foreign to the individuals who perform the
actions we judge.

 >a
 >Shakespeare that shares the very same biblical morality that
 >John-Paul
 >Spiro says does not apply to the play.

Maybe I'm just humble, but I would never make any claims about
Shakespeare's own morality.  I did not know the man, and his writings
are quite equivocal.

 >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.

Though I do not agree with much of this, I don't quarrel with its main
point.  My only objection is to the idea that Cordelia violates this
morality more than Lear does.

 >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.

If this is so, then we can see where Cordelia's petulance comes from.
Look at her father!

 >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.

Indeed.  But no one said that family members do not have obligations to
one another.  Cordelia's inability to heave her heart into her mouth
derives precisely from her sense of these obligations.

 >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.

Wow.  If that's the case, then the Bible is pretty irrelevant.  Morality
is universal and therefore the specifics of the Bible are just
nitpicking.  The polytheists and astrologers of "King Lear" can be held
to the same moral standards as the Hebrew Patriarchs because it's all
the same anyway!  Shakespeare wasn't Christian OR Jewish!  He was just
"universal" and therefore we err in trying to pin him down to a specific
creed.  Whew...glad to see that discussion's over.

 >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 never said the parent-child relation was a mere expression of
loyalty.  Mr. Lear did.

 >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
 >relation.

I did not know that "no cause" means "my fault."  Cordelia, as always,
says very little, so it is difficult to know what she is thinking.  She
asks for Lear's blessing and simply says "And so I am, I am!"  (Biblical
echoes there...hmm...)  Lear admits wrongdoing and says Cordelia has
cause to hate him.  She disagrees only with the second half of that: she
neither says "You did nothing wrong" nor "I did wrong."

 >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.

She did not want to hurt him.  He asked for something she could not give.

 >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.

Lear's misdeeds are nowhere near as bad as Cornwall's.  I compared the
events to show how Shakespeare was quite engaged with problems of
loyalty to one's superiors.  Cordelia, like Kent and Cornwall's servant,
feels that she cannot violate her private conscience in the name of
loyalty, even to her father.  She--and so many others--pays a price for
this, just as Kent's efforts effectively come to naught and Cornwall's
servant is killed shortly after he acts against his master.

As for Cordelia's knowledge of universal wisdom I can make no claims.
We do not know what she knows.  When I read 1.1, my sense is she thinks
she's doing the right thing and that Lear is doing wrong.  Perhaps if
all of these people had access to the Bible they would behave more
appropriately: indeed, this may have been Shakespeare's point.  "This is
what happens when people don't obey YHWH.  Ignorance is no excuse."

 >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.

I have been told that Shakespeare is quite universally appreciated, that
almost all cultures that encounter his works see examples of their own
morals and values.  If we are to laud him for his universality, then why
simultaneously locate his morality in "Deuteronomy"?  There's a lot in
"Deuteronomy" that Shakespeare ignores.  Meanwhile, I can see quite a
bit of overlap between the ideas addressed in Shakespeare's plays and
the Code of Hammurabi and the "Tao Te Ching".  Was Shakespeare a secret
Babylonian or Taoist?  Of course not.  He did have access to
"Deuteronomy," as did any literate English person in his age.  He
probably read it and took from it what he liked, as he did with so many
other things.  The rest he probably intuited.  I don't know; I never met
the man.  But when parts of his writings ring bells in my head, I don't
assume that he's an Irish Catholic guy from New Jersey.  I'm happy that
I'm familiar with traditions with which Shakespeare was also familiar,
as it makes some of my work easier, but I also respect that Shakespeare
kept his beliefs (whatever they were) to himself and he left his works
for us to fight over.  God help us if we ever think we've got those
works figured out and we simplify them so much that they fit within our
own little worldviews.

John-Paul Spiro

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