The paradox of my life is such that if I am working and earning a living, the amount of time spent on that which I love, both reading and writing, decreases dramatically. It will not be until some time in the future when these two activities will become one. And in the meantime, I must take a step back and enjoy the perspective in which I can now view both this petty little blog and my favorite past time. For once one is paid for doing what he loves, the experience becomes slightly less rewarding. Such is the world we live in however, and it in no way means we should not do what we love, what makes us come alive. The present state of my literary journey has actually not been hindered as much as my writing, but as the list of books piles up on the table for comment, I take a breather from my first love and speak on what may be Shakespeare’s most heart-rending tragedy, King Lear.
Shakespeare’s famous play, like most of plays, is taken from an earlier story about the legendary King Lear of Britain. Many other writers before Shakespeare had written stories concerning the tragic king, including Edmund Spenser in the second book of The Faerie Queene. In Spenser’s version the tale is much the same but that in the end Cordelia does not die but instead rules peacefully until “her sisters, woxen strong / through proud ambition, against her rebeld.” Cordelia is thrown in prison until she wearies of life and hangs herself. Shakespeare takes this already sad story of a dysfunctional family and puts it into a dramatic production which proves very powerful.
This version of the Lear story is also unique in that Shakespeare brilliantly weaves in a subplot with another filial relationship regarding Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar the elder and Edmund the bastard. In fact, the entire play opens with tension between a father and his offspring when Gloucester reveals to Kent that he “often blushed to acknowledge” his illegitimate son Edmund, referring to him as a “knave that came something saucily to the world before / he was sent for” (1, 1). Both Gloucester and Lear are “blind” at the beginning of the play in that they cannot see the love from their sons and daughters for what it is, and this leads them to ill-treatment of their offspring. And when Lear foolishly decides to place the future of Britain in the hands of the daughter who best loves him he is struck numb when his favorite daughter Cordelia is mute, not wishing to brown-nose her father. As she leaves, Cordelia prophesies the undoing of her sisters, setting the stage for fortune to have its way: “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides, / Who covert faults at last with shame derides.” (1, 1).
Concerning Time in the play itself, I felt an inconsistency of sorts. Lear quickly discovers that his two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, who professed love at the beginning of the play are not what they appeared to be. The issue concerning the number of knights he has with him, an inconsistency itself, happens almost too quickly after the initial gushing of love giving in Act 1, Scene 1. By the end of Act 2, the two sisters are fully exposed for what they truly are, and Lear acts rashly once again as he leaves his daughters and heads out into the raging storm. This is his tragic flaw. He responded rashly to Cordelia’s reply in Act 1, Scene 1, and he now quickly gives into despair when he sees himself being pushed off the throne by the evil sisters.
The Bard brilliantly interweaves the two plots in Act 3 when Gloucester decides to not abandon his King and follows him into the raging storm. While Lear is certainly guilty of blindly following his daughters early on, so too is Gloucester guilty of rashly believing his bastard son Edmund concerning Edgar’s supposed conspiracy against his father. Edgar, like Cornelia, has been driven from his position and has taken on the false attire of a wandering beggar. The ruse is so good that when both Lear and Gloucester run into him in the storm they recognize him as nothing more than mad “Poor Tom.” This has such an effect on Gloucester that he asks Lear if he “hath.. no better company” (3, 4). It should also be noted that Lear actually begins going mad at the end of Act 2 and beginning of Act 3. This is apparent when, out in the storm, Lear petitions to “first… talk with this philosopher” (Poor Tom) before coming in out of the rain, a “philosopher” who only spouts incoherent gibberish.
This was by far the most dramatic scene of the entire play for me. The overarching theme of blindness, both mental and in the end physical, is displayed so well in the scene as Gloucester stares directly at his son without knowing it and bemoans his banishment.
“Thou say’st the King grows mad; I’ll tell thee, friend, / I am almost mad myself. I had a son, / Now outlawed from my blood: he sought my life / But lately, very late. I loved him, friend, / No father his son dearer: true to tell thee, / The grief hath crazed my wits.” (3, 4)
A proper analysis of the first half of this play would certainly be incomplete without due reference to Lear’s fool, the comic relief throughout the play. When the fool is inexplicably taken from the play, the humor is bottled up and thrown into the sea. But the fool is doing much more than making the audience laugh (though this should always be his primary purpose). The fool, like many comic Shakespearean characters, is presenting social commentary on Lear’s situation, constantly reminding him of his own rash foolishness in giving up his Kingdom before his death. The fool is much wiser than Lear, and his mysterious exit must be accounted for in an otherwise well-structured play. Upon his entrance into the play, he functions as a seer, citing Lear’s foolishness before the audience or anyone else realizes it. He rightly calls Kent, who is in disguise at this point forward, a fool for following such a man. One who should himself be wearing a coxcomb.
“Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb… Why? For taking one’s part that’s out of favor. Nay, an thou canst not smile as the wind sits, thou’lt catch cold shortly. There, take my coxcomb. Why, this fellow (Lear) has banished two on’s daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will. If thou follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb.” (1, 4).
Thus, the fool begins in prophesy and proceeds in song to show the real foolishness of his master, King Lear. As the play continues, Lear begins to actually see the effects of his earlier foolish decision, and this leads to his going mad. In the end, the fool plays along as Lear believes a stool to be his daughter. “Come hither, mistress; is your name Goneril?” asks the fool (3, 6). There are perhaps several explanations for the odd exiting of the fool, one being he is killed by Edmund and the two sisters. An explanation is not necessarily needed, however, but symbolism. For the vanishing of the fool signifies the completeness of Lear’s madness. The fool served as his “better-half”, his conscience and right way of thinking. Ironically, as the fool leaves, so does any hope of Lear’s sanity. And if the king himself is now a fool, what hope has humanity? Perhaps Ian McKellan catches the mood of Lear’s astounding proclamation best with the words “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools!” (4, 6).
http://video.pbs.org/video/1075274407/ (The proclamation begins at 1:56:50, but the entire production is an interesting take on the play).
The heart-rending part of the play also begins with the exiting of the fool. Shortly after, Gloucester’s eyes are put out simply because his bastard son wants his position. The mental blindness of Gloucester has now become a very physical reality, and when we next see Gloucester he is asking his son Edgar, still disguised as Poor Tom, to lead him to the top of a cliff so he can end it all. Despair has overtaken both Lear and Gloucester. Lear is completely mad (displayed well by McKellen no doubt!), and Gloucester is suicidal. But despair is simply a negative outlook on fortune. And as Lear rightly proclaims himself as “the natural fool of Fortune” he subjects himself to a cruel fate that is inevitably at odds with his own desires. Even when Lear is reunited with Coredelia at the end of Act 4, he is unable to believe initially.
“You do me wrong to take me out o’th’grave: / Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead.” (4, 7)
This “wheal of fire” is a symbol of damnation is both traditional Christianity and Greek Mythology, and when Edmund declares that “the wheel is come full circle” in Act 5, Scene 3, he alludes to the popular “Wheel of Fortune.” Thus the entire play throughout, both with prophecies and allusions, questions the age old issue of justice and fate. I do not, because I side with the religious, want to coin the discussion as a “problem” for I see it not as such. But it is certainly a theological concept that has been long debated and is placed on the stage of fools before us in this play. We can perhaps reconcile some injustice on this planet, but ultimately there seems far too much injustice for a just god to be the one in control. We can, for instance, accept the death of Lear and the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes, even the death of the fool as we learn in the end he is hanged. But we cannot accept Cordelia’s death. This is an injustice to the extreme. The killing off of Cordelia begs that conundrum: If God himself is just, there by consequence can be no injustice. If there is injustice on this planet, there cannot be a just God. Either God is unjust, or he does not exist.
Christianity, I believe, correctly answers this question. But I will choose not to get into the discussion concerning Christianity as there are already numerous books and essays on the issue. What is Shakespeare saying about the matter in King Lear? Is he giving a defense for fortune or merely playing Devil’s Advocate? Specifically, what are his characters concluding? Unlike in Othello, the bad guys perish, yet the good guys suffer in ways that seem unnecessary. The killing off of Cordelia is tragic in and of itself, yet it comes after the eloquent speech of the parent to the daughter: Lear’s apology for his rashness at the beginning of the play. They are sent to prison, but are resolved to be happily inhabited there.
“Come, let’s away to prison: / we too alone will sing like birds i’th’cage; / When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask thee forgiveness. So we’ll live, / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh / At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues, / talk of court news… and we’ll wear out, / In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones / That ebb and flow by th’moon.” (5, 3)
This happiness that Lear finally experiences in being reunited with his daughter is in stark contrast to the event that follows it. Lear appeals to the gods as he states that “he that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven / And fire us hence like foxes” (5, 3). As soon as the two exit, the audience sees Edmund plan their deaths by sending his captain after them. The appeal to fortune for help failed for Lear, and he seems to begin to see this realization near the end as he asks a revealing question over his daughters body: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!” Lear seems to despise this fate that has brought him to madness and taken his daughter from him. Edgar himself submits to fate stating that “the weight of this sad time we must obey.” The characters have in the least accepted that fate is in control of all these events, even though those outcomes often seem unrelentingly cruel in man’s eyes.
Shakespeare, I conclude, through his characters deems fate to be a very cruel thing in our universe. The gods are not just beings, but they are controlling things in any matter. I would naturally disagree with such a sentiment being a Christian. The issue is not the one we often get tied up on. It is not about whether a good man suffers or a bad man is given his poetic justice. It is not whether God is some sadistic freak with lightning bolts or a great jolly Santa Clause ready to give gifts. Neither such being exists but in fairy tales, though we are part of a fairy tale of sorts. The story in which we reside is one in which many suffer and many prosper, but we should not be so short-sighted to see only so far. For prospering this side of heaven may be the closest some get to the Kingdom, and a suffering saint has crowns awaiting him at the gates of splendor. If God is perceived as unjust it is because our vision of him has been dimmed by sin. There can only be injustice in this story because our Great Author has allowed for a mighty subplot to reign. And the mere characters are unable to understand because the mind of such an Author is such that comprehension of it is far beyond our wisdom apart from his grace. Like a child who feels slighted but his good parent, we often scratch our heads at our Father. But when that filial Author finishes writing our story, we shall see him as he is, and even this suffering will be seen a blessing and all our questions will be answered at the end of the book with one grand “Aha!”