Last Friday I had the chance to get together with the other profs in my department, including adjuncts and a few teachers from Torrey Academy, and talk about King Lear for three hours. We call these meetings “High Table” meetings, because in them we do exactly what our students do, with the same texts for the same length of time using the same rules of conversation, but we do it as a faculty. So the table is higher, and we hope the discourse is also at an exalted level.
I didn’t take notes, but here are a few thoughts that stuck with me.
The redoubtable Miss Schubert was our leader, and her opening question was: “In Act I, Scene 1, Cordelia refuses to make the expected speech. Is her refusal blameworthy or praiseworthy?”
I like the way this question directed my attention away from the character of Lear. It’s easy to see that he is already a reckless monster hurling bolts of danger on every side. The Cordelia question instead makes you jump right into the heart of the play’s action, scrambling to make do with the dreadful situation the King has created. In that way, it’s like Hamlet: who knows what that ghosty was all about, the question is what Prince Smartypants is going to do now.
Cordelia’s refusal, for a host of reasons, must be praiseworthy. For a while I played with the idea that when her father the King asked her to declare her love, she had no more right to hold her tongue than would a groom at the altar. But after her (evil) sisters have just made distempered speeches about loving their father infinitely, beyond all bounds and measures and limits, Cordelia’s response (“I love you exactly the right amount considering your station and mine”) stands out as the first appropriate, human-sized utterance of scene 1 (until Kent speaks). And by the end, Cordelia is looking more and more like a witness to a transcendent truth, a faultless martyr for confessing reality.
As for the King, he ends up howling mad in a muddy hole of former-humanity with the elemental forces of nature chucking spite his way. He has a conversion that Luther and Kierkegaard would consider a bit much. And when it’s all over, and he returns from that crazy trackless space of bellowed Lawrence Olivier monologues to the relatively domestic world where plots get resolved, Shakespeare gets us into empathetic unity with him. And that’s when author starts whacking character around, dangling fantasies of possible redemption in front of him (and us) and then taking them away; tempting him to imagine scenarios where all is well, and then tearing off the illusion; letting him move two thoughts down the road of magical thinking (“surely the fates have taught me my lesson, and now they’ll restore my fortunes at least a little bit”) and then trashing the magic. Did that feather move? Is she alive? Is there a chance?
No, no, no, no, no, no, etc.
In the source material, Cordelia does not die. Shakespeare really swerved out of his lane to bump her off the road. A great question for further reflection is, why?
I don’t want to moralize prematurely, or make Lear serve the purposes of Christian apologetics (though that might be a nice break from the existentialist apologetics and preachifying he’s been pressed into the service of in recent decades). But it’s helpful for me to view the philosophic scaffolding of the play as basically Boethian, with the assumption being that wherever the wheel of fortune puts you (top: throne of a united kingdom. bottom: mudpit with Tom O’Bedlam), you can be rightly related to reality by being virtuous and thinking on eternity. That’s fine as far as it goes –and of course it doesn’t go anywhere near Christian theological claims either in Lear or in the Consolation of Philosophy.
The open question, for me, is what Shakespeare’s doing with it. He might be rubbing our noses in it, asking us “Are you sure you want to affirm this Boethian stuff? Do you really think you can handle it when it goes to the extremes it can go to?” One of the things I get from the play is an affective re-alignment, a throwing down of the emotional gauntlet to ask if all that virtue/goodness/providence stuff can hold water when we’re dealing with situations of real evil and suffering. Is that supposed to put steel in our spines by letting us experience vicariously how things will feel if we’re taken to the breaking point? Or is it supposed to throw the cold shadow of a question over our moral stance, to remind us to hold these claims less tightly?
Shakespeare hasn’t let me know yet. I’m still reading.