The Tao of Shakespeare?

Consider these two lines, so far removed from each other in time and culture. First, from King Lear, the anguished cry of the dispossessed and blinded Glouscester: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). And from the Tao Te Ching: “Heaven and Earth are Inhumane: they use the ten thousand things like straw dogs” (David Hinton, trans., verse 5). The difference, and it’s a Big Difference, is that Gloucester is complaining about how the universe is ordered. Lao Tzu is telling us that’s how it is, and it’s nothing to complain about. Also, Lao Tzu situates humans among the other “ten thousand things”, which was a standard expression for saying everything. Gloucester seems to believe humans deserve special treatment; not so Lao Tzu.

Who is being mean to Gloucester? Within the play, Regan and Cornwall have gouged out his eyes and expelled him onto the heath, but on the next level it’s Shakespeare who’s putting this character through so much. Asking what Shakespeare is doing leads to the next lines in Tao, 5: “And the sage too is Inhumane: he uses the hundred-fold people like straw dogs.” Is Shakespeare inhumane? To express why not–and to realign our thinking along lines that seem to me to be necessary for encountering the particular humanity that Shakespeare both exemplifies and engenders–I turn to a commentary on a different verse from the Tao. Here is Yen Tsun, about whom I know nothing: “Free of love and hate, they [Sages] are not the enemy of evil or the friend of the good. They are not the protector of truth or the adversary of falsehood. They support like the earth and cover like the sky” (quoted by Red Pine in his Tao Te Ching, verse 49). That, for me, describes Shakespeare.

It’s not that Shakespeare doesn’t have clear preferences about evil and good; we who attend Lear react with horror at the actions of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall, and we react with admiration to Edgar, Kent, and Cordelia. Yet what makes Lear worth calling profound is that as Shakespeare tells the tale, he is not the enemy of evil or the friend of the good. Instead, Shakespeare’s business is to show what consequences follow from particular acts, depending on who gets involved as consequences play out. Contrast how Shakespeare tells the tale with how it’s told in his source material. In that telling, Cordelia lives at the end, marries Edgar, and the gods seem less liable to Gloucester’s complaint. And that’s how King Lear was revised and performed for over a century, after the theatres reopened during the Restoration. Both the original teller and the revisionists were enemies of evil and friends of the good, and that required an ending in which good wins.

I’m not much on understanding history as a progress narrative, but I do recognize the ability of audiences and readers to tolerate Shakespeare’s telling as a sign of collective maturity. To return to Gloucester, if we hear him with the Tao beside us, we understand that he’s empirically correct but misguided to complain against the gods. The gods, or Heaven and Earth, are not Inhumane in the same sense that humans who kill for sport are inhumane. Only humans can be inhumane, and to believe otherwise is to seriously misunderstand the order of things, which people do all the time. I’m thinking of people whose response to illness and other misfortunes is to ask why questions. My rejection of such questions is partial: we can’t blame everything on the inherent a-humanity of Heaven and Earth. Too many misfortunes are caused by other humans, sometimes intentionally but more often, I think, as collateral damage required to enact a business plan, whoever’s plan that is, in war, commerce, or family life.

What I’m dealing with is the on-going question of why I focus on Shakespeare as my exemplar of authors who lend themselves to vulnerable reading. In one sense the choice of Shakespeare is arbitrary, but I’m inclined to believe there’s something about Will, and what Yen Tsun says about sages gets at what that is. Vulnerable reading is about finding your place in the order of things, when that place is not where you want to be. That’s the illness problem, in a nutshell. I don’t say refinding because for many people, their previous and quite functional sense of place was a tacit default position, much like Gloucester’s unreflective sense of entitlement before his downfall. Illness can require a new sort of active finding–which over the years is what keeps it interesting for me.

In the end, the play’s end, Gloucester dies knowing that his son Edgar is alive and might make it through the horror. Lear dies with Cordelia dead in his arms, possibly hoping she might possibly still live. But we know that stretches possibility too far. Shakespeare knows better. Heaven and Earth are not like that. For the master storyteller, the characters are straw dogs, and the story shows us how to live with that.

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