Risk, Lear, and Life

Not the least interesting reason for choosing to work on Shakespeare is that it introduces me to people at what may be, for many of them, the top of their game. Falstaff famously says that not only is he witty himself, he is the cause of wit in others. Shakespeare might have been writing about himself. I hope he may still be the cause of wit in me, although I appreciate the challenge, even for Will.

Which brings me to S.L. Goldberg’s 1970 An Essay on King Lear (Cambridge). Reading as I do, by snowball sampling, I read somebody else quoting Goldberg and found his book cheaply online, used. Such is my late style of scholarship. I started the book, got bored or bogged down, then went back to it and was glad I did. After finishing it I looked up Goldberg, or Sam as he was known. He was born in Melbourne in 1926; his father was a tailor. He eventually worked his way to Oxford, where the critic F.R. Leavis had a great influence on him. I don’t know as much as I should about Leavis and those known as Leavisites, but the idea of someone’s name becoming a school does not sit well with current sensibilities. Although we write about some argument being Foucauldean, Foucault hated boundaries; no acolyte academic group has formed. Bourdieu railed against what he called consecration. Anyway, Goldberg returned to Australia, went through several marriages and as many different departments, upset a lot of people, and along the way published his Essay on King Lear to mixed reviews, critics suspicious of what they perceived as its moral rigidity, which seems to have been his problem as a departmental chair. The world being a small place, I discovered I know at least two colleagues who worked with Goldberg. One degree of separation, as always. Goldberg died in 1991, heart problems.

I didn’t know this while I was reading the book, but retrospectively it makes sense. What I like about Goldberg’s Essay are the questions that he finds the play asking; they’re big questions about life and how to live it. What I found tedious is that Goldberg can’t let himself fully like any of the characters: Edgar he finds always “besides the point” in his speeches; Cordelia’s importance he cautions against overrating. Goldberg opens himself to big questions, but also holds himself back, which holds back the reader. It’s brilliant…and annoying. Maybe that’s a deal we have to live with, fairly often.

Goldberg is most rewarding, to me, not about characters whom I want like, but rather about Goneril, one of Lear’s evil daughters, although the more intelligent of the two. What defines Goneril, for Goldberg, is “how little reality she can bear to acknowledge” (184). That’s what I mean by Goldberg focusing on how to live: it’s not a specifically literary question; it’s a question that unpacks what colleagues mean when they use, or over-use, and fail to circumscribe, the word moral. Who we are, as moral beings, depends on how little or how much reality we can bear to acknowledge. Maybe Goldberg got this idea from T.S. Eliot’s line in the Quartets, whatever. It opens a different perspective on Goneril. I’d never thought about her in those terms, and then I have to think about myself in those terms. And I think they’re good terms in which to think about oneself.

Goldberg goes on to say that Goneril “continuously chooses the terms on which she will risk herself, but hers are so sharp and narrow that they leave her a correspondingly brittle kind of security” (184). She can, he writes, “afford to surrender only a very little of herself”. Maybe it required Goldberg’s own disposition to be able to recognize that, but it’s a good recognition. It’s good to think about Shakespeare’s characters in terms of how much of themselves they are willing to risk, to surrender even if only provisionally. Rosalind in Much Ado About Nothing risks inhabiting a male self, in the Forest of Arden where people can explore who else they might be (in the Forest of Arden, there is no really be). We love Rosalind for her risks. Then we could list Shakespeare’s brittle characters, and what it costs themselves and others to defend what they cannot surrender. Leontes in Winter’s Tale is a simpler example than others, and clearer for that. Othello is more complex. Ophelia risks and loses her mind, which is why I agree with Simon Critchley and Jameson Webster about liking her more than Hamlet, in whom brittleness and risking might have the most complicated alternation.

“The terms on which [Goneril] is herself are the only ones in which ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are real to her”, Goldberg writes (184). That’s a big sociological, or moral, question: what defines different people’s senses of success or failure? I hear in it Bourdieu’s question of what counts for different people; what can they take seriously? What any of us is willing to risk both derives from and affirms what we can–are able to–take seriously. We define ourself through our risks (or unwillingness to risk) in taking-seriously. I realize the tautology in all this: a good risk, a risk that leads to some success, is understood as good because of what counts as success, which depends on who a person is, and what a person is defines their capacity for risking. That tautological quality should not, I think, put us off what’s valuable in this way of thinking. The characters willing to risk more of themselves–Edgar and Cordelia, or Rosalind and Viola–find a success that fits my sense of success. But the point is: in affirming their sense of success, maybe I expand the terms on which I am myself (to paraphrase Goldberg). Maybe I make myself a bit less brittle.

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