Love, Order, and What Lear Earns

By April in Alberta, the snow that brought a certain enchantment back in December has deteriorated into being a nuisance. It’s hanging around too long, and it just prolongs the ground being muddy. Which is one way of thinking about the older generation in King Lear. Lear does not present a very positive image of old age: Lear and Gloucester, the complementary figures of old age (noted, both male; we have to look elsewhere for old women), both mess things up–their actions set the tragedy in motion. Maybe both have always been only marginally competent, there are signs of that. But as the play begins, they create problems that those who are younger suffer through and eventually sort out. That also happens in Hamlet. Lear has hung around too long, or so the weather here draws me toward thinking; blame it on the snow.

After that depressing start, what’s good? I just finished a book edited by the excellent scholar Frank Kermode, published in 1969, collecting critical essays on Lear from Nahum Tate’s dedication and preface to his 1681 rewriting of Lear through Coleridge and Lamb to the twentieth century, ending with Northrop Frye and Jan Kott. The collection makes an interesting chronicle of changing sensibilities, not just toward drama. Tate, the Restoration poet laureate, found the death of Cordelia too much to bear, so he rewrote it: in his version, she lives and marries Edgar. In changing that, Tate restored the play to its historical origins. In those days, if you didn’t like what the original author wrote, then rewrite it. Tate’s version played for over 150 years.

Times change. Frye, with a turn of phrase that reminds me how much I admire him, writes that “with Cordelia’s ‘nothing’, [Lear] finds himself staring into the blankness of an empty world”. I think of the newspaper photos we see almost daily, showing empty public spaces. We also stare into the blankness of an empty world, and it isn’t just physical spaces. It’s also the blankness of a future that we have no idea about. Our expectations for tomorrow are, we are forced to realize, groundless. By 1969, when Frye wrote, we theatre goers could tolerate blankness. We could not only assent to, but even find a form of comfort in what Tate found intolerable. I haven’t found a good working name for that form of comfort; catharsis won’t do at all. I’ll have to return to that problem on a later day.

I realize, reading Kermode’s collection, how fixated I remain on an earlier generation of literary scholars and critics. My suspicion is that this has to do with their writing being developed in lectures to undergraduates at a time when professors understood themselves engaged in the work of their students’ development, Bildung, maybe we could say their developing personhood or capacity for living. Literature was a medium through which to say something about life; or, put another way, what’s said about Lear matters insofar as it says something about how to live. I could provide quotations specifying that. It was taken for granted that literature was, in Kenneth Burke’s phrase, equipment for living. Consider, as a good example, what John Holloway, professor at Cambridge, wrote in 1961 about love in King Lear.

Lear ends in reconciliations that are all too brief: Edgar with Gloucester and Cordelia with Lear. Holloway writes that these reconciliations “may also be seen as meaning more than the word ‘love’ can easily mean, at least in our own time; and being, in the end, one with the whole of what happens at the close of the drama” (emphases added). He then qualifies what risks being too easy: “Good … is far from enjoying a triumphant restoration: we are left with the spectacle of how suffering can renew itself unremittingly until the very moment of death.” Yet Holloway finds a form of hope in Lear’s ending.

“Below the spectacle of suffering everywhere in possession,” he writes, “is another, inconspicuous but genuine: that the forces of life have been persistently terrible and cruel, but have also brought men [and one crucial woman] back to do things it is their part to do” (emphases added). I’d like to quote more, but to cut to what seems the point: “In this play, love is not a ‘victory’; it is not that which stands at ‘the centre of the action’ … it does not rule creation. If anything rules creation, it is (though only, as it were, by a hairbreadth) simply rule itself. What order restores, is order. Men tangle their lives; life, at a price, is self-untangling at last.”

Men (gender intended) tangled humanity into the current pandemic. The untangling will come only at a price. As to what Holloway means by “rule itself”, I think we have to hold a lot of stories in our head at once. Shakespeare’s plays, together, form a sustained meditation on the multiple possibilities and failures of ruling, those two always separated “by a hairbreadth”. Cordelia is right, not merely correct, when she says, in the speech that brings chaos, that she loves her father according to her bond. Holding to bonds is part of the work of self-untangling. This love is not romantic, but perhaps it is the bare, even stark love in Lear that earns both the love in the earlier comedies and in the later romances. Behind romantic love is love according to one’s bond. And behind that is people doing what it is their part to do. In those doings lies a hope for a future that in plague times can seem as blank as the dense whiteness of the April snow in Alberta.

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