Author Archives: Arthur Frank

A Second Life in Literature

I’ve neglected this blog for a month due to other writing commitments, and one of the most rewarding of these was a review essay on Philip Davis’s Reading for Life (Oxford, 2020). I hope this will eventually appear in Literature and Medicine. Pending that publication, I’d like to offer some outtakes, especially Davis’s idea of how in reading fiction and poetry, we have the opportunity to develop what he calls a second life: in his words, “trying to make a second smaller world, a warmer human environment, in which to do better thinking” (7). But let me back up and say something about Davis and what reading means in his project.

Philip Davis is a well-known literary critic whom I first heard of when I read a piece in the New York Review of Books on his biography of George Eliot, which has the fascinating title, The Transferred Life of George Eliot. The word transferred in this title surprises me; I would have expected maybe transformed. Unexpected words figure large in both Davis’s own writing and the way of reading he recommends. The writing he most admires finds ways to wake us up by surprises that force us to take a different perspective. We’re momentarily disoriented by a word like transferred–how can a life be transferred, from what? is that a transitive verb?–and in the space of this disorientation, we have to find ourselves anew. All of that opens up a potential for what I call vulnerable reading. But I keep getting ahead of my story.

Davis is professor emeritus at the University of Liverpool, where he directs the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS), a collaboration across multiple disciplines including psychology and neuroscience. CRILS especially studies what happens in groups organized by The Reader, a charity founded in 1997 by Jane Davis. The Reader runs shared reading groups in multiple settings; Davis lists community centres, schools, hospitals, drug rehab units, dementia care homes, and prisons, among others. Until Covid-19 has endangered the project, there were over 500 of these groups meeting each week in Britain, and more in partner European countries. “Within these local communities,” Davis writes, “literature is read aloud to those [and by those] who for a variety of reasons might not otherwise read it, to give glimpses of how life is or might be, should have been or has to be, in a renewed sense of purpose or dignity or concern for themselves” (7). That, again, could describe what I mean by vulnerable reading, which is why I am excited to have found Davis’s work.

Most of the chapters in Reading for Life describe Davis and one of the readers associated with The Reader reading together different poems and novels that Davis has asked that reader to choose for their meeting. The relationships between Davis and those with whom he reads often go back several years. In these meetings, he tries “to find out what sort of reader [this person] is” (109). And that involves the converse: the reader is learning what sort of reader she is, or to press the point further, what sort of reading is necessary in the life she has led, and what sort of reading can help her to lead a life that reading helps her to imagine living. It’s crucial for Davis that we cannot yet imagine–that’s why it’s not useful to readers to digress into what he calls confessional stories; shared reading groups try to stay clear of these. The point is the yet scarcely imaginable story, and that requires avoiding retelling the too often retold life story.

Davis describes the reading that he seeks to instigate, and that people readily come to, as responding to the “need to create time-out for an inner life, a second world within this world, not in simple retreat from it but for the sake of attempting a better return to it” (13). The second life is Davis most recurring metaphor, as he circles around what it means to read for life. Davis describes one reader who suffers from chronic illness. When she is ill “everything…looks flattened–and garish at the same time”. And then: “there is poetry and a second life for life” (122). Now as I quote that, it’s an empty testimonial. The richness of Reading for Life is being privileged to participate in the shared reading that Davis and different readers do together, in responsive dialogue with each other. We see them bringing a poem or novel to life as it rekindles the life of the reader. And for me, it reanimated my reading of some long neglected poems and novels; the book taught me to read differently.

Ultimately, the second life in literature creates a new space of being: “There is now a third thing, a reader aware between the two, going to and fro in various relations between himself and the book, in that area of imaginative feeling that the book had opened up” (30). Davis makes reading a “to and fro” work of multiple voices. Imagination is what is opened up in the space those voices create for themselves.

I should note that Davis’s readers do not read literary works that speak directly to the content of what they face in their lives, whether that’s illness or a history of abuse, or personal losses. They read works we’d call canonical–John Bunyan George Herbert, Wordsworth, John Clare, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad–but their readings liberate these books from imprisonment within the canon as an academic constraint on reading. The literature has to prove itself in the life of the reader. In my favourite moment, a reader named Georgina describes taking Lord Jim with her to an appointment in the hospital. “I got it out with a sort of ‘OK, come on, show me something then'”. And the book does. Georgina, who has had a difficult life, deserves the last word: “I do not like deliberately ‘positive’ messages, the unconvincing will in them. But to me the negative is not nihilism: it means first of all not being able to make something cheer up or cure all too easily. It is a sort of respect for the real as resistant: the inconceivable, unconsolable, incomprehensible” (222). That’s vulnerable reading.

Consolation Without Reassurance

I admire the music critic Alex Ross. In a recent issue of The New Yorker he wrote about the death of his mother last February. Ross describes choosing to listen to Brahms on his overnight flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. His experiences frame comments he makes about Philip Kennicott’s book Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning, and it’s Kennicott I want to focus on, because the sentences that Ross quotes made me realize that while I’ve spent some time exploring what vulnerablility means, the idea of consolation is almost as important for the project of vulnerable reading. I’ve often claimed that the arts, literature, Shakespeare can console–I believe that. So Ross’s quotation from Kennicott disrupted a line of thinking–an idea or maybe ideal of healing arts–that I had become complacent about.

“I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has some healing power,” Kennicott writes, taking me back several decades to when I used to be invited to conferences on alternative and complementary medicine, where serious people made claims for the physical healing power of music. Kennicott calls this “a cliché of lazy music talk”, and it has the potential to be that. “Music, if anything, makes us raw, more susceptible to pain, nostalgia, and memory.” Most of Kennicott’s book, on Ross’s reliable account, is about how he responded to his mother’s death by immersing himself in Bach, specifically the Goldberg Variations. That also took me back. A cassette tape of Glenn Gould playing the Goldbergs was my constant nighttime listening when I was hospitalized with cancer surgery and then treatment.

So I found myself immediately agreeing with Kennicott, insofar as he seems to be calling for more nuanced consideration of what consoles, and beyond that, what is worth calling healing? But I want to hold onto the belief that music, or other arts including Shakespeare, can console; that claim need not be lazy. The value of Kennicott, at least for me now (I hope eventually to read his book), is to make me be more explicit about the consolation that works–that does its consoling work–by making us more susceptible to … what? Here we reach his triad of pain, nostalgia, and memory, which seem to be not such good things, or, we’re led to ask, what kinds of pain, nostalgia, and memory might be good or bad? Let’s take only nostalgia, because I’m at risk of opening up way too big a topic for a blog post.

Ross proceeds to distinguish between reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia can be called sentimental; Ross describes it as envisioning “a return to home”. Reflective nostalgia is more fit for a sociologist like me. Ross quotes the literary scholar Svetlana Boym: “Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity,” Ross argues that Brahms’s music exemplifies reflective nostalgia. If music opens us to reflective nostalgia, that does console and heal.

In Shakespeare, I think marriage, true marriage, represents reflective nostalgia. Marriage as an ending recognizes the human need for longing and belonging, but the home that this marriage will create will retain the ambivalences of the relationship that have made the road to marriage difficult traveling. Moreover, the marriage will be situated within “the contradictions of modernity”, which for Shakespeare include both the tenuous legitimacy of monarchs and the increasing prevalence of money as a common denominator of value, but again, that opens up way too much. Suffice it to say that we in the audience both want the lovers to get married, we want to imagine them reaching a home of their own, but we don’t forget our ambivalences; there’s no happily-ever-after. That ambivalence seems most explicit at the end of Measure for Measure, when it’s left open whether or not Isabella will accept the Duke’s proposal of marriage. I want her to take his hand … but I share her doubts.

Might we think, then, of reflective consolation, following the Boym/Ross usage of reflective nostalgia? This consolation is not pastoral; there’s no shepherd who will keep the wolves away, so we may safely graze. Speaking most personally, for me it’s the consolation of feeling my participation in an old story that continues to unfold in my life. If terrible things happen to me, so they have happened and will happen; I participate in a shared narrative that is worth calling a drama. This consolation offers no reassurances. Its only promise is that the story will go on.

To get myself out of a discussion that’s opened up more than I can take on here, let me defer back to Alex Ross. He describes sitting with his mother, in her library, when her illness made speech near impossible. “So we listened together, and Brahms listened to us both.” That’s the consolation of vulnerable reading.

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.

Vulnerability, At the Present Moment

If I had given this blog a title, it would be the vulnerable reader. Both those words need specification, but today I’m stuck on what it means to think of oneself or others as vulnerable. By now–March 30–I assume everyone being kind enough to read this is living with some level of dislocation, whether of work, relationships, living arrangements, provision of services…and a long list of ‘and so on’. Shakespeare’s plays all begin, and I actually think all is warranted here, with some dislocation that is both individual and collective. Sometimes one or more characters has incurred this dislocation themselves: Lear’s division of his kingdom or Romeo and Juliet falling in love. Others have dislocation apparently forced upon them: Viola in Twelfth Night gets shipwrecked; Rosalind in As You Like It and Hamlet both have to deal with dislocations caused by the older generation’s misbehaviour. And maybe the most interesting are characters among whom I’d place Shylock and Coriolanus (not usually conjoined in one sentence) who both act and are acted upon. Shylock and Coriolanus seem to me to fit perfectly the human condition as famously described by Karl Marx: each makes his own history, but neither does so in conditions of his own choosing. Here’s a Shakespearean zen koan: in Macbeth, are the three sisters (a.k.a. the witches) of his choosing? Say either and you’re doomed.

Thinking about these characters, maybe even thinking with them, we can see ourselves as vulnerable both to our circumstances and to our selves. And pace Epictetus, it is not so easy to separate what we can control from what we cannot. Living in a pandemic especially blurs that distinction. Living now can make a word like control seem crudely naive about the human condition. Control is an illusion, and most dangerous when we most need to exercise whatever control we can. On my account of things, none of us ever controls much of anything, and that’s the beginning of our vulnerability. We are vulnerable both to illusions of control and to despair at our lack of control.

Erving Goffman’s Stigma, which might now be receiving the most attention of any of his works, seems to me to understand vulnerability as the ultimate absence of control over how one’s self is understood, both by oneself and by others, and human attempts, sometimes heroic and sometimes comic, to control information about the self. So far as we can control some people’s access to some information about ourselves, we stave off vulnerability. But there’s always what Goffman calls discreditable information out there, and so we’re all vulnerable. It’s comic in the sense that it’s funny watching Buster Keaton racing downhill, trying to outrun the giant snowball behind him. What, exactly, do we find funny? What about ourselves are we laughing at?

The situations of Edgar and his father, Gloucester, in King Lear are both distinctly not funny. The former is falsely accused by his brother and on the run, living disguised as a madman, mortifying his flesh to embody the identity he must assume to survive. Gloucester has had his eyes gouged out by Regan and Cornwall. Then they fall in together, and that doesn’t strain my imagination. I wrote, a number of blogs ago, about how the critic Jan Kott imagines the stage image of Edgar telling his father that although the ground might feel flat, they are climbing a steep incline to cliffs from which Gloucester is determined to thrown himself, ending his miserable existence. Two figures on a flat stage, struggling up an imaginary hill, one hoping to end a life that has proven too vulnerable.

Although King Lear ends with Lear holding the dead body of Cordelia, for me the more immediate lesson for us is Edgar and Gloucester, learning to live with what they now know as their own vulnerability. I distrust the word resilience and try to use it only to discuss what it obscures. I prefer to think of Edgar and Gloucester gaining tragic knowledge: that what you can control can never be disentangled from what you cannot control, and you are always vulnerable. But you choose to persevere. Shakespeare’s works multiply variations on characters choosing to persevere through the dislocations that they have variously caused and had imposed upon them. I like best those endings that leave us in doubt how this will work out.

The big difference is that in Shakespeare’s worlds on the stage, we the audience know that there will, within a couple of hours, be at least the sense of an ending, and we project that knowledge onto the characters in the plays, at least I think we can’t avoid treating our expectation as their knowledge. The most immediate anxiety of the pandemic, more immediate I think than getting sick and dying, is not having any idea when it might end, or what an ending will look like. It’s not knowing whether we will see some people again or do some things again. It’s not knowing what version of life as we knew it might again be available to us, when. I recently read a review by James Shapiro, writing about a new book that places Shakespeare in times of recurring plague, which the book’s author argues is the ever present background of concern in the plays. Plague was a predictable but always unexpected aspect of life for a long time, as in centuries. Shakespeare’s plays are both respite and reckoning with plague. How do we, now, use them to live with the newly recognized vulnerabilities that the present moment makes palpable in our lives?

Shakespeare’s Storytellers

“Ian considered O and Dee, holding hands under the trees as she fed him another strawberry, and Casper, watching Bianca with a proprietary air as she jumped Double Dutch. They were like characters in a play who needed an extra scene, a thread to pull them tight. And Ian held the thread” (p. 126). That’s from Tracy Chevalier’s novel New Boy, which is her retelling of Othello in the Hogarth Press series of modern Shakespeare. Ian is the Iago character, and I think Chevalier catches Iago’s sensibility as a storyteller: how Iago sees others as characters in a story that he writes, directs, and plays a leading role in. I follow Erving Goffman in believing that one part of the presentation of self in everyday life is the manipulation of others to play out a story in which that self can be what the storyteller imagines being, or perhaps discovers who they can be. Manipulation covers a wide range of actions, with Iago/Ian representing the worst. We recognize how stories are co-constructed. We acknowledge less often how enacting stories involves manipulations; there’s a fine line between these categories.

This blog is a much condensed version of what was planned to be plenary lecture I was scheduled to give at the Narrative Matters conference in Atlanta this May. That event, like everything else these days, won’t happen, and by the time of next year’s conference, I sincerely hope I’ll want to speak on something else–it’s depressing to think that a year from now, I might have the same thing to say. So this blog becomes a useful venue to set down a bit of what I would have said in Atlanta.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters who either overtly stage stories, as Hamlet does when he organizes the players to perform The Mousetrap, or like Iago/Ian, enrol others as the cast in a story the protagonist designs. In The Tempest, Prospero designs such a story with the goal of setting back in order what had been dislocated by his brother’s usurpation of his Dukedom. Prospero’s cause may be fundamentally just: usurping the rightful ruler is a bad thing, especially setting him and his child adrift in a leaky boat. But The Tempest is an edgy play because Prospero is–to use the key word again–manipulating everyone else. Miranda and Ferdinand may feel they are genuinely falling in love, and they may have a great future together, but we know that Prospero is setting them up. Social scientists, at their most annoying, like to point out that most choices we humans make are far more predictable, and easily manipulated, than we imagine. In Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental phrase, we make unchosen choices. In social science, the Prospero role is called society. What’s amazing is the pleasure with which we watch The Tempest, compared to the annoyance we feel when told our choices are less our own than we supposed.

So we might array Shakespeare’s storytellers into categories like the good, the bad, and the ugly. Iago is clearly the ugly. Who’s good and who’s bad gets complicated. Hamlet stages The Mousetrap for reasons that seem good–to determine whether the Ghost is honest by observing Claudio’s reaction to a murder that mirrors what the Ghost accuses Claudio of doing–but Hamlet is less in control of how he performs his “antic disposition”. His viciousness to Ophelia puts him in the bad category–he needs professional help, even if we think he’s aware of being watched an is performing for those spying on him.

My favourite, in the sense of most fascinating and perplexing, good/bad storyteller is the Duke in Measure for Measure. In a remarkably short first scene, he conscripts Angelo and Escalus to play his part, to be Duke, while he leaves town for unexplained reasons. The Duke doesn’t leave, but rather disguises himself as a Friar and plays that part in the story that he as Duke has instigated, but that Angelo proceeds to act out. The Duke thus acts closest to how I think people in so-called everyday life design stories. What makes Measure for Measure so engaging is the constant question how fully the Duke has predicted what would happen and remains in control, and when he’s genuinely surprised by his cast taking the story in directions he hadn’t anticipated. I find the Duke more interesting than Prospero because of his tenuous control–he has no Ariel to make him effectively omnipotent.

Measure for Measure is based on the old folktale of the evil judge who offers to release a woman’s loved one if she sleeps with him. In MfM, when Angelo acts this way–thus taking an established part in a story that precedes him–the Duke has matters in control; he might even have predicted Angelo’s behaviour. In the eventual assignation with Angelo, the part of Isabella is played by Mariana, who is (inexplicably) still in love with Angelo, despite his having jilted her over an unpaid dowry. Then comes the fascinating moment: Is the Duke surprised when he learns that Angelo has reneged on his bargain and despite believing he possessed Isabella, has ordered the execution of her brother, Claudio, to proceed? An actor can play the Duke’s reaction either way: has he suddenly lost control of the story, or did he anticipate even this turn of events?

The Duke will regain control in his endgame move of staging his own return, and that’s when he most blurs the good/bad line. Part of bringing down Angelo, before ultimately forgiving him, involves not telling Isabella that Claudio is alive (another head is sent to Angelo, in another deception). Then, having pushed Isabella to her limits, the Duke asks her to marry him, which is at least his idea of a happy ending to a story in which most of the people have been seriously unhappy. In what may be Shakespeare’s greatest silence, Isabella never gives him an answer, and different productions can cue the outcome in either direction with more or less certainty. I’m left with a question that’s a Shakespearean version of a Zen koan: Is the Duke’s proposal to Isabella honourable? And what counts, then, as an honourable proposal? What counts as honourable storytelling, with real life characters?

We tell stories not only at bedtimes and firesides, but also in how we enrol/enlist/conscript others into parts that set them acting out plot scenarios that we, the real life storyteller, have more or less in mind; that is, we expect and desire more or less specific outcomes. As the stories we have instigated play out, we watch, intervene, and maybe manipulate, accounting for that in different ways. We decide which characters need what extra scene, and we half believe we can hold the thread that pulls them; sometimes, we do hold that thread. Shakespeare shows us the continuum and complexity of what counts as manipulation, and how easily honourable manipulation turns creepy. Different periods of response to Shakespeare react differently to the protagonists’ manipulations. At the extreme, nobody has ever condoned Iago. But Prospero has been idealized and condemned, both. In MfM, Lucio describes the protagonist as “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3.156), and I wonder how truthful that is. Which brings me back to my usual sort of questions: How much of ourselves does companionship with the Duke enable us to see? Into which of our own dark corners does MfM shine some light?

Lear’s 100 Knights

When King Lear resigns his kingdom to his daughters (spoiler alert: Big Mistake), one of his conditions is that he retain 100 knights as his entourage. The knights are not speaking parts, although they sing, led by the Fool. Different productions put more or less knights on stage, acting more or less riotously. At one extreme, they literally bust up the furniture, leaving the stage a shambles and making it seem justified when Goneril tells her father that his knights are no longer welcome. He storms off in a huff, expecting no such restrictions from Regan. When Regan takes the same line, and then Goneril shows up and the sisters join forces, Lear knows he’s in trouble. When Lear departs into a literal storm, the knights seem to disappear. Regan speaks of him being “attended with a desperate train” (2.2.495), suggesting she’s still worried the knights might put up an armed resistance, but then they’re just…disappeared into the storm, as the Fool will later disappear.

The knights can be understood as a plot necessity: they provide the pretext for the daughters’ hostility, and different productions make this pretext credible, although later events show it was a pretext. I find the knights more significant than that; they earn a place in how I think about myself and people around me. We all have our own version of 100 knights, and a lot is at stake in the maintenance of whatever those knights are. Our claims on others to recognize the legitimate importance of those knights are foundational to our relationships with those others. We expect those closest to us to willingly contribute to the maintenance of those knights, even if that requires them to accept some disruption.

When Lear’s daughters question why he needs the knights, his reply is, to me, one of the most poignant lines in the play: “O, reason not the need!” (2.2.453). Functional need can be reasoned; it admits “I need it because…” statements. We might call the need that cannot be reasoned identity need. We need what we have decided makes us who we are, and King Lear is all about characters either making claims to be someone more than they have been (the evil Edmund, plotting to gain his brother’s title and lands), or realizing that in order to survive, they must give up what they have claimed (the threatened and displaced Edgar), or subordinating their claims to the needs of another (Kent assuming the disguise of a servant in order to continue serving Lear), or struggling to maintain their sense of who they are, as that identity is threatened. “Does any here know me?” Lear asks rhetorically, or maybe not so rhetorically. He then turns to irony: “Why, this is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus, speak thus?” (1.4.217-18). Lear asks ostensibly for others’ recognition, but he may also be asking how he can know himself, in the circumstances he is suddenly thrown into.

Once again, I’m back where I started, a very long time ago, with the early work of Erving Goffman–The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Asylums, and Stigma–in which the core problem is how people sustain the claims we humans are constantly making to be a self that is entitled to others’ acceptance of those claims. Goffman’s word for that acceptance is deference; for Hegel it was recognition; for many philosophers and bioethicists the words are dignity and autonomy. Goffman’s insight is that claims for the self are literally propped up; we need material props that substantiate our claims.

What I think Goffman didn’t spend much time thinking or writing about is what happens when people can’t see why certain props are necessary to someone else’s claims. I’m interested to imagine an alternative Lear in which the daughters are honestly intentioned toward their father. In this alt-Lear, Goneril and Regan are not the sort of people who poison and torture, respectively. The daughters just want what they start off claiming to want: household peace. That seems like the everyday situation we all find ourselves in when we question someone else’s need to something that’s disrupting the household and is, to us, excess baggage.

I notice that when Lear’s daughters are being, at face value, not unreasonable, he’s the one who pushes back disproportionately, cursing them in what may be the play’s most virulent language. To some extent, this scenario can play out at any stage of life. But in King Lear, age counts. After telling, or pleading, not to reason the need, Lear says: “You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, As full of grief as age, wretched in both” (2.2.461-2). A person of any age might protest, “O, reason not the need,” but Lear’s age intensifies that line; it somehow counts more, and exactly how tells me something about the vulnerability of old age. Although if you ask me what that is, I either babble some embarrassingly simplistic cliché or I have to tell you the story of Lear again.

I think these thoughts because of just spending time with my father, who is well beyond Lear’s age. I reflect on how easily I can find myself playing the Regan/Goneril part, questioning his need for something that seems to me to cause not only significant trouble for the household, but from my viewpoint it makes him unhappy. At such moments, it’s useful to stop and tell myself, O, reason not his need. Having 100 knights in attendance makes Lear feel like he’s a King, King Lear. We all need our 100 knights.

I myself am increasingly full of age though not, right now, feeling any particular grief. I write this surrounded by piles of all my belongings taken out of the rest of the house while we endure a once-in-a-lifetime repainting and flooring. Things had gotten pretty well worn, to put it nicely. It was an interesting enough experience piling everything into my study, one room we’re not redoing, and it will be more interesting putting things back, or I hope deciding what not to put back. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t stand up to any reason of need. I have to ask myself what self it sustains, what it props up. King Lear teaches me that aging well means not putting one’s children in the position of having to question their parent’s need in order to preserve the peace. Shakespeare eventually raises the bar so high on Regan and Goneril’s bad behaviour that when Lear claims he is more sinned against than sinning, we tend to believe him. But when I reflect on the play, it’s a close call.

I hope that as a companion story, Lear gives me greater patience not to reason the needs of others, but also greater willingness to reason my own needs. The 100 knights are a good metaphor with which to live a vulnerable life.

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.