by Norman Fischer | February 02, 2014 at 3:26 AM
Written on 1/22/14
Here is some of what I want to say at seminar tonight about King Lear:
At the end of Act 1 scene 4 mild-mannered Albany says, “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” This is a platitude but it actually is pretty true in terms of the play - and life in or mysterious, and yet they really are true. This one says: We are constantly trying to improve things and instead we make them worse. That’s what Lear was trying to do - to do the right thing - make things better for himself and his daughters- but he was unaware of how unaware he was - and he made things much worse. Like the Arab spring - it was supposed to make thing better but now possibly things are worse. Or like your average political revolution or personal improvement plan…Not that we can ever stop trying to make things better…
Anyway, here in Act 3 we see him at his lowest point. And yet, at the same time, he’s probably at his best. Reduced to shrieking at the storm - he’s so tormented by his disappointment about his daughters - which, really amounts to his being disappointed by love, by loyalty, by humanity - so tormented by all this that he doesn’t even mind the storm- he barely feels it. His rage is stronger than any storm. We have been talking about sovereignty, about loss of sovereignty or agency or power or identity. But it strikes me that by Act III Lear has lost not only that but much more - he’s lost his faith in human virtue. He’s reduced to a madman because he no longer has anything at all to believe in. He is railing about his daughters’ unfaithfulness but I believe he is really railing against the failure of the whole natural order of things, love of children for their parents, love of subjects for their king, high born persons served by low born persons- the whole natural human order has fallen apart. This is terrible. So naturally nature rebels, nature is out of whack. Someone says, maybe Kent, this is the worst storm I have ever seen in my life. The worst possible storm.
And yet, at the same time, it’s Lear at his best. Losing Lear, being nothing, he finds his true nobility - beyond his personal power. In this scene he treats Edgar - as mad Tom - and the fool - as equals, as wise men. With kindness. And he notices for the first time that people like them - poor people, people without power and position- - are now and have always been subject to bad weather and all kinds of vulnerabilities - he feels sorry for them and realizes that when he was king he never gave such people a thought. In Edgar/Tom he sees himself - he imagines that poor old Tom has been brought low by unfaithful daughters, as he has been - and he pities him. I think before this he was incapable of pity. He didn’t know what it meant to feel for another person. Now in Edgar he sees himself brought as low as a human being can go - and he starts to tear off his own clothes, so that he too will be reduced to an animal. Still, he continues to affirm that he has been sinned again - he is not a sinner - all this is not his fault - he remains stubborn, raging against the storm, refusing to escape it. He wants to be pelted down with the rain and cold.
What is remarkable about Lear is what a talker he is - he is one of the greatest talkers in English - he curses and fulminates in the most outrageous and colorful language. The energy of his language comes from his pride and his stubbornness. His blindness. And this is what makes the play so great - Lear is a larger than life character who does not learn his lessons easily. But I have been maintaining that he does learn his lesson in the end - and that exactly because he is such a huge and problematic personality he has to be brought low - really low- to fall from the greatest height to the lowest low - in order the learn. Which is what happens to him here on the heath.
It is a typical trope in religious literature - especially in Christianity and Judaism - that to be redeemed you first have to be cast low. You have to lose everything and be reduced to nothing in order to be saved. I think of the passionate psalm 22 - which begins with the lines Jesus says on the cross in one of the gospels - “My god my god why have you forsaken me “ which, for a religious person, is the lowest point - to be abandoned not only by everyone in the world but also by God.
Buddhism is not so emotional, not so personal, as this, but when you think about it, the spiritual trajectory of Buddhism amounts to the same thing. What is anatta, non self, if not losing or casting off the self as we know it? What is the teaching of impermanence if not the recognition that self and world are unreliable - no matter what happens we are doomed to lose everything one way or the other. You don’t need a dramatic story of ascent and descent - even a quiet modest life ends in total loss. Awakening is letting go of self and world - that’s liberation. Letting go you find something else. Not a new identity, a new self, a new belief system. Something completely different. Letting go itself. I am arguing that in Lear, Lear does finally let go - but he has to be beaten into it.