Whether King Lear may rightly be called a Christian play, who can say? But it is a play suffused with Christian themes and the supreme achievement in English literature.
Since I first read King Lear as an undergraduate nearly 50 years ago, I have never doubted that it is the supreme achievement in English literature. It would be difficult to name two 20th century writers more dissimilar than George Bernard Shaw and Malcolm Muggeridge, yet both reached this same conclusion. According to a Shakespeare bibliography I consulted, about 2,000 books have been published on King Lear since I first read the play. I first saw Lear acted on the stage at the Stratford Festival (with John Colicos as Lear) half a century ago. I have seen it staged more than a dozen times since, one of the most memorable being a no-intermission version at the Old Vic in London, England, with a broken-down comedic actor, Donald Sinden, as Lear. The most compelling stage Lear, I would say, is William Hutt, whom I was fortunate to see play the role as a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old man. I also twice saw William Hutt play the Fool to Peter Ustinov's eccentric but unforgettable Lear. So it is a pleasure and a challenge to discuss with the Wrinklings this towering work of genius.
The Wrinklings are a specifically Christian reading group; therefore, I will direct my comments to Christian themes, without definitively answering the oft-put question, is King Lear a Christian play? The play, written between 1603 and 1605, is based on the legend of King Leir, a mythological Celtic king. The tragedy of King Lear, the version we are familiar with, is included in Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio.
The play opens with prose exposition, idle conversation about the impending partition of a kingdom. The tone is casual, jocular and polite. There follows ritual (heraldic trumpets), a royal procession, coronets, maps, deference and authority. The King is here. Royalty is unfolding in line with expectations. Suddenly the King makes a bizarre proposal: he will divide his Kingdom among his three daughters based on their love for him. What other Kingdom, one idly wonders, operates on an economy of love?
Why is Lear doing this? Because he has decided...
"To shake all cares and business from our age Conferring them on younger strengths, while we Unburthen'd crawl toward death."
Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan make their fulsome and patently false declarations of love in almost liturgical cadences. Then it falls to the youngest daughter, Cordelia, who, by demeanour and deportment, the audience already knows really loves her father; it is her turn to "heave my heart into my mouth" and speak. She says she loves her father "[a]ccording to my bond; no more nor less." This seeming rudeness jars the audience, but might invoke a memory of Jesus' seeming hardheartedness when He appears to reject His mother and family: "And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?... For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother" (Mark 3:33). In fact, the Biblical passage is doubly ironic, because it is Mary, His Mother, who most faithfully does the will of God, just as it is Cordelia who faithfully serves her father through the calamities that are about to engulf him. Because literary critics have often described Cordelia as a Christ figure in the play, it is easy to miss this parallel not to Christ but to Mary.
Lear is angered by Cordelia's hard-heartedness.
Why is Cordelia seemingly hard-hearted and unyielding? Why is Lear wounded and vengeful? To pose these questions is the first step in beginning to understand the play. Cordelia, you see, embodies truth; Lear is the embodiment of power.
Lear: But goes thy heart with this?
Cordelia: Ay, good my lord.
Lear: So young, and so untender?
Cordelia: So young, my lord, and true.
Lear: Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower.
Why is Cordelia seemingly hard-hearted and unyielding? Why is Lear wounded and vengeful? To pose these questions is the first step in beginning to understand the play. Cordelia, you see, embodies truth; Lear is the embodiment of power. Truth and power, as Jesus learned during his temptations in the wilderness, are mutually exclusive and hostile kingdoms.
Two related points: we are still in Act 1, Scene 1 and we have already moved from prose to poetry, from history to myth, from entertainment to truth. King Lear is not true; history discloses no such king. But it is an allegory of truth. Cordelia says, "So young, my lord, and true." Think of King Lear as an allegory of truth, comparable to, say, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In Cordelia's opening speech, notice has been served: this is a play about truth.
The single most enduring lesson that I have learned in my life came from Malcolm Muggeridge. It is this: life is a drama, not a process. I will repeat that: life is a drama, not a process. In other words, if you want to get a sense of what God was doing at the Creation, that moment when "the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy," you will better approximate it by thinking of William Shakespeare writing King Lear rather than a scientist such as Albert Einstein at work in his laboratory. In other words, life is to be understood artistically not scientifically. If you absorb this lesson, it will change your life.
To give just one example, consider the intractable problem of human suffering: how can one believe in a loving God in the face of suffering? This is the thorniest dilemma Christians confront. But remember: life is a drama, not a process. Now suppose that some humane person said to Shakespeare while he was writing King Lear. "Why do you make this old man suffer? Why do you torment him, drive him mad, loose him naked on the heath to abide 'the pelting of this pitiless storm'?" And Shakespeare answers by saying, "Well, yes, believe me, I do see your point, and it seems very cruel. It is true that I could have arranged for Lear to take a sedative at the end of Act 1. But then, you see, there would be no play." That is the only response that, to me, has ever made sense of the mystery of human suffering.
Now here is an interesting thing: no sooner is it made clear in Act 1, Scene 1 that we are dealing with an allegory of truth, than good and evil make an immediate appearance. Surely Shakespeare is telling us something. Like the wheat and the tares, good and evil actually come onstage together. Evil in the form of the lying daughters, Regan and Goneril; good in the form of Lear's loyal servant, Kent. Kent tries to deflect Lear from his folly.
"Royal Lear, Whom I have ever honour'd as my king, Loved as my father, as my master follow'd, As my great patron thought on in my prayers, —"
But neither folly nor evil are easily deflected. Lear first ignores Kent, then banishes him from the Kingdom (echoes of John Milton's Paradise Lost).
Lear: The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft.
Kent: Let it fall rather, though the fork invade The region of my heart: be Kent unmannerly When Lear is mad? What wilt thou do, old man? Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak When power to flattery bows? ...
Lear: Kent, on thy life, no more!
Kent: My life I never held but as a pawn To wage against thy enemies; ne'er ear to lose it, Thy safety being the motive.
Lear: Out of my sight! Kent: See better, Lear, and let me still remain The true blank of thine eye.
This exchange introduces another theme that reverberates through the play: Seeing. Eyes. Vision. Jesus said, "He that hath eyes to see, let him see." William Blake distinguished between those who see with not through the eye, and this distinction separates the characters in King Lear. The old King, Regan and Goneril and their husbands, the dukes of Cornwall and Albany, all see with but not through the eye. Kent, Cordelia, perhaps pre-eminently the Fool, see through the eye. The latter see into the mystery of things, into truth itself. When next you read Lear or see it performed, take note of the many references to "eyes" and "seeing." After His crucifixion, Jesus could well have summed up His great commission in these words of Kent: "See better, [Man], and let me still remain the true blank of thine eye."
With Kent banished and Cordelia gone off to France, the wicked sisters, Regan and Goneril, immediately conspire against their benefactor and father (again, echoes of Paradise Lost).
Goneril: You see how full of changes his age is.
Regan: 'Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.
The play's subplot, pitting the bastard son, Edmund, against his loyal brother, Edgar, and his father, the Earl of Gloucester, culminates in the most horrific scene in stage history (Act 3, Scene 7), where Gloucester is blinded and his eyes are plucked out. Then Gloucester is thrust out into the dark and told to "smell his way to Dover." Gloucester meets an old man who says to him, "[Y]ou cannot see your way," to which Gloucester replies, "I have no way and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw." I have often reflected to myself that these words could aptly be carved into the confessional door.
Incidentally, Gloucester's naïve confidence in astrology, professed in Act 1, serves as a counterbalance to Lear's naïveté in believing hollow protestations of love rather than deeper proofs of character. So Gloucester says:
"... love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father.... We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves."
King Lear involves a titanic struggle between good and evil, and it is only by purgative suffering that the old King comes to understand the nature of this struggle. It is no hyperbole to say that Lear is a man we watch being born again.
I don't know about you, but this seems to me a more succinct and accurate analysis of events, a cogent summary of man's history, than anything I have ever heard from pundit, historian or CNN commentator. In the same vein, there is no line that I have said to myself more often as I watch events unfold than Gloucester's "'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind." Finally, then, to the question with which I began: Is King Lear a Christian play?
Let me start with certain parallels: Cordelia is obviously a Christ-like figure in the drama; Edgar's loyalty, his persistence in returning good for evil, his preachments to his father, Gloucester, against the sin of despair ("men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all.... ") are redolent with Christian themes. Next I would point out that King Lear is a tale of redemptive suffering; the New Testament, the metanarrative of Christianity, is a story of redemptive suffering. But the question that is at the heart of the Old Testament's Book of Job is also precisely King Lear's question: "Is there any cause in nature for these hard hearts?"
King Lear involves a titanic struggle between good and evil, and it is only by purgative suffering that the old King comes to understand the nature of this struggle. It is no hyperbole to say that Lear is a man we watch being born again. Remember that only a few days of fictional time elapse in the play, only a few hours on the stage, between the proud King who declaims, "The bow is bent and drawn make from the shaft," and the same man who says such things as, "You must bear with me ... I am old and foolish ... her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman ... Pray you, undo this button thank you, sir." As the Shakespearean scholar Alfred Harbage wrote, "The play is Lear's Gethsemane, his great reality, his suffering."
Of course, the play is too large to be confined by any doctrine, even Christian doctrine. There are pagan elements (e.g. references to the "gods" plural, not God, to Jove, Juno and Apollo), and there is fatalism: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport," says Gloucester. But it is Lear's spiritual blindness — original sin might be another way of putting it — that unleashes the evil that befalls him. Cruelty, injustice, malignity, all have their way and batter Lear into madness. But his suffering is purgative. Indeed, Kent says, "Nothing almost sees miracles but misery."
In Act 2, Scene 4, Regan and Goneril exact a terrible vengeance on their father. By stripping him of his knights, they strip him of his humanity. This reminds me of the parable of the vineyard owner who leaves the vineyard but sends back messengers, each of whom is immediately slain. Then the owner thinks to send his own son — surely they will not slay him? Lear's humiliation occasions one of his great soliloquies — a moving paean to Grace. Listen.
Goneril: Hear me, my lord; What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five...
Regan: What need one?
Lear: O, reason not the need. Our basest beggars Are in the poorest thing superfluous: Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man's life is cheap as beast's ... You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need. You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, As full of grief as age; wretched in both. ... You think I'll weep. No, I'll not weep: I have full cause of weeping; but this heart Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws, Or ere I'll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad!
In the terrible storm scene that follows, Lear does go mad; with the Fool and Edgar (disguised as Tom o' Bedlam) as his only companions, he prances and capers through crazy dialogues, staged trials and gibberish interleaved with truths too subtle for the ostensibly sane.
In the midst of this macabre stew of comedy and tragedy, the blinded Gloucester meets up with his king and says:
"The trick of that voice I do well remember: Is't not the king?"
And Lear replies:
"Ay, every inch a king: When I do stare, see how the subject quakes. I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause? Adultery? Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No. The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly Does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive..."
This speech is reminiscent of the Book of Genesis. Years ago in Wrinklings, we did Genesis, and I came then to realize that the central message of the Book of Genesis, to man and beast alike, is precisely that: Copulate! Be fruitful. Multiply. Replenish the earth. A few lines further on, Lear and the eyeless Gloucester have another significant exchange.
Gloucester: What, with the case of eyes?
Lear: Oh, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse?
Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.
Gloucester: I see it feelingly.
Lear: What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes....
Lear's next speech is a favourite of the political left, oft cited as a kind of early socialist manifesto. Actually, it is full of Christian insight, explicitly echoing Christ's treatment of the woman taken in the act of adultery:
"... Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back; Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind For which thou whipp'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener. Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks: Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it. None does offend, none, I say, none!"
Then, back to eyes and seeing, as Lear tells Gloucester:
"... Get thee glass eyes; And like a scurvy politician, seem To see the things thou dost not. ..."
"In, boy; go first." Four words. And in those four words, humility — not only a virtue in itself, but the precondition to all virtues. Now Lear delivers himself of a soliloquy totally unlike either his imperious commands or his fierce curses earlier in the play:
Lear batters himself to pieces against the forces of nature and evil. True, his own folly is partly responsible for his suffering, but when he pleads, "I am a man more sinned against than sinning," who among us does not sense the inherent justice of that plea?
As he becomes aware gradually of the forces of good and evil, Lear becomes a chastened man. Peter Buitenhuis, who taught me Lear at the University of Toronto, lo those many years ago, maintained that the climax of the play comes in Act 3, Scene 4 when Lear is about to take shelter from the storm in Tom o' Bedlam's hovel; just four words. Lear turns to the Fool and says: "In, boy; go first." Four words. And in those four words, humility — not only a virtue in itself, but the precondition to all virtues. Now Lear delivers himself of a soliloquy totally unlike either his imperious commands or his fierce curses earlier in the play:
"Poor naked wretches, wherso'er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them And show the heavens more just."
Lear is now a foe to evil. His instinct is to rip it from the universe, annihilate it, propound forgiveness. God is merciful; Lear learns compassion, and with compassion comes mercy. From the storm in Act 3 onward, the play is a demonstration of Alexander Pope's dictum: to err is human, to forgive divine. If this be not a Christian theme, then I am no Wrinkling. Lear is eventually discovered, naked, his mind deranged, "smelling of mortality" as he says, and brought to the French camp, where he is nursed back to health and sanity by Cordelia. But in the ensuing battle, the French are defeated. Evil appears triumphant. Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner by Edmund, he who had plucked out his own father's eyes, and Edmund orders their summary execution. Now we come to what, for me, is the climax of the play, this beautiful exchange between Lear and Cordelia, awaiting death. More than anywhere else, here we glimpse the Christian vision that has permeated the drama; here it is made explicit, in lines so moving that I can scarcely trust myself to speak them.
Cordelia: We are not the first Who with best meaning have incurred the worst. For thee, oppress'd king, I am cast down, Myself could else outfrown false fortune's frown....
Lear: No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too — Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out — And take upon's the mystery of things As if we were God's spies ...
The first half of the play is rightly called King Lear. The second half, I maintain, could better be called God's Spies. In the death of Lear and Cordelia, the predominant themes are mercy and redemption; here the Crucifixion parallels are inescapable. When the banished Kent returns, there are parallels to the Resurrection. When Albany offers Kent a share in the Kingdom, Kent's reply prefigures even the Ascension:
"I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no."
So here, Wrinklings, is my modest conclusion: whether King Lear may rightly be called a Christian play, who can say? But it is a play suffused with Christian themes.
The death of Cordelia combined with the ambiguous state of Lear's mind (from the "Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl" entrance in the last scene until his death) makes a Christian reading of the ending problematic but not impossible. If Lear really believes Cordelia is alive ("The feather stirs. She lives."), then he dies in ecstasy; if not, he dies with the expressed hope of a reunion beyond death. Either one is a Christian reading, although a nihilistic reading of Lear's death is also possible. And so, like Gloucester's, Lear's heart "...'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief / Burst smilingly." Incidentally, when my father was in his nineties and dying in a London, Ont., hospital, there were no lines that I said to myself more frequently than Kent's lines near the end: "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! He hates him much / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer."
The play ends, as it began, with a group scene, . subjects gathered around their king. At the beginning, they gathered to watch their king divide his Kingdom; now they gather to look upon his corpse. Those with eyes to see struggle to comprehend the truth about life and death. "Thy truth then be thy dower," an enraged King had said to his daughter Cordelia. And so it has been, not only for Cordelia but also for Kent and for Lear. And also for you and me. At the beginning a trumpet fanfare heralded the King's arrival; Shakespeare's final stage direction is: "Exeunt with a dead march."
The last words of the play belong to the Duke of Albany:
"The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much. Nor live so long."
Ian Hunter, "Lear, Cordelia & the Cross." Convivium v. 1 n. 3 (July/August, 2012): 22-27.
Cardus (root: cardo) is a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. Drawing on more than 2000 years of Christian social thought, we work to enrich and challenge public debate through research, events, and publications, for the common good.
The Cardus: Convivium project will be an authoritative voice for the role of religion in Canadian society through a magazine, public lectures, intellectual formation for young people, symposia and seminars connecting those who are strengthening faith in our common life. Visit Cardus: Convivium online here. Subscribe to Convivium here.
Ian Hunter holds degrees in political science (B.A.) and law (L.L.B and J.D.) from the University of Toronto. From 1974 to 1996 he was a Professor of Law at Western University: he also taught at other Canadian and English Universities, and was a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Cambridge. At Western University, Professor Hunter was awarded the University's Gold Medal for Teaching Excellence. He is the author of several books, including a bestselling biography of Malcolm Muggeridge Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life. He is a frequent columnist in the Globe and Mail and the National Post.Copyright © 2012 Cardis
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