About three years ago I went to see King Lear at the Globe, and stood in the pit. It is a long play, but the hours sped by, so rapt was I by the business on stage.
King Lear makes for some pretty strange entertainment, because it is a very bleak play. It contains these lines:
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, —
They kill us for their sport. (Act IV, scene 1)
They are uttered by Gloucester, who has had his eyes gouged out and been thrust out of doors, all with the connivance of his son Edmund.
And we have these lines in the mouth of the Duke of Albany:
If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep. (Act IV, scene 2)
But Albany’s prayer for divine intervention goes unanswered; and we know that the supremely good Cordelia meets an unjust and horrible end. Humankind cannot bear very much of this sort of reality which is why Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear, substituting a happy ending, and this was the Lear that was performed from the Restoration until 1838.
The Nahum Tate Lear, which was the only Lear for over 150 years is hardly an improvement on Shakespeare (though funnily enough Tolstoy thought it was), but it reminds us that Lear is the sort of drama the impact of which one might well be tempted to dilute. It deals with a world that has lost its way: a king that does not act like a king; daughters that do not act like daughters, sons that do not act like sons. Coupled with these unnatural examples are some good people, but their goodness seems weak in the face of such overwhelming evil.
And yet, coming home from King Lear at the Globe, I was by no means in despair. Such behaviour is possible, indeed there are examples of such human cruelty today. But it struck me that the world of Lear is not the world I know, not the world I live in or experience.
Incidentally, Lear is particularly disturbing in that, though supposedly happening at a particular time and place (pre-Christian Britain), it is clearly a universal drama, and the repeated use of the place name Dover only serves to underline the sense of geographical dislocation. Lear’s Britain could be any place at any time; it is both ancient and contemporary. This is not a historical play – it is a play about human existence. Hence, I suspect, the subtle Biblical allusion in the nakedness of Edgar, and later Lear, on the heath. The heath is an anti-Eden, the place where the unclothed, instead of walking with God, experience Him as utterly absent; where instead of enjoying the care of Divine Providence, they are buffeted by the cruel elements, in a universe where pitiless indifference reigns.
We have no real way of knowing much about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. The work of Clare Asquith, and Fr Peter Milward SJ has won many admirers, but to my mind both of them go way beyond what the text will support. (Some may think I do the same too…) But it seems to me that Lear is a play in which God is strikingly absent – and deliberately so. To put God into Lear would destroy the play – which is precisely what Nahum Tate did.
But, and it is a huge but, the world simply is not like that. (In a funny way Nahum Tate was right about that.) And yet so many Victorians lived in the shadow of Lear. The vision of Lear is clear to see in Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles all contain clear allusions to Lear. And then there is the great, possibly greatest, poem of the nineteenth century, Dover Beach, the title of which recalls Lear too.
Arnold laments the decline of Faith, and concludes his threnody with this bleak picture:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
This is one of the best expressions of existential pessimism ever written. But is this the world we recognise? Of course not! And notice how Arnold contradicts himself: he wants to find consolation in love (“Ah, love, let us be true to one another!”) while at the same time asserting just four lines later that love does not exist, and that there is no help for pain.
Hope is one of the great Christian and human virtues. And hope is not an illusion. I am a Christian, and every day I do Christian things as a second nature. But these actions are not automatic; every day I decided to be a Christian because the Christian vision is the true one, the one that most accords with existence. There is – against the Nietzscheans – a suitably concordant fit between the world as experienced and Christian belief.
Lear is a play where several people decide to act against nature: Goneril and Regan decide not to be daughters, Edmund not to be a son – they are people who decide that an “is” does not imply an “ought”. They act as they choose without reference to any pre-existing morality. They invent their own morality, an anti-morality. People can in fact do that – for a time. But human nature will reassert itself in the end. To be genuinely human, to be what a human would rationally choose to be, and to be Christian in faith and practice, coincide, because humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. Humanity as monsters of the deep, which is the vision of Lear, is one that is compelling on stage, but, when we leave the theatre, makes little sense.