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King Lear offers a bleak and godless world. But, when I leave the theatre, I feel hope, not despair

And hope is not an illusion; it reflects my experience of the world. To be a Christian in faith and practice is to be genuinely human

By on Wednesday, 8 August 2012

A 1999 production of Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Photo: PA)

A 1999 production of Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Photo: PA)

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.

  • Cestius

    A world without God – “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (yes I know that’s not King Lear, but you get the point.)

  • Mark

    Let’s remember that Shakespeare, England’s greatest writer, was a Catholic; just as England’s greatest poet, Alexander Pope, greatest architect Augustis Pugin, and one of its greatest composers, William Byrd; all Catholic. It is time that history recognizes the Catholic foundation of English culture even after the reformation.

  • theroadmaster

    The famous wandering of a dispirited, ranting and deserted King Lear across the moor, typifies for Shakespeare a world without order, harmony and love.  In other words a world at odds with it’s Creator who gave it and mankind existential meaning beyond this materialistic existence.  The king did find “method in his madness” as he roamed alone giving voice to his inner torments in relation to the meaningless of life without adherence to a natural order of truth, beauty and goodness.  In Shakespeare’s time, the monarchy was supposed to the embodiment of these very qualities and the social strata which comprised society below this apex, were expected to follow this institution.  So naturally once there was disorder at the very top, society would suffer the consequences socially, politically and metaphysically.  Lear’s oft quoted lines are nothing less than the cries of a troubled and anguished soul as it seeks again harmony with it’s natural environment.  Perhaps today’s western societies should take note and stop legislating and enacting policies which could lead to their own, social, political and existential collapses.

  • Theophilus

    Does not King Lear and other tragic drama convince and move us because we recognise that the world it portrays is real, or at least one possible version of reality? and because human beings are not just overwhelmed by the injustice and amorality of the world, but become noble and inspiring in confronting it? Its world-view does not square with religious faith in a redemptive God, but in its own terms it does make sense and I doubt if we would be moved by it otherwise. Greek and Shakespearean tragedy stands as a permanent challenge to Christian beliefs.

    There seems to be little real evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic, as Fr. Lucie-Smith says, and there is little sense of a religious world-view in his plays. As for Alexander Pope, I don’ think you would ever deduce his Catholicism from his poetry.

  • aearon43

    Yes, I think the force of King Lear depends largely on the audience’s recognition that the action is “out of place” or disordered. The Japanese director Akira Kurosawa did a beautiful version of King Lear called “Ran,” which is the Japanese word for “revolt” or “confused.” It seems to me that in order to recognize chaos we would first need to have an (innate?) sense of order.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for another interesting column.

    I disagree with your conclusion. I believe human nature is such that it necessitated divine intervention in the form of the Ten Commandments and the Incarnation. The Decalogue does not represent the observations of a social scientist. The first of them was in the process of being broken at the very moment of their articulation. The Incarnation “ended” in abandonment by friends, torture and an excruciating death.

    This is not Christianity turning Paradise into a “vale of tears”. In pagan literature, Herodotus quotes Solon, the “wise” Athenian lawgiver’s views on happiness, which include the following warning:
    “Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.”

    The Good News of Christianity is that we know in fact that the Crucifixion was not the end. We believe in the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. This belief should console us when, as St. Bernard says, we pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on us.

    It should not be necessary to illustrate the enduring nature of human wrongdoing. One could point to the state of our legislation, or the plight of Christians in the developing world. We can, of course, “cheer up because it may never happen to us”, but we have a duty to be realistic when it does happen to others.


  • aearon43

    And Elgar, too.