Lear, 80 years old, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, and asks them to declare their love for him. He will divide it in proportion to the extent of their declaration.
Lear’s two oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan declare their deep love; they flatter their father, are eloquent in their declaration. Cordelia, the youngest, and Lear’s favorite, says there are not words for her and she will not take the route of her sisters in flattery and exaggeration. Lear is furious and disowns Cordelia and divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan. Cordelia is banished.
Lear soon realizes that Goneril and Regan have deceived him and soon betray him. He slowly goes mad [maybe] in his despair. Later, Cordelia and her husband, the King of France, invade England to restore Lear, but, in one scene after another, nearly everybody dies. Only Edgar, Kent and Albany survive.
After the hymn, you will see part of Act 3, Scene 2. Lear has realized what his two oldest daughters have done and he charges out into the storm with his Fool. Kent – a nobleman loyal to Lear but disguised as a commoner joins them.
And just so you know – no actors were harmed in the production of this service …
Well, this sure is a happy play for the holidays! My goodness. You might be wondering why I picked this as a December sermon, on the first two service Sunday after Thanksgiving, and at the start of Advent, just after Hanukah, a couple of weeks before the solstice, not to mention Christmas. The season of celebration and joy, of thankfulness and liberation and salvation.
King Lear is a dark, dark play. Leo Tolstoy hated it because he thought it utterly nihilistic. Melville loved it, probably for the same reason. Speculation is that when Melville began Moby Dick, he intended it to be a popular book, a lighthearted view of the whaling industry. Or so he told his editor. Then, when he was about done, he wrote to his editor, that “the whale has taken a turn.” He read Lear about this time.
It is a late play; in a two-year stretch, Shakespeare wrote Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. He was about two thirds of his way through his career. He died about ten years after writing Lear at 52, so he was just 42 when he wrote this.
This year, Hannah and I decided that we wanted to use differing texts for Sunday sermons instead of monthly themes. Hannah used a Robert Frost poem in October; last month was the 23rd Psalm; Shakespeare this month, Bartleby the Scrivener in January and the Book of Ruth in Feb, with Seamus Heaney’s poem St Kevin and the Blackbird in March. I asked the Shakespeare group, and its leader Xochitl Gilkeson, for a Shakespeare text and they suggested this.
I am no Shakespeare scholar. I never took a course in Shakespeare; I have never seen a stage production of a play, and only a few movies or TV productions. I have read only a couple of the plays and not easily so. I did see all of the works, abridged, by the Reduced Shakespeare Company [which included doing Hamlet backwards – when the ghost enters, it says Oob!].
Lear is considered among Shakespeare’s best. Harold Bloom says Lear and Hamlet are the creation of what it has come to mean to be human in the modern world. Shakespeare is clearly after deep things in the play; it is nowhere trivial, nowhere just entertainment.
What is Shakespeare trying to say; what does he believe that he is dramatizing? Is life really so grim? Are betrayal and folly, and cruelty and destruction so much more powerful than love or loyalty? Is this how lives end – mad and alone, losing what we love the most, betrayed by those closest to us and by our own desires?
It begins with such familiarity – the hope for love and honor. We surely recognize this: the hope that our children will truly love us, that they will honor us somehow, that the past will not haunt us, that as we let go of our children, that we will be rewarded with love. The hope that what we leave for our children will be adequate and appreciated, that we will have raised them well enough, that they will be good and honorable people.
But that is another play.
After Lear discovers Goneril’s and Regan’s treachery – their betrayal – he heads out to the heath in the scene we saw earlier. He curses and challenges the storm itself as if nature were to blame; he is filled with rage and is not sure where to lodge that rage. Is nature to blame, or are his daughters, or the gods, or is it Lear himself?
When we are betrayed, or tragedy strikes, where do we turn to in our rage? Who is at fault for the great sorrows we all experience? When people die young, who is to blame? We are just a year since the awful shooting in Newtown, CT – where do we rage and where do we find comfort? What kind of a world do we actually live in?
Have you ever felt like raising your hand to the heavens and yelling? Cursing the very powers of nature? Shaking your fist at God, or whatever powers – the great gods as Lear says – and letting loose? Ever wanted to scream, to keen grief and sorrow so deeply that the foundations of the world would crack? I have.
Have you ever experienced betrayal? Part of the message of Lear is the political one, that power corrupts all too often, that greed destroys love and loyalty. Think of how we are being betrayed these days by our own government, by the wealthy of this country. Blow winds indeed, blow them off the face of the earth, crack their cheeks, let lightning and thunder strike, let the winds roar. How often over the recent past has our government betrayed us – the spying on citizens, the war on the poor, the attack on science, the campaign against women’s rights and equality for LGBT persons, and on and on.
But the betrayals that wound the deepest are the personal ones; when someone close to you betrays you. This is the heart of Lear’s madness and rage to be sure. False love.
And his own foolishness.
This scene is key in the play. Lear has realized what his daughters have done and what a terrible mistake he has made. He is confronted with the loss of his own power – his kingdom given away, his family gone, and he finds himself out on the barren heath in a storm, with a fool for company.
Oh such a cautionary tale this is. The fear that as we age, we become fools, that our lives will not add up to much, and that we will simply rage and perhaps go mad. The understanding that we slowly lose our power in the world, and that power is inevitably passed on down to the next generation.
Edmund says at one point
Recommended for You
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star.”
The fear that we have made a mess of things and there is no one to blame but ourselves. The fault, as Caesar says to Brutus, in another play, lies not in the stars but in us.
But it is also a play about honesty. We know Cordelia is right and that Goneril and Regan are wrong. We learn that Edmund is a liar and has no moral center. We know that Albany is right when we says that we should speak what we feel and not just what we think we ought to say.
I am not sure exactly what I want to say to you today – the play is a rich one – Shakespeare’s command of language and understanding of the human heart are astonishing.
Its meanings for me are rather simple and obvious. That we are all prone to fall for flattery and often ignore the truths that come in silence [there is a wonderful essay by Stephen Jay Gould called Cordelia’s Dilemma about the benefit of silence or non-results]. That we sometimes will do about anything or believe anything for love or acceptance. That it is easy to be a fool. That old age can be frightening. That we pass from one stage to another in life and those passages are not easy.
That power is dangerous and when combined with greed is deadly. That this world is not always a friendly one and that tragedies occur. That some people are evil and some are not. That loyalty is a precious virtue. That madness is always just around the corner, in the next storm.
The importance of art, and, maybe especially tragic art, is that it can allow us to forestall our own tragedies. Art, as a friend said to me recently, takes the bullet for us. We learn, from a play like Lear, what dangers face us – in believing flattery, in ignoring silence, in wanting too much for ourselves.
This is how we learn what it means to be human. Reading fiction – whether novels or poetry or plays – increases empathy and encourages understanding.
There is a key line in this scene – I did not realize it until I watched Phillip and Alan and John rehearse yesterday. Lear has been thundering about the storm and about how he has been wronged – I am sinned against more than sinning he says. Kent has said there is shelter nearby and he goes off to try to talk sense into Goneril and Regan. It is cold, and rainy, and stormy.
And Lear says ‘my wits begin to turn.’ Then he asks the fool if he is cold.
My wits begin to turn. This is the line. My wits begin to turn. Lear begins to understand what he has done, that the mistake was his, that he was the fool, that he has given up what he did not want to give up for nothing. His wits have turned to understanding and in that understanding he turns to the fool with compassion. Are you cold, he asks?
But he is also losing his mind, or so the standard interpretation goes. But maybe not, maybe he has turned to wisdom rather than madness; maybe he realizes that kindness is more powerful than position. Maybe he does go mad. But I am not so sure. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness, Melville writes in Moby Dick, and Lear may have come to wisdom here rather than madness, the fine hammered steel of woe.
Maybe Lear begins to find his redemption on the heath, in the storm, when his wits begin to turn and he asks the fool if he is cold. A simple act of kindness.
But we need real world figures too, not just products of the imagination and so we note the death of Nelson Mandela this week. A man of enormous courage, above all a man of courage. Not just the courage to stand against oppression but the courage to forgive, to not become bitter, to not seek revenge.
Never the fool, Mandela raged against what was worthy of his strength – the awfulness of apartheid, the deep racism of his country and of the world, the stunting of opportunity, the denial of freedom.
It is why we believe here in freedom in the deepest sense. It is our most sacred principle as a people of faith – freedom. It is what Lear does not have, though he may have gained it. Mandela did – he lived a free man and died a free man. Freedom.
Toward the end of the play, before Cordelia dies and Lear drops into a deep and grieving sorrow, he shares with his daughter a vision of what might be.
Shakespeare turns things upside down here – the real world is a prison and so a prison is where freedom might be found. Lear finds some love here, some redemption for all the sorrow that he has caused and endured.
“No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the 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: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.”
Nelson Mandela said he came out of Robben Island a free man. As he put it: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
We all feel fear. In fact, we should fear the person who claims that he or she does not. But fear withers under the heat of righteousness. It cannot spread when it is cornered by those of noble conviction.
This is the stuff of heroism and freedom.
Bless his memory and his life. And bless Shakespeare too, and our actors today, and all of you here. Bless us all.
Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson