Sunday, November 18, 2012
Shakespeare's King Lear ends with these telling lines from Edgar:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
That quote's been on my mind a lot these past twelve months, which have been a time of saying goodbye to family and friends. It began with the death of my friend and colleague, June Breninger; it continued with the passing of my Dad on New Year's Day; a few weeks ago, Dorothy Salsma, who I worshiped with for fifteen years at East County Church of Christ, died; and today is the memorial service for Ryan Woods, a former Cascade student and a thirty-year old husband and father of two children, taken by cancer.
And I've only mentioned those I've been acquainted with personally. Many of my friends have experienced significant loss as well. What does one say in the midst of so much pain, so much suffering, so much death? "This sucks" seems appropriate. It's what I said to my students the other day when I told them the story of Ryan Woods. What I didn't tell them is that shortly after Ryan's death his brother-in-law, Ben, former youth pastor to our kids, was admitted to the hospital with an acute case of pancreatitis.
Somehow it seems worse when it's young folks, like Ryan and Ben, who suffer. Or like my friend, Adam Langford, who was in his twenties when he died in a traffic accident near Jinja, Uganda, where he was living and serving the people of that part of the world. In one of his novels, Hemingway says that if you are young and gifted, life will kill you quickly, or words to that effect, and it's hard not to feel that way when I consider Adam and Ryan.
I haven't been able to escape talk of death and suffering in the classes I teach either. We've covered C. S. Lewis's Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, the story of his struggle with God after the death of his beloved wife, Joy, from cancer. And then there's Shakespeare, who seems at times to be the poet of grief and suffering and injustice. Far from trying to escape these realities, Shakespeare's impulse was to immerse himself in suffering with all its complexities and ironies and suckiness.
This is particularly true of King Lear. The play's ending, where the innocent Cordelia dies at the order of the evil Edmund, was so shocking to the 18th Century critic Samuel Johnson that he could not bear to read it again until he was forced to when he published an edition of Shakespeare's works. Taking his cue from Johnson, Nahum Tate rewrote the ending, letting Cordelia live, and this was the only version of the play that audiences saw for over a hundred years.
Frederick Buechner, who calls King Lear the most religious of Shakespeare's plays, suggests that Edgar's concluding lines may describe Shakespeare as well. That is, Shakespeare was perhaps offering his own explanation for why he would write such a shocking and horrible ending. The playwright was, according to Buechner, speaking what he felt, not what he ought to say. If he had written what he ought to say, in other words, perhaps Cordelia and Lear would have lived out the golden years of the foolish king's life together. If he had written what he ought to say, he would have had the play come out the way 18th century audiences desired because they thought virtue should always be rewarded and vice punished. It's doubtful, of course, that things always worked out that way in real life in the 18th century, but they preferred their literature to tell stories of things as they ought to be--not as they oftentimes were.
It would be interesting to know what was going on in Shakespeare's life that caused him to write the play he did. Buechner speculates it could have been the prospect of his own old age and problems in his relationship with his two daughters, but all we can do is speculate. What we do know is that he altered in significant ways the sources he used for the story of Lear and his daughters. Those sources had both Cordelia and Lear surviving and presumably did not have such gloomy views of life as that expressed by Gloucester in Shakespeare's play: "Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport." While Shakespeare does include some more hopeful visions of the relationship of gods and humans in the play, they are far outnumbered by a vision of a world where the good suffer and the evil prosper.
I can't say that reading King Lear has cheered me up as I've reflected on pain and death and human suffering, but in a strange way it's helped me by echoing my own feelings that this life is sometimes unfair and even absurd. I'm thankful that Shakespeare had the courage to write the story the way he felt it rather than to write the one his audience expected him to.
Sometimes our stories don't end the way we expect or desire them to. Ryan's didn't; Adam's didn't. Sometimes life sucks, and telling the truth about that is the best we can hope to do. Later, we may have something more hopeful and redemptive to say, but for now we bear witness to the tragic. We face the darkness and hope for light. We speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.