King Lear in Our Time
Conceptions of Shakespeare
The reasons for a work of art surviving are probably much more complicated than we tend to suppose, and in any case are rarely sought. What we get instead of inquiry into them is talk about the nature of the classic. Eliot, for example, distinguished between absolute and relative classics; the distinction depended upon the grand imperial myth he worked up in the later years of his life, for absolute classics belonged to “a larger pattern set in Rome.” This makes Virgil chief of the class because of his truly metropolitan situation and because he was the poet and prophet of that imperium which we still inhabit or do not inhabit according to whether we are or are not “provincial.” By such standards Shakespeare is in some degree provincial, and there are moments when it becomes clear that Eliot was on the point of saying so. Nevertheless, if we change the terms a bit Eliot’s classic provides part of the answer to the question about survival, since it must be true that certain works have, for one reason or another, been formative of the culture we inhabit, even to the point where in order to reject them we should have to reject much else with them; so that on the whole it is easier to accept and adapt them, sometimes drastically, as the Stoic allegorists accepted and adapted Homer, or modern theologians the Bible, or modern directors Shakespeare.
Even Mr. Trilling’s “adversary culture” seems willing to adapt rather than reject, and one of the distinctive features of a classic must be its patience, its ability to survive very drastic adaptation. If the adversary culture converts the tragic into the absurd or sacrifices the text to its lust for the frisson dunéant, King Lear will go along, and indeed the play has experienced very similar treatment before. The eighteenth century, as Mr. Harbage remarks, “had no theory of tragedy that would shelter King Lear,” and Nahum Tate’s happy-ending, neo-classicized version held the stage for a century and a half. (It says something about the eclecticism of the adversary culture that after being rested for a hundred and forty years Tate’s version is to be played in London this spring.) Everybody deplores the “Tatefied” Lear, but at least it showed a desire or need to keep the thing alive, and as a play; the great critics who rehabilitated the book—Herder and Schlegel, Lamb and Keats, even Bradley—hardly saw it as a matter for the stage. The adaptative process isn’t so necessary for closet drama; it’s on the stage, where the piece challenges established opinion or prejudice more immediately, that adaptation is necessary. For Bradley King Lear was too great for the stage; for Tate it was too messy, for Peter Brook too unspecific. Bradley took it to the closet, the others adapted it.
Lear illustrates another classic quality: It is extremely unassertive, and if you say what it is about in terms that happen …