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 to interest you, you are bound to betray the limits of your interests, which is what Tate and Brook have done. In this way Lear is always, in a sense, complementary to what we believe to be the truth about the world, exactly as the universe is (Herder noted that it had, like the universe, “one interpenetrating all-animating soul”) and the partiality of the interpretations is inevitable. If you believe in “regularity and plausibility,” as Tate did, you have to choose among the “heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolisht” of the original, to achieve it. If you regard the original as an unformed Endgame you also have to leave a lot out. Either way you testify to a universality in the original, and make of that expression more than a vague term of praise.
TWO EMINENT SHAKESPEARIANS have addressed themselves to the question of the survival of King Lear; Maynard Mack’s whole book is about it, and Alfred Harbage has a chapter devoted to it. Harbage’s book consists of lectures written for the 400th Birthday celebrations, and is in some measure innocently contaminated by the occasion; the scholarship keeps but the festive tone doesn’t. Harbage takes up the idea that Shakespeare has become rather like a sacred book, and elaborately develops a related notion, that there is a “myth of perfection” which produces unnecessary defenses of error and inferior writing, as well as overblown “interpretation,” lest the Book be exposed to heretical calumny. He also suggests that Shakespeare has taken on the qualities of a culture hero, as described by Raglan, Rank, and Freud, the last himself a victim of anti-Stratfordian propaganda associated with this cult. A good part of this small book is devoted to the virtues and crimes of actors and directors; much of the material is original, and the climax is a majestic swipe at Peter Brook’s production (“parasitical and fradulent”). The essay on Lear surveys early commentary—there is nothing much before Tate’s Preface in 1681—the criticism of the eighteenth century, the Romantic reappraisal, made possible by the discrediting of the neoclassical paradigms; and ends by suggesting that the play asks unanswerable questions about love—it “may be Shakespeare’s divine comedy which we are still striving to learn to read.”
Maynard Mack is well known as a Shakespearian, among other things, but this is his first book on the subject. It consists of three lectures given at Berkeley, and is a scholar’s book, though not at all indifferent to the theater. His account of centuries of struggle with this intractable and implausible work is well done—Tate again, the restoration of the Fool by Macready in 1838. (Although you might think romantic medievalism should have prepared the way, Macready was very worried about this part, and had the actor play it in the manner, Mack says, of a “feverish Peter Pan,” an interpretation which still crops up from time to time.)
Even with a restored text, producers still provided shelter from the full impact of the play, for instance by making the setting remote and druidical, or having Lear play as a “senile mandarin” or as Old King Cole (Gielgud and Laughton). All these devices help to make the play bearable. If an adversary culture has substituted unpleasure for pleasure, as Mr. Trilling says, the producer will not play down the madness or the cruelty or the surreal gabble, but omit such scenes as that in which the servants tend to Gloucester’s bleeding face; but I suppose this is, at another time, still a way of making it bearable. From Tate to Herbert Blau the directors choose a bearable subtext. Blau says the play is concerned with Nothing, and I would agree that it is concerned with that at least as much as with anything else, but there are subtle semantic confusions in the air, and Professor Mack is right anyway to want to talk about more of the play than just that. He does so by examining folk archetypes, such topics as those of substance and shadow, and the manhood of the kings in the histories—I think he is very warm here—and homiletic, apocalyptic and visionary traces detectable in the work itself.
IN THE FIRST TWO LECTURES Mack is combining suggestions with surveys, and the effect is somewhat bitty, though the text is always informative. In the final lecture he confronts the play and the question of its survival. Naturally he offers no single formula, but considers its treatment of the consequences of acts of will, its variety of idioms (Cordelia, the Fool, Poor Tom, Kent, all speak their own dialects), and above all its emphasis on the beneficent and tragic condition of relatedness—by family and by service—in which human lives are led. Mack suggests a glance at the collapse of certain orders of relatedness at the time of the play—which may have made it more natural to strip away the trappings of kinship, service, and ceremony from the naked man beneath—“no more than this.” Patience is another unmistakable theme, patience hardly distinguishable from folly or madness. The final agony of Lear, he says at last, is only what we have to accept if we hope to be men of good will in the world as it is. “Tragedy never tells us what to think: it only tells us what we are and may be.” Only after we know that are we entitled to speak, with Edgar, of the “clearest gods,” or with Cordelia to call them “kind.”
These full, allusive, well-organized lectures make a good book, and it is hard to explain a slight disappointment one feels. Too many of its few pages are occupied with marginal matters, perhaps; too many aspects which Mack clearly regards as important don’t get full treatment. The theme of madness is one of these; as Mack points out, nobody is mad in the sources, and the whole fantastic pattern of Lear and the Fool and the Bedlam beggar is original. Lear, under one aspect, is a Praise of Folly in the tragic mode, as that of Erasmus is in the comic. Another theme is Apocalypse; Mack remarks that “intimations of world’s end run through [the play] like yeast.” So they do, and more might be said of it. Once I came across a passage in an Elizabethan commentary on Revelation which seemed exactly right for King Lear: “The godly are afflicted to their own profit: namely that they may be murthered into patience…but the ungodly are consumed.” Intimations of Job likewise run through the play; Lear is Job without the terminal restoration. God breaketh him in a tempest; his own kinsfolk forsake him; he calls his servant and he gives him no answer. But Job’s mysterious confidence that his Redeemer liveth is at best only faintly and ambiguously available to Lear; it took a Tate to consign him to happiness.
A GAMEMNON, in Troilus and Cressida, a play quite close to Lear in date, speaks of the gods inflicting “protractive trials” on men, to test their constancy. Job is traditionally the type of such suffering, but Shakespeare turns the screw once more with the death of Cordelia. As Dr. Johnson observed, this is “contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of the chronicles.” And so far he is right; what is wrong is his assumption that Shakespeare ought therefore not to have written it so. However, Johnson is also right in assuming that this final almost intolerable cruelty was added very deliberately, as if the author felt his truth demanded it; and we, who are more accustomed to the thought that the universe is not so constructed as to act in accord with natural human expectations, can accept this as easily as we accept the irregular and implausible structure of the play. Johnson thought that one characteristic function of art was to affirm a certain uniformity of design, which might not be evident in the world, but as a matter of faith existed. Explanations of world order which allowed cruelty and protracted suffering to stand absolutely and discordantly in their own right were disgusting to him, and he preferred Tate’s version for the same reason that he attacked Jenyns for suggesting that the universe was an arrangement in which the “partial evil” of pain might exist to afford entertainment to beings higher in the scale of existence. Behind neo-classical prescriptions as to the proper distribution of happiness and punishment in drama there was not only a fear that without it the drama might be socially dangerous, but a real conviction that in some sense the world itself must be arranged on a similar principle. As this was a truth equally accessible to all men, a dramatist who denied it failed both as artist and man; hence Tate’s attempt to save Shakespeare from the consequences of his failure both to perceive and to make an order.
Lear is full of comments on divine justice, but the only one that really suited the eighteenth-century temper was Albany’s: “This shows you are above, You justicers”; and to take that as more than a very partial account is the same mistake as to believe that Iago had the right idea when he described Othello and Desdemona as an erring barbarian and super-subtle Venetian. In a way, Lear includes but cancels the neoclassic aspiration to justice; it may become clearer as time goes by that it also includes, and also cancels, the modern “adversary” reading, which stresses its absurdity and cruelty.
All this is meant to explain why it is that one tends not to give more than dubious assent to any explanation of what Lear is about, whether it is love or relatedness, majesty and manhood, will, patience, absurdity. Perhaps one can say, with Mack, that it shows us—putting a deliberately cruel and extreme case—what we are and what we may be. This information we organize, as we organize reports about the world itself, into biologically more acceptable patterns, and patterns which the culture leads us to approve. Cultural changes change the patterns; those who make them are, as we all are, inescapably provincial. The play itself, perhaps, is the imperium to a full citizenship of which we hopelessly aspire: an imperium distorted in the transmission, subject to outrageous claims, but in the long run still there, indeed since fine.