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Severe Mercy in King Lear

Severe Mercy in King Lear

The best thing about King Lear is that the deeper you dig, the more meat you find. It seems straightforward enough, except that every now and then something leaps out of the dialogue that severs the veil of coherent reality to strike sharp blows at the eternal Within. Even with a minimum of thought, few, I think, when considering King Lear, could emerge unshaken. There are shining archetypes of pain and grace and mercy and redemption. And like all truth, Lear abounds with paradox: we love him, we hate him; he is as King, deity; as father, a child. His beginning is noble yet immature, his end is destitute yet sublime. His subjects, all, are antonyms and mirrors.

The messages come to us disguised as both story and image. The two are hopelessly bound up with one another, but we shall consider them a little separated in hopes of making some progress through such mvstic mire. The images come as flashes of recognition and intuition. We needn’t understand something to be affected by it, for intuition is recognition on the sub-conscious level, which is equally, if not more, important. But unlike the “jolts of glory” that images may bear, the story is gradually grasped, perhaps even long after the performance, when the mind may consolidate and review the witnessed events.

On the surface, King Lear is a pagan play, as it is set pre-Christian England. But it has, for all that, no shortage of appeals to deity and interesting speculation. This is, after all, a play set on the brink of eternity and it must make us wonder on the universe in relationship to the characters and ourselves. The first tragedy is that Lear’s world is void of revelation. It is simply Man and the awesome silence of the Dead. They are a people with no assurence. We who watch the play with the benefit of a Christian worldview have got to displace ourselves and push our assurances and belief aside, if possible, to let inan inkling of the dispair and horror which must meet each man with no hope.

It is not easy to do, and extremely discouraging when we succeed. Asin Beowulf, one of our language’s oldest pieces of mythic literature, a man’s only assurance of afterlife was living on in the memory of those who remained alive, and the greatest end would be a heroic ballad, a song through which a man may live forever, if forever it were sung.

Folly in William Shakespeare’s King Lear

Folly in William Shakespeare’s King Lear

In “East Coker,” T. S. Eliot pleads “Do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly….” (Eliot 185) The folly of old men must surely be a central trope in any discussion of Shakespeare’s imposing tragic accomplishment, King Lear. Traditional interpretations of the play, drawing on the classical Aristotelian theory of tragedy, have tended to view Lear’s act of blind folly as hamartia, precipitating the disintegration of human society. In the ensuing crisis, “the basic ties of nature fall apart to reveal a chaos where humanity ‘must prey on itself like monsters of the deep.'” and “evil is immanent and overflows from the smallest breach of nature.” (Mercer 252) Modernist interpretations have given this scenario an existential spin, treating Lear as a representative of Man, lost in a nihilistic universe. Thus Joyce Carol Oats writes that “the drama’s few survivors experience [the conclusion] as in ‘image’ of the horror of the Apocalypse, that is, an anticipation of the end of the world.” She concludes that “we are left with no more than a minimal stoicism…. For what purpose?–to turn the wheel full circle, it would seem, back to the primary zero, the nothing that is an underlying horror or promise throughout.” (Oats 215)

I. A Postmodern Shakespeare

But Jan Kott has suggested that “While Shakespeare is nearly always in one sense or another our contemporary, there are times when, to paraphrase George Orwell, he is more contemporary than others.” (Elsom 11) If, as is widely agreed, we are in a new cultural period that is in some sense ‘post-modern,’ (Jameson 1) then the texts of a culture that witnessed the emergence of the basic structures and dynamic…

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…dge, 1989.

Grady, Hugh. Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Laing, R. D. The Politics of Experience. New York: Pantheon, 1967.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 1869. Nineteenth Century Europe: Liberalism and Its Critics. Eds. Jan Goldstein and John W. Boyer.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 242-266.

Mercer, Peter. “Tradgedy”. A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms. Ed. Roger Fowler. London: Routledge, 1991. 250-253.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “‘Is This the Promised End?’: The Tragedy of King Lear.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Fall, 1974.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000.

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