"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

King Lear–“Between the Divine and the Absurd”–

This quote is taken from an essay by Susan  Snyder and raises the question that critics have debated for decades – is the play about the total hopelessness and absurdity of it; or is it the contrary, a play of hope and optimism.

At one end of the spectrum are the critics Jan Kott and Peter Brook (who is not a critic per se but who directed Lear influenced by Kott) who say that the play is Theatre of the Absurd, especially as presented by Beckett.  Kott quotes from Beckett liberally.  As Snyder says,

The pessimists have sequence on their side, certainly.  In terms of events, blind chance, or malevolent fate has pretty much the last word…..Several characters initiate plots of some sort, to et power or love, to save or destroy.  None of them, good or bad, ultimately succeed….There are the obscurely motivated wanderings of Lear and Gloucester….When Cordelia and Lear die, the play seems to say “This universe, after all, has no concern for men’s moral growth, in fact has no mind; those momentary janglings that you shuddered at before shrugging them off as peripheral – they are the point.

Peter Brook was so convinced of this Endgame (Beckett) scenario that he cut scenes and lines that would be affirming and hopeful – such as Edmund’s dying contrition and desire to give a reprieve to Cordelia; or Cornwall’s servants who can no longer see the barbarity of their master.

But arbitrarily cutting them does not expunge them from the play as Shakespeare wrote it.  In fact, the optimist view is, from the text (and not from modernist philosophers), optimistic.  Lear does learn what it means to be a king and a man.  He is not, after all, mad, but very sane in his human self-revelations.  Edgar is selfless and without ambition except to help Lear.  He accepts the crown at the end, but has never sought it.  Kent is never given much credit for goodness, since he follows Lear for no good reason in the health (Edgar does have revenge on is mind, if only indirectly).

The theme of religion and Christianity often come up in criticism of Lear.  Although there are frequent references to the gods, they are more expletives rather than prayers; and tellingly, even if they are prayers they are never answered; but this is why Snyder feels that the play is not absurd but humanistically divine:

The play’s values of love, forgiveness, and fellow-feeling gained through suffering are indeed those preached by Christianity.  The point is that, rather than being handed down from high, they take root in and grow up from the ground of human desperation.  Furthermore in an apparent random universe with no afterlife in which ultimate justice is meted out, following that ethic must be its own reward.

Harriet Hawkins comes to the same conclusion:

And in spite of the fact that the death of Cordelia appears to have no significance whatsoever in terms of any gods, or any “Absolute”, the emotional responses which this death generates in the theatre and which are completely human ones – grief, pity, love, terror – are of awesome human significance in and of themselves.

And further:

Certainly no gods in this tragedy will intervene to prevent the rejection of all humane values, nor will they intervene to punish those who reject these values.  The only evil, the only justice, the only mercy, and the only miracles that occur in this play, result from the actions of men.

By eliminating a divine context, and still extolling the virtues mentioned above, Shakespeare is writing a hopeful play.  Not that hope occurs that often in his plays.  The Histories are stories of predictable ambition, greed, and the inexorable turning of the machine of history; and are interesting just because they give insights for us today.

And later:

And this is why, despite all the justifiable intellectual arguments that King Lear makes a grotesque mockery (especially see Jan Kott) of human aspirations set against and indifferent and absurd Absolute, the play still, to the common reader, represents an affirmation of the human capacity to surmount all inhuman indifference, all absurdity.

Which brings me to a final point about critics.  Ever since I studied Shakespeare and other literature at Yale, I knew that Criticism was a business, and a very lucrative one.  If critics only took the most obvious (not simplistic, but most human) interpretation of a play, there would be no new contracts or awards; and therefore much of literary criticism of Shakespeare, at least, is tortured, academic, and irrelevant.

However, as I have mentioned in my blog, I respect certain critics (and have quoted many) for their ability to sort through the range of human motivations, basing their judgment on history, culture, and literature.  I think this Divine vs. the Absurd argument around Lear is a good example of the sensible, common sense but intelligent “hopeful” critics, and the overly-intellectual “negative” ones.

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