Shakespearing #29 by David Foley
I’ve had a mental block about my Lear posting. I finished reading the play a few weeks ago, wrote two paragraphs, and stalled. It may be because I’ve already written about Lear in this series, or it may be because I began with the claim, “King Lear is Shakespeare’s masterpiece,” and feared living up to so unhedged a bet. Or perhaps, having scaled Shakespeare’s plays to their pinnacle, it was daunting to describe the view.
It’s a famously barren view where “for many miles about / There’s scarce a bush.” It’s a shelterless, comfortless place. “Man’s nature cannot carry / The affliction nor the fear” of it. “The first time that we smell [its] air / We wawl and cry,” and from that moment on we make “sport” for the pitiless gods.
It makes me think that pity is the great Shakespearean virtue, and pitilessness the moral void his plays keep trying to expose and fill. Pity is an exacting virtue. Empathy, by comparison, seems comfortable and twee, tinged with self-regard. Pity keeps company with brutal fact, “the thing itself,” as Lear calls the disguised Edgar. It marks the great difference between Cordelia and her sisters. When Regan sends Lear out into the storm, her justification might be pity’s opposite: “O sir, to willful men, / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters.” Cordelia tells Lear, “Had you not been their father, these white flakes / Did challenge pity of them… Mine enemy’s dog, / Though he had bit me, should have stood that night / Against my fire.”
Lear’s transformation is an awakening to pity. Moments after he rages madly in the storm, he tells his Fool, “I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry yet for thee,” and he is so struck by Poor Tom, who “answer[s] with [his] uncover’d body this extremity of the skies,” that he tears his own clothes off.
This suggest that pity has a leveling power, and indeed Gloucester later says, “Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man… that will not see / Because he does not feel, feel [heaven’s] power quickly; / So distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough.” At moments like these, we recognize that we still live in Shakespeare’s world and guess that pity, that great corrective to the pitilessness of God and nature, still lies at the heart of our debates.
All this by itself would not make a masterpiece, though it does form part of something I noticed in Othello and I expect is evident in Macbeth: that these are plays of the Unified Effect. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that, except that Shakespeare’s bent towards multiplicity, to looseness, to shifts of tone and territory, is in abeyance in these plays. Everything points relentlessly towards a central image.
Even this would not be enough, if Shakespeare weren’t also at the height of his artistry. And perhaps it is an artistry of pity. Certainly it’s one of psychological immediacy. His great subject is the mind at war with itself, riding the rough waters of mental and emotional upheaval. Here’s Lear:
No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep:
No, I’ll not weep.
I have full cause for weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred flaws
Or ere I’ll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad!
This is more than psychological acuity. It’s psychological transposition. It pushes us past empathy and forces us to ride the storm with Lear.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.