King Lear

September 9

October 9, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Scholar's Perspective

Too True
by Stuart Sherman

“Why should not old men be mad?” asks William Butler Yeats at the start of a great late poem. It is, in its seeming reasonableness, a chilling question—as though the madness of the old might somehow make clear sense.

King Lear asks this question too, and answers it in many ways—beginning perhaps with Lear’s own question to his three daughters, and the fevered rage that follows from it: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most …?” The naked expression of need, the arrant appeal to greed (most “love”=biggest bequest), the power-addiction disguised as relinquishment—all these speak clearly of an old king’s loosening grip not only on his past potencies but on reality too. “See better, Lear,” urges his best adherent Kent, appalled that his liege is seeing so badly. (“Mad” did not yet also mean “angry,” but Lear’s relentless rage does open a gateway into madness.)

To Yeats’s Why? Shakespeare adds a When?: When, if ever, can we say that the play’s protagonist has gone mad? Shakespeare had posed this problem before. Hamlet’s seeming madness has (as Polonius so quotably notes) plenty of “method in’t.” It is impossible from the playtext to tell for certain whether and when his feigning overflows into debilitating authenticity.

Lear’s shift involves less method and more pain. One daughter remarks, after his first outburst, that he was always thus: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” The Fool’s counsel is riddled with questions of timing: “Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.” Lear’s reply muddles timing further: “Oh, let me not be mad, sweet heaven!” That “be” is ominous: “Go mad” would have thrust this fear wholly into the future; “be” registers, with a tremor, Lear’s terror of the present tense, the possibility that he may have gone mad already.

To Yeats’s stark question, the twenty-first century is developing its own useful though unpoetic answers. Increasingly doctors understand dementia (though not yet well enough) as a physical affliction often triggered by old age. Yeats answers his own question differently. In his reckoning, old men are made mad not by loss of mind but by its overburdening. Having lived so long, they now know too much truth: “No single story [can] they find,” Yeats writes, “of an unbroken happy mind.”

King Lear, fixated on the mind’s terrifying ways of breaking, combines the poet’s answer and  the doctors’.. Tracking the ordeals of Lear and Gloucester, Shakespeare shows much about the infirmity of age, but even more about the burden of deep knowledge, the pain of learning. Gloucester’s son Edgar, who avoids madness only by feigning it, comes to understand knowledge as an endless descent into unanticipated horrors:

I am worse [off] than e’er I was …

And worse I may be yet. The worst is not

As long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

The play proceeds with this remorseless logic, heaping worse on worse until at long last, and in many ways much too late, remorse arrives to trigger mercy not only for the characters but for the audience also. When Edgar reconciles with his father, he speaks calmly of acceptance, in tones again redolent of Hamlet (“The readiness is all”): “Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all.” To which Gloucester answers in kind, “And that’s true too.”

“Too” is for Shakespeare perhaps the crucial word. He is the great orchestrator of what he once called the “too-much,” inundating us with word, thought, action, emotion—and of the “also,” spellbound by more than one truth, capable (as Keats expressed it) of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—and convenient resolution.

King Lear is probably Shakespeare’s mightiest exploration of the too and the too-much. (This holds true even of its playscripts: he wrote at least two very different versions. In one Gloucester speaks this line, in the other he does not; almost every production, true to its own vision, is a hybrid of both texts.) If too much knowing is the way to madness, then this play is built to make us mad. Shakespeare takes us from worse to worse, before delivering moments of calm that nonetheless entail unbearable, unfathomable loss.

Why put ourselves through it? That’s a mystery inbuilt into all tragedy, but maybe most powerfully into this one. “We must suffer into truth,” wrote Aeschylus, the first known crafter of tragedies. Yeats concludes that “Old men should be mad.” Lear at one point declares “I shall go mad,” as though it’s his choice and a choice worth making, the proper price of knowing things. In King Lear we get to suffer several lifetimes’ worth of truth in a single evening. We get a tantalizing chance to refute the Fool: to get past madness, and to grow wise before we are all too old.

Stuart Sherman, Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature and the author of Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785.

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