Exeunt on a Dead March

I was wrestling with how to teach King Lear in the freshmen honors seminar one night last week. The day before one of the students had asked if the battle in heaven in Paradise Lost was supposed to be a metaphor for something. Instead of answering, I replied, "Well, what was going in Europe during the 17th Century?" There was silence for several seconds. Then a small, tentative voice said, "The Crusades?" "Um, no," I said gently and waited a few beats more. Finally another student ventured a guess: "The Hundred Years War?"

Sometimes I forget just how much of the past is unknown to my students. They have little awareness that various people calling themselves good Christians were slaughtering each other with keen enthusiasm a mere few centuries ago. They have no idea how convulsed with violence and change the 17th century actually was.

The Reformation had overturned the idea that salvation filtered down through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (and the Church took the Reformation threat seriously). Galileo had wrenched the Earth from its moorings and sent it hurling about the sun. Newton was distilling the primary forces of nature into laws that had little to do with theology. Van Leeuwenhoek was discovering a microscopic universe that was not unlike the recent discovery of whole new continents filled with people who had never heard of any universal hierarchy with a Christian God presiding over a fixed moral order.

The historian Arthur Lovejoy suggested almost 75-years ago that humanity took it for granted until the 18th Century that there was a "Great Chain of Being" stretching "from the meagerest kind of existents through every possible grade up to the ens perfectisummum." We have seen some evidence of Lovejoy's thesis this semster in Plato's ranking of human souls from tyrant to philosopher in The Phaedrus. Moreover, we spent some time diagramming Satan's moves up and down the hierarchy from archangel to serpent, a journey he laments in Book IX when he says,

O foul descent! That I who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest, am now constrain'd
Into a Beast, and mixt with bestial slime,
This essence to incarnate and imbrute...
So we have explored three common and still widely-held assumptions about human beings within the first month or so of the seminar: that we are in some way distinct from this world and the creatures in it; that we possess an ennobling telos; and that we occupy a quite specific place in some orderly universal hierarchy.

King Lear is well positioned to raise questions about all of these assumptions. Of course, no reader with an ounce of humility can approach a text like Lear with the idea of mastering all of its interpretive possibilities. The play is far too rich for that. It sustains many approaches. Like all great literature, we miss the point if we look for a definitive answer as to what the text is about. Still we can read the text with this seminar's main themes front and center.

And when we do, we discover that the play has quite a lot to say about the human nature, especially about assumptions of a human purpose (or telos) and a divinely-ordered hierarchy. Lear certainly believes in a hierarchy at the play's opening. He demands tributes from his daughters because he sees such praise as a King's due. All below must acknowledge his position in the order, one that, given the historical belief in the divine right of kings, ostensibly flows from the Godhead to the lowliest peasant. But instead of praises due, Cordelia merely says, "I love your Majesty/According to my bond, no more, no less."

By bond, of course, she means that she loves Lear because she is connected to him on a human level as his daughter, not because he occupies some position in some universal order. As the play progresses, Lear gradually comes to understand this and realizes that his conception of himself within any universal order might just be a self-flattering delusion. And if his kingship is fiction, perhaps justice, morality, and even the divine order itself are as well. This is a horrifying possibility for Lear, and it seems to shake the world beneath his feet.

In fact, the storm's indifference to his plea for justice makes Lear aware for the first time that his identity as a King is irrelevant to whether justice will be done. Reflecting on this possibility, he says, "O, that way madness lies, let me shun that/No more of that." But let's consider this madness-producing possibility for a minute, because if an orderly universe in which every person and thing occupies a rightful station is accepted as fiction, what's left? Perhaps only the savage competition of nature, the model that Edmund adopts with such tragic consequence.

So what is left? At this point in the seminar, Shakespeare has put some very disturbing questions on the table. He raises the possibility that there may be no transcendent order or goal for humanity. It could be, the play suggests, that we are just poor, weak creatures cast adrift in a brutal and perhaps Godless universe. Is animal savagery and endless strife our sad fate? Or does Shakespeare hold out to us the possibility that we can extend the bonds of love to one another--not because we are deserving (and Lear clearly is not), but because human compassion for our fellow sufferers is all we have to soften blows of this world?

At the end of the play, in an echo of what Cordelia has actually done at the play's opening, Edgar says, "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." It may be, he seems to suggest, that the universe will offer us no guarantee about what we ought to do. The world might just be heartless, but we, at least, are not.

Much, of course, depends on how we see the play's end. There has been so much suffering and cruelty. And even though the villains are finally slain, it's hard to argue that justice has been achieved. The country has been torn apart by war, Gloucester has been blinded, Lear driven mad, Cordelia murdered.

In the last scene, too, Albany and Edgar are left to try to put some semblance of order back into the world. Can they do it? Will the world ever be the same? Or has it changed irrevocably? Interestingly, in some versions of the play it is Albany rather than Edgar who speaks the famous final lines. A version published in 1608 presents them this way:

ALBANY: The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

But here's a 1623 version of the play:

EDGAR: The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
[Exeunt on a dead march.]

Does the second ending seem a bit darker? Albany has grown in stature and vision throughout the play. By giving him the last lines, it implies a hope that the world too might grow in understanding and become a more humane place. This reading appeals to many students in Logos II, who want to believe that Albany and Edgar can create a more compassionate social bond.

But there is another way to view the play's ending. On stage we see a few grieving survivors trudging away from a blood-soaked plain to a future that lacks any solacing fiction about a divinely ordered world. These are brutalized characters, with an uncertain, though certainly difficult, future before them.

In this sense, Lear acts as a pivot in our semester-long conversation. It puts forward some hard, critical questions about human pretension and who and what we think we are. Standing on that grim plain at the play's close, it is still possible to view human nature in a hopeful light, but certainly not without having entertained some very dark questions indeed.


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