No justice, no peace

King Lear, which we started discussing in class yesterday, is a profoundly disturbing play-- more so than I ever realized when I first read it years ago. Shakespeare strips away our illusions about the moral order of the universe, but also the lies about love we insist upon perpetuating. If we will be honest about life, Shakespeare seems to suggest, we may have to acknowledge that love is a fairly insignificant answer to the problems of existence.

Even in our personal relationships it cannot prevent us from wounding and disappointing one another. Lear loves Cordelia, but so what? Cordelia loves Lear, but so what? Same for Edgar and Gloucester. Near the end of the play, too, Edgar sees Lear and muses, "He childed as I fathered." That parents and children love each other might just be irrelevant to the pain that may have to be endured by both. As Harold Bloom points out, these five words are about as good a way of summing up the play as has ever been written.

And here’s the rub: had Cordelia flattered Lear’s vanity in Act I, it would not have prevented the mayhem that followed, which raises an interesting question. When we take our eyes down from the Gothic spire reaching to some ideal heaven and carefully study this world like a good Renaissance realist, what do we see? Do we see a universe where justice is assured in divinely meted out proportion to the crime (as it is in Dante’s medieval conception)? Do we see Michelangelo’s humanistic celebration of our own beauty and dignity? Or do we see Machiavelli’s world of secular power with its endless deception and treachery? Perhaps what we see are Lear and Edgar pelted by a pitiless storm, half-naked, and stripped of illusions in a dark, savage world?

Part of Shakespeare’s honesty is that he asks us to consider a world in which good and evil may be irrelevant. Edmund lies and deceives his father, but so does Edgar, although for different reasons. Edmund defeats his rivals through deceit and violence, but so does Edgar in the end, and with little hope that the world will ever be much better for his having done so. Honesty and loyalty have resulted in Cordelia’s death, and in perhaps the cruelest irony, Edgar’s lies save his father's life only so it could be lost when he is at last honest with him!

Wow. Just wow.

So here is a view that depicts a world far different than the medieval conception of the universe as a divinely-ordered hierarchy with everything in its proper place and relationship. St. Augustine argued that we sin by choosing a lower good over the highest good. Shakespeare’s seems to be asking whether such choices actually matter. The world of King Lear is so much more recognizably modern than the world expressed by the Cathedral of Chartres.


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