Meditations on Lear

by Evelyn Hooven (March 2018)

Lear and Cordelia, Ford Madox Brown, 1849-54


One of the more celebrated and influential books of Shakespeare criticism in the last half-century was, without a doubt, Maynard Mack’s King Lear in Our Time (University of California Press, 1972), originally the distinguished Yale University professor’s lecture series while Beekman Visiting Professor at Berkeley. While acknowledging his debt to those who had stimulated his views—previous critics and scholars, members of a graduate seminar, and others—Professor Mack singled out for special mention an essay on Lear which was a particular inspiration, the essay liberally quoted and paraphrased in the book, the essayist honored thus: “I am further grateful to my former student, Evelyn G. Hooven, who has understood better than most what it means, in Keats’s words, to ‘burn through the fierce dispute / Betwixt Damnation and impassion’d clay.’” (The reference is to Keats’s “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Again.”)
Ms. Hooven has never chosen on her own to publish her essay—assuming (until corrected otherwise!) that having signally influenced and inspired someone else’s book it had served its purpose. Having recently become aware of its existence, I judge that it is time this essay itself see the light of day. Here it appears with some editing.
Samuel Hux
NER Contributing Editor
ing Lear is not only a great play for the theatre but also a kind of metaphor for theatre itself. For it is intensely concerned with the ways in which spiritual awareness must be realized through the body, tried upon the pulse, must become embodied in deed and word. There is an analogy between what Shakespeare’s play is about and the very tools of the theatre medium. Just as the play insists upon and persistently emphasizes the relation between body and spirit, voice and garment, the outward journey and the inner one, so it also uses impersonation, the theatre’s most elementary force, to enhance and intensify its themes. Even as the actor lends a character or idea his voice, body, gesture, and allows this character or idea or spirit to live within him, so in this mysterious play the major agent takes upon himself, gathers unto himself the spirits and even the masks of some of the other characters. King Lear does not meet with his banished daughter Cordelia (“nor shall we ever see that face of hers again”) until he has taken within himself the spirit of the Fool, of banished Kent, of Edgar’s strange projection of a mad, beggared, unaccommodated man.
The very distinction made in the play between soulless people whose power is strictly external, whose love is lust, whose authority is force, whose efforts and gains and losses are at once calculated and calculable, and people of soul whose value and outer gesture come from within, is essentially a theatrical one. For even as the spirit of a man inhabits the body and is expressed through the body, the theatre must, in an available and overpowering way, “embody its idea.” (I am borrowing this phrase, in this context, from Stark Young; it is a recurrent phrase in his books on theatre.) And in great theatre, every rhythm, gesture, shadow, color, sound, radiance, arrangement is, itself, a metaphor for that idea whereby it exists.
The question, though, of whether King Lear is suitable or even possible for the stage persists and has long persisted. Is it wrong for the stage even as Goethe’s Faust is wrong for the stage? Is this “Leviathan,” either because of its theme and dramaturgy or because of the limitations imposed by theatrical performance, simply too large for the stage? The question is sometimes turned into a dichotomy—great poetic drama versus delimiting spectacle—as though the response could be evenly distributed between those who love words best and those who love theatre best. At other times the problem is seen as the purely practical one of staging extremities and improbabilities, as though the whole puzzle awaited some rare producer who would be remarkably clever about staging the storm scenes and the fictive suicide of Gloucester and Edmund’s prestidigitations.
Too large for the stage? Perhaps it is true that the ideas in King Lear are not perfectly embodied dramatically and theatrically as they are, for example, in Oedipus Rex or Othello or Macbeth. But this imperfection, if that is what it is, does not diminish the value or even the effectiveness of the play for the theatre. An imperfection or uncertainty or imbalance similar to that in King Lear, though at once less blurred and less intense, exists also in the action of Hamlet, a play which no one seems to regard as unsuitable for the stage. For the delay in Hamlet, explain it though one will by circumstance or situation or psychology, is neither purely circumstantial nor a character flaw of indecisiveness but, rather, a metaphor for something very difficult to grasp or explain. Is it a metaphor for the change that must take place in the world of the young prince in order for him to do a deed that is, however just, also dire, unaccustomed, and irrevocable? One can only ask or suggest . . .
In Hamlet, and perhaps more so in Lear, there is something inaccessible that no single production can ever hope to succeed in expressing. But this means, merely, that just as no production of a Shakespeare play can ever hope to be definitive, productions of Hamlet or of Lear are likely to be even more partial than are those of other plays. The greatness of a production of Lear or of Hamlet will depend, even more than is usual in tragedy, upon the intensity and the extent of the power to suggest realms beneath and beyond what is, at any given moment or from moment to moment expressed.
Yet King Lear presents problems which Hamlet, for all its mysterious complexity, does not present. King Lear does not have what one might call an attractive or a dazzling surface to offer to a theatre audience. Hamlet, after all, is a young prince who has been in love with a beautiful young woman and who lives in a court which, at the last—after intrigues and ghostly clamour and a play within a play and an interrupted funeral procession—collapses amid the brilliance of envenomed swords, poisoned goblets, a vision of felicity, and the final commemorative deed of a brave soldier and princely successor, Fortinbras. This is a surface which might, if one were so inclined, distract one from the tragic idea it is expressing.
There is in Hamlet, as in the Oresteia trilogy, also some refuge, if that is the right word, some stable center which the audience can hold to as well as the characters, a point of view which preserves a social system among men and is respected and honored. No such refuge exists in Lear. Though Edgar and Albany make such a point of view their own, it is always inadequate. It is superseded by the action. And, at the tragedy’s end, it is as they acknowledge irrelevant. It is also possible—if one does not look and listen with all one’s force and wonder—to view Hamlet, however, with the same moral equipment which preserves one. In Hamlet one can feel (unequivocally?) the justice of the prince’s mission. Every right-thinking person knows which side to take: the young prince must avenge the hideous murder of his father. For the too tidily moral, however, there is the possibility of shifting emphasis at the end and concluding that Hamlet, too, deserved to die, for he killed Polonius and drove Ophelia mad and in self-defense (nothing more pious) gave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern his old school friends their death warrant.
But King Lear—where so much dramatic emphasis rests upon banished and blinded and bemadded old men, where the most evil characters are hardly characters at all, but rather forces of insensible, dark, mechanistic, brutal opportunism, perversions of humanity, where the sense of common physical need and vulnerability mingles with visionary, lunatic cries—will give neither actor nor spectator refuge. There is, indeed, something in the play that persistently violates any effort to take it on the surface or to see with moderate or delimited perspective. The action seems not only to contradict any tendency to accept form without the spirit but also to violate any attempt to accept the outlines of the action without its details as well. One must accept the action fully in order to accept it at all. It is not flexible; it will not yield to transpositions or fragmentations. It is revelatory, I think, that King Lear has not been turned, as have for example Hamlet, Much Ado, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV, The Tempest, Macbeth, and especially Romeo and Juliet, into opera, ballet, dramatic symphony. Berlioz, at the height of dramatic romanticism, composed a King Lear overture, but he confessed that it evoked the play so little as to bear almost no relation to it.
But I have not spoken of another great problem, if problem it be, associated with Lear. I have said that there is no way of taking refuge, no means of distraction. And yet of all plays, one is most likely, here, to wish for refuge. For it is extraordinarily painful. So much so that beginning 65 years after Shakespeare’s death “Shakespeare’s” play was usually presented for a century and a half in bowdlerized form with a happy ending. So Samuel Johnson was not the only man, during three centuries, who found the ending unbearable. And not only are the moments from Lear’s entrance bearing Cordelia until the end some of the most painful moments possible to drama (for we are not, here, distanced by chorus or masks or operatic delivery or alexandrine couplets), but those moments seem to call into deep questioning something we have been taught to believe about the world, something we wish to believe and without which (for one has to be sustained, one has to hold onto something) the obstacles and the anguish and the blind injustice in the world appear to be senseless. We wish to believe that human suffering has some beneficent end, that it stirs, eventually, the curative and redemptive properties of the world. But if, indeed, our suffering has no purpose, if the end toward which we move is not radiant and healing and harmonious, but, rather, dark and void, then we who must leave the theatre after the brief (but also enduring) traffic is for the evening at rest and silent, we who must leave for a traffic literal and exigent and without messages, whose lives are so much longer and more obscure than this life of two hours, we do not wish to know it.
But let us go back a minute. Is the action of King Lear, with its agonizing final moments, so utterly unbearable? Does it strip one of what one must believe in order to go on living? Or is it, rather, that we must see it with new eyes, with unaccustomed faculties? Shall we see, if we do not avert our eyes, some rare and great radiance? Though it is for the play itself in its own sequence of detail to express that radiance, we, on the other hand, who are mere spectators can merely feel and puzzle, guess and suggest.
The action of King Lear resolutely declines to reinforce the notion that we were taught as children and that we still wish our fairy tales and other means of instructive entertainment to reaffirm: that the good are rewarded and the evil punished. To some, the action may appear to indicate the very reverse: that the good are punished for their goodness, that virtue is pointless and comes to nothing, even to torment, in the end. But to many of us, in our time, no such neat inversion communicates itself. Furthermore, our very eclectic and daring contemporary theatre has led us to accept—sometimes too casually—the fact that drama often has a difficult morality and that the justice done in drama can be sharply different from what we expect in life or seek from our law courts.
Yet, even so, the ending of King Lear has an emphasis different from that which we witness in other tragedies. We know that by the end of most tragedies and several melodramas the hero will die. Many will even look forward to the death scene and to the grandeur with which the major actor will perform the feat of dying, just as many actors will be eager to demonstrate that they have found new or memorable or lustrous ways to die. We are not so prone as were those who lived in the age of Dryden or that of Samuel Johnson to see death as an exacting, histrionic punishment for evil-doing. Perhaps we are, in one respect, a little like Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler: we are not averse to the hero’s dying, but we wish him to do it “beautifully.” It is what I can only call a sense of the mystique of death that we look forward to, that we expect.
Think of Romeo and Juliet who seem to be consumed by fire, seem to go in a blaze of light: at the play’s end a light can be seen from the tomb by all the middle-aged living. Cleopatra turns air and fire as she goes, ritualistically arrayed, majestic, to death and her vision of Antony. Hamlet has his vision of felicity and release. It is in his old noble cadences that Othello utters his final, reconciling awareness and takes upon himself its inevitable consequence. The catastrophic endings of many more recent plays as well occur in dramatic modes and tones related to these. We can summon up Rebecca and Rosmer in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm embracing one another at the momentous bridge and disappearing into the haunted light. We will recall the very poignant, metaphoric death of young Hedwig the innocent and the loving in Ibsen’s Wild Duck, and also the suicide of Constantin in Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, who leaves the world to his jaded elders.
It is often suggested, then, by drama, that death is noble, that the great and good are short-lived; they do their deed and go in a configuration of lights; they are stung and pained and misled into death by a world that is far less true at heart, by a world of inferiors who are left with wonder or indifference or tardy knowledge; they are like giants; they are like gods; their death inspires us even as did their living. In most tragedies we are permitted, for varying causes and with varying intensities, a sense of the mystique of death.
But—such is its singularity—the dramaturgy of King Lear contradicts and violates this sense. The dramatic emphasis is on the generality of death; death is not noble or distinctive; nearly every character dies and for nearly every sort of reason. The reiterated fact of the multiple deaths is processional in quality. It is like an enormous, summarial obituary. The fool disappears of causes mysterious; Oswald, tailor-made servant, is killed by Edgar, disguised defender of his father; Goneril and Regan are poisoned and dagger-slain; Gloucester dies off-stage of weariness, conflicting emotion, and a broken heart; Kent is about to die of grief and service (Oswald, too, after his fashion, dies of service); Edmund is killed by his brother in a duel; Cordelia dies (a kind of mistake—“great thing of us forgot”) at the hangman’s hands; the hangman at the king’s hand; and King Lear dies of grief and deluded joy and fierce exhaustion.
The action leaves us little choice but to conclude that death is not special but common and fortuitous, merely the literal condition of mortality. We die of sharp instruments, strange potions, ropes and hired slayers. (It is interesting that no one dies in the brief and much anticipated battle.) We die of fatigue or of sheer emotion. Death is neither punishment nor reward; it is simply in the nature of things. It is hardly a moral statement at all that everyone dies. It is, indeed, this statement in the play that helps to prevent us from dividing the world into opposing camps—whether good and evil or rational and irrational. The play forces us to make connections where we might, rather, out of custom or wish, make separations.
The event of death, like all the imagery of the body and garments and weather and animals, emphasizes a common denominator from which no one is exempt. This sense of common denominator, of the connection among all the characters, intensifies a very central idea in the play: that the sources and wellsprings of good and evil, reason and unreason, harmony and discord, love and hatred are inextricably related. King Lear is the father of two monstrous daughters and a divinely good one; Gloucester is father of a trusting humane son and an outrageously villainous one; Lear’s power to rage and to love are connected; Gloucester’s power to sin and to repent are connected; Goneril and Regan, despite their cunning strategies, are caught up in undermining, irrational lust; the reverent loyalty of banished Kent and Cordelia’s deep-rooted grace (which, through a kind of inspiration, the King of France recognizes and prizes) and her immense charity and her connection with the mysterious fool go far beyond what is rational. There is no possibility of isolating villainy or taint or of thinking that the evil and discordant elements might be vanquished, uprooted, and the world made safe for unstained love and harmony.
Yet, though the deaths come in procession and the procession embodies its message, there is something else to which they call attention. For, although they are general and accumulated, they do not all occur in the same mood. They are given differing dramatic weights and emphases. What does this mean?
To recall the permutations and variants of the news of Goneril’s and Regan’s death is to be reminded of ever-sickening poison, the hot and smoking knife, desperation and suicide. An event that a messenger might convey briefly and factually is repeated with turns and variations. We can contrast such reports with those that apply to the characters of some stature. Gloucester’s heart, unable to support its extremities of feeling, burst smilingly; Kent has a journey to go, his master calls him; Lear, the demanding, the capricious and great, dies absorbed and transported by the death of his child, “poor fool,” and painfully enraged at a world that has allowed this death to occur; dead Cordelia is a presence that has for some evoked doomsday, the end of the world.
One can say—there it is: at last the radiance (if not a blaze of light) and the making of distinctions for which we have searched. The announcements and dramatizations of the deaths of differing characters come as epitaphs. Yet the difference between the hot and smoking knife that came from the heart of Goneril—who poisoned her sister and slew herself for lust—and Lear’s vision of the voice of Cordelia—who dies for love and deepest charity, that seems to continue, even after death, soft, gentle and low—is evident to anyone who will look and who will listen.
And does not this sense of differing epitaphs or even commemorations call up some comforting aesthetic notions? In art it is the atmosphere and aura in which one thing or another happens that really counts; it is the place of an event in the organization of the whole, its symbolic value that makes the difference. We wish to be sophisticated. We do not wish to confuse art with life or life with art. In life it is results, how someone gets on, what eventually happens to him, that counts. In art, it is the sense of commemoration. But this conclusion soon makes us a bit restless. We cannot stay with it. The play will not let us. If it is a truth, it may be too small a truth. There is a larger one to be sought. We are sent exploring once again. We set out, once more, for problematic regions.
We remember, again, simple and quotidian details about buttons, changes of weather, garments and weeds and musty straw, flax and whites of eggs, which recur throughout the tragedy. We are moved to try to make basic connections between this play and life. Again, we recall how we are taught in life to think in terms of results, of how things end up, of what has become of such and such a one. We come to the theatre with the values and standards and prejudices and equipment that we may need for getting along in the world. We rather expect to be able to find a helpful or inspirational moral in a work of art; the greater the work of art, the better the moral. Yet, if deaths are so general, and if those of sensibility who endure immense suffering die not beautifully or inspirationally but only with a bit more aesthetic distinction than do the monstrous and the wicked, what shall we conclude, what example follow, what shall we take with us? And, while we are about it, why be good? For, though Edmund dies as well as does his beguiled father, though evil is no way of staving off death, Edmund seems to have had a better, not a worse, time during the action of the play than did Gloucester. And is it worthwhile to get oneself banished like Cordelia and then return to be imprisoned and killed?
For, contrary to what, out of custom or need, we may wish to believe, the fate of a character is determined not by how he ends up but by who he is, by the self and the power of suggestion of that self. One’s real fate and reward are, if one dies, to have been such as one was and, if one lives, to be such as one is. This, and not the outcome of battles or the disposition of spoils or the downfall of the villain and the deification of the hero, is what is dramatized with almost incredible intensity in King Lear.
We are forced, therein, to look not only at the pervasive fact of death nor even, simply, at the relative emphases with which the deaths occur, but at the nature of self and of soul. We do not look at goodness or evil alone; and more than goodness, it is the hero’s greatness that deeply moves us. We are forced to look at what it means for the characters to be themselves. (No idle statement: as in Luther’s “Here I stand; I cannot do other.”)
Cordelia existed and was herself. Goneril existed and was herself. Lear existed and was himself. It is a greater thing to be Lear or Cordelia than to be Goneril. It is a greater thing to suffer than to be empty of suffering. This is so not because of the differing results or rewards or distinctions, but because of the nature of one self as opposed to the other.
The major thing that happens to a character in this tragedy is to be such as he is and to have been such as he was. This, for spectators in a theatre, may be a difficult thing to take home. And yet, in the deepest sense, it is inspirational.
We witness the moral dimension of Lear’s kingship in its progress and anguish: his prayer for the wretched and defenseless of whom he has taken too little care, a mock trial of his cruel daughters, his bitter caricature of distortions of authority. His reenactments and pained mockery urge him toward what would have been unthinkable before. Once he banished Cordelia for non-compliance to his decree; he later will declare even prison with her a sanctuary. Such is the role reversal he conceives: he must now be willing to kneel down and ask forgiveness. In prison, the ancient king, indifferent to peril or harm to himself, uses all his strength to try to protect Cordelia from the hangman or from death, itself. Lear continues to bend all attentiveness towards Cordelia, the near spectral figure in his arms, trying to keep her alive. His persistence might offer the spectator a brief chance to mourn. As he checks for breath, motion, voice, his way of listening approaches the transcendent. One may perhaps name this delusional, but not dismiss it. The intensity of listening, part remembered, part envisioned, approaches the celestial. His final gestures, corporal, basic, and visionary, suggest an extension of the boundaries of the self. The king seems to move beyond the authority he inherited to majestical, divine right.
We have here a dramatic heightening, a profoundly moving one. It is, though, neither apotheosis nor evocation of doomsday. Nor is it a final, summarial ending.
In his dying moments, Lear is unable to recognize his devoted follower: Kent, who served unsparingly throughout the worst of Lear’s ordeal, is fading from memory. It is Cordelia not the king who has thanked and acknowledged him. But acknowledgement is not the issue for Kent who has come to bid his king and master good night. He is presented not as a saint but as a vigorous plain-spoken man of temperament true to himself. He is committed to his role of guardian-knight, the course he knows and chooses; he seeks to follow his master even in death. Kent does this for its own sake. From such a perspective, the household serving man of a very different master, Cornwall, overcome with charitable conviction, takes the risk of trying to halt his master’s blinding of Gloucester and is killed for it. Edgar’s effort so that Gloucester who once mistakenly condemned him may die not as a solitary suicide but reconciled, reunited, companioned, has a life of its own beyond and outside of recompense. Edgar cures blind Gloucester’s despair so that the ancient man may outlast somewhat affliction’s worst. Kent shepherds Lear to safety with “Kind and dear” Cordelia; all three are about to die.
We have become involved in the domain of truthfulness and dedication for their own sake. We have witnessed a strenuous attentiveness nearly beyond the limits of corporal endurance. These are not saints but selves before the eternal. Evil persists. Though the efforts are perilous and the outcomes uncertain, evil is opposed. Such opposition is intrinsically valuable. Its realm is independent of reward. It exists for its own sake. We are, again, in the presence not of saints but of selves before the eternal.
Can actors on the stage convey all that we have said and much more of which we have not spoken and still more? Perhaps not all at one time. Here the near-sacred intermingles with the homely. Challenges for the actor surely. Yet, so that the play’s size and range are humanly conveyed, who but the actor is entrusted with such an honor?


Evelyn Hooven graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received her M.A. from Yale University, where she also studied at The Yale School of Drama. A member of the Dramatists’ Guild, she has had presentations of her verse dramas at several theatrical venues, including The Maxwell Anderson Playwrights Series in Greenwich, CT (after a state-wide competition) and The Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, MA (result of a national competition). Her poems and translations from the French have appeared in ART TIMES, Chelsea, The Literary Review, THE SHOp: A Magazine of Poetry (in Ireland), The Tribeca Poetry Review, Vallum (in Montreal), and other journals, and her literary criticism in Oxford University’s Essays in Criticism.
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