Eugene Narrett, Ph.D
“When a good person suffers in this world, he recognizes his pain to be his specific assignment and challenge from the Creator to acknowledge His goodness and providence,” to purge off the errors born of free will and even “to redeem his generation” . This serves as an apt motto for Shakespeare’s greatest work.
Rightly read and discussed, Shakespeare’s plays not only are masterful demonstrations of plot, character development and conflict, but of providence: of the fact that over time, the choices by many kinds of people reveal hidden truths of their characters, about nature, material and metaphysical; bring rewards and punishments “measure for measure.” The more our culture decays the more therapeutic and urgent Shakespeare’s plays become as antidotes to its increasingly toxic institutions and official attitudes.
Among the many fundamental and saving lessons the plays teach is that, 1) heroes are not born but made in a forge where personal qualities encounter the varied plots and traits of other human beings, the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Shakespeare shows, 2) how all of them, from anonymous servants or peasants to royalty face repeated moments where the choices and plans they make, the people they trust and for what and whom they sacrifice, defines them as human beings; that is, he shows us people in numerous interrelationships shaping and partly creating their character and “destiny” and may even “redeem a generation” or decaying culture. These lessons are vital and can encourage all those who have been laboring to bring this nation and the West back toward health.
Young Hamlet sums up the above points nicely though it is not he that I choose today as Shakespeare’s model for the development of heroism. But note his remarks to Horatio regarding the faith, trust and bravery needed to allow providence into the equation and meaning of one’s work with the world: “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will… the readiness is all” (H 5.2.10-11, 48, 223).
Earlier in the play that bears his name, Hamlet famously remarks, “the time is out of joint; O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” (1.5.188-9). This succinctly describes the situation of everyone of us and the challenge to our heroism, a quality that includes love/loyalty, discernment, courage mental and physical, the ability to engage the help of others, and to choose rightly among others; above all, to choose the right time for action knowing that one will have at most partial control over the unfolding of events, of the divinity that shapes but does not pre-set our lives.
“Ripeness is all” (KL 5.2.11), it’s true; King Lear demonstrates the long process of multi-faceted refinement needed to recognize and pluck it from the evil for the good.
One of the most encouraging and ennobling teachings of Shakespeare’s drama is that there are many people who possess great reserves of both heroism and goodness and that when put to the test, most people will try to do and succeed in doing good for the bonds (“holy cords”) that hold families and nations together in a mesh of mutual obligations and affection. This well of fundamental decency is demonstrated decisively and often in what many feel to be his darkest tragedy: King Lear. This work gives us functional definitions, in word, thought and deed of the distinction between love and flattery, blind obedience and true service; good and evil; of how human beings participate, with effort in creating a miracle; between freedom and slavery and how honoring one’s duties, including the duty of loving warmth to parents, siblings, children is essential to freedom and life; and how everyone’s freedom is limited by those of other people and of a providence that is both merciful, just, and kindly that teaches but does not make magic, waving a wand intoning a formula and wiping pain away.
Such teachings are the greatest wealth we have; to the extent that we can absorb and apply them, they are redemptive. There still is time.
King Lear begins unobtrusively with a private conversation between two counselors of the king about the issue of paternal preference and whether, for the sake of the family’s and kingdom’s peace it should be shown or elided. The discussion first concerns public and international matters: Father of three daughters, Lear has decided to divide his kingdom into three and “to publish his daughter’s several dowers” while he still has health “so that future strife may be prevented now.” Toward that end, he’s drawn up a map with three portions so equal in merit that even the most jealous or ambitious eye could find no reason for preferring one to another. But then, people are not always reasonable; at times and in certain circumstances preference and discrimination are essential. Untutored passions always are poised to make reason an instrument to serve their will.
Then the chat between the Earls of Kent and Gloucester turn to personal matters, from the main plot (matters in the king’s family) to the sub plot that mirrors it, relationships in Gloucester’s family: while Lear has three daughters, Gloucester has two sons, one of whom is standing quietly beside the two Earls; clearly a well-raised young man, being seen but not heard, not speaking until spoken too. It is not only in campaign season, now perennial that we must remember that some appearances can deceive.
A complication arises about a seemingly simple topic: when Kent asks, “Is this your son, my lord” Gloucester will not give him a yes or no answer. “His breeding sir hath been at my charge and I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to it” (1.1.8-11). When Kent plays the straight man, perhaps sincerely, saying, “I cannot conceive you” Gloucester, by witty but embarrassed figures of speech notes that Edmund was illegitimate but that he had taken him in early on and raised him as his own son to become a noble man, serving in a high official’s house. Indeed it is for that purpose that he is present at court on the major public occasion of the publishing of the king’s will, and his daughter’s inheritance, and for the betrothal of his youngest daughter, Cordelia to either the King of France or Duke of Burgundy.
Edmund has little but polite formalities to say till he’s alone and can unpack his thoughts which reveal a smoldering hatred and contempt not only for his father and older brother, Edgar (Gloucester’s son and heir) but for the entire concept of legitimacy, custom, loyalty and society as opposed to “Nature” whom he proclaims to be his “goddess: it is to thee my services are bound.” An archetypal self-made man and Machiavellian pagan, Edmund inverts moral categories, raging that bastards are superior to all the “tribes of fops got between legal sheets” (1.2.1-22). To demonstrate his intellectual amoral superiority and craft, he vows to take Edgar’s inheritance and title and to do it while showing that his father, Gloucester actually loves him more because he is a bastard “conceived in the lusty stealth of nature.”
Edmond is beyond moral relativism; he is beyond good and evil, a postmodern inverter of values in 1607. “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit,” he says; “All with me is meet that I can fashion fit” (to fit my purposes, 1.2.196-7).
The riches of King Lear for discussing our topic requires a part II to this essay so here let us stick with the subplot and the emergence of the play’s most unlikely but not its only hero: Edgar. Naively trusting, initially hapless and reactive, Edmund sneeringly says of him, “a brother noble whose nature is so far from doing harm that he suspects none, on whose foolish honesty my practices ride easy” (1.2.192-5). Having defined “wit” as predatory, fratricidal and parricidal cunning, Edmond proceeds to despise honest, trust and nobility of character, Edgar’s frank friendship for a brother of whom one in Edgar’s position might well be observant and concerned.
Throughout the play, and this is true of most of Shakespeare’s doers of evil (those driven by various lusts to exploit or destroy others), Edmund’s derisive words usually contain ample measures of insight. Edgar’s simplicity is excessive, certainly in one who must learn judiciously to exercise a large share of sovereign power, must learn, indeed to counsel a king or queen as well as form and maintain a family; who must learn not only to distinguish seeming from being but how to apply seeming, like David when he feigned madness for redemptive purposes (psalm 34, inter alia).
Thus Edmund demonstrates the truth in his dismissal of his “credulous [“gullible”] father,” Gloucester by proceeding to manipulate the Earl with a forged letter ostensibly written and signed by Edgar urging his half-brother to join him in murdering their father. Although Gloucester literally cannot read the letter and has Edmund read it to him, although the plot is completely irrational (Edgar is going to inherit the land and title anyway) and totally against everything Gloucester knows of his son: “my son Edgar who I so entirely and tenderly love! Had he a hand in this? A heart and brain to breed it in? I never got him” (that is, Edgar is not my true son. 1.2.59-62, 104-5). Thus the bastard succeeds in a few minutes, taking advantage of Gloucester’s distress over a similar error Lear has just made with his daughters, in getting his father to disown his legitimate and loving son, Edgar, promising to work the legal means by which Edmond can inherit his land and title and putting a sentence of death, kill on sight, no evidence or witnesses, on Edgar.
Edmund uses his father’s gullibility, warmth and love to trash his bugaboo, law (due process) and natural sympathies and to sate his own unnatural hatred and insatiable ambition, as it soon will be seen to be. Gloucester’s inability to measure his passions adequately, as when he begot Edmund plagues him till the flaw is purged away by extreme suffering.
Having empowered the forces of raw appetite and the law of nature, Gloucester struggles to maintain his duties to both the king and his elder daughters, an impossible task since they hate their father as Edmund hates his. Recognizing the incivility, illegality, inhumanity and even the unnatural quality of the filial hatred he tries, at great risk to himself and despite being warned to desist, to help and ultimately save Lear’s life. His reward is to have his eyes gouged out as Lear’s elder daughters stand exulting over him, taunting him in his pain, when he calls on Edmund to help him, with the knowledge that “it was he who [informed] against you.” In utter darkness and blood, Gloucester knows his pain and fault. “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused. Kind gods, forgive me that and comfort him” (3.7.88-93).
In a familiar and terrible irony, Gloucester gains insight only when he loses his eyes and therefore, from the perspective of the cruel, is “thrust out of gates” like an animal, “to smell his way to Dover” (ibid. 94-5). The bitterly instructive, measure for measure aspect of the irony is that on the play’s first page, when he had alluded circuitously to Edmund’s illegitimacy, asking Kent, “Do you smell a fault?” (1.1.13-16). this is one of the figures of speech that thematically unify the play .
Saving Gloucester from the despair his belated knowledge of his “fault” and its consequences causes him will be central to Edgar’s heroic work; but first he must save his life from the threat of pursuit and death and his spirits from bitterness and despair at having lost everything suddenly without any fault but blind fraternal trust.
The way that Edgar responds to his changed situation is a model for the building of heroism from the pain and injustices of life. Disowned, condemned to death as a traitor and intended parricide, pursued by dogs and men with orders to kill on sight, Edgar’s first impulse is to give up; the shock is too great and the forces against him insurmountable. But he digs in at the very edge: “I will preserve my life.” But not just to survive: in a form that teaches a lesson, “by taking the basest and most poorest shape that ever penury in contempt of man brought near to beast” (2.3.6-9). He will live by disguising his true self, already misrepresented to and hidden from his ‘blind’ father, as a “Bedlam beggar,” what we today would call a de-institutionalized mental patient . The “brother noble” and true heir will beg for alms in a cruel and indifferent world, stabbing his “mortified and bare arms” with thorns in the cold. He will negate himself utterly: “Edgar I nothing am” he says indicating the degree of his self-effacement, betrayal and distress, the gulf he will have to navigate and from which he will have to climb to save his father’s life and soul, to prove himself worthy of his legitimate role, to reclaim it and even lead a ravaged nation.
King Lear thus indicates that fighting for truth and to save family from deceit and predation manifests itself in a determined effort to redeem the one who harmed you, however unjustly, sacrificing all pride to achieve the miracle of healing. Persisting in this, even without recognition is heroism as others in the play and in our times show. A model our days require us to recognize and apply. [To be continued…].
"Everyman's predicament in life is therefore his challenge in the
battle with the evil" potential within him or those around him,
and with the actions that arise from it. [Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the
Way of the Eternal One, 2.2.4 -2.3.1-9] The text and references
from King Lear and Hamlet cited in text in parentheses are from
the Signet Classic 1998 paperback editions. Lineation should be
identical or nearly so for subsequent editions.
© 2007 Eugene Narrett
- All Rights Reserved
E-Mails are used strictly for NWVs alerts, not for sale
Eugene Narrett received his BA, MA and PhD from Columbia University in NYC. His writings on American politics and culture and on the Middle East and geopolitics have been widely published. These include four books, the most recent being WW III: the War on the Jews and the Rise of the World Security State (2007) which examines the historical roots and purposes of the war on terror as a late stage in the undoing of the West. His previous book, Israel and the Endtimes (2006) lays the basis for these questions.
Dr. Narrett has appeared on scores of radio programs, both major networks like WABC, Radio America, Eagle Forum Radio and Westwood Communications, as well as regional and local stations. He has been honored for his essays on art and literature and on behalf of the pro-life movement.
Since receiving his doctorate in 1978, Dr. Narrett has been teaching literature and art and creating interdisciplinary courses in the Humanities. He lectures on a variety of topics relating to western civilization, geopolitics and the multi-faceted war on the family that is a striking feature of the postmodern west.
See his web site, www.israelendtimes.com for information on booking a lecture and for contact information.
One of the most encouraging and ennobling teachings of Shakespeare’s drama is that there are many people who possess great reserves of both heroism and goodness and that when put to the test, most people will try to do and succeed in doing good...