Never, never, never, never, never
[For context, read this post.]
Not everyone, apparently, puts Shakespeare on their Fundamentals list; some even call him over-rated. The possibility of leaving him out never crossed my mind. Not because he’s the most important poet to ever live (though they say he’s this too, unless it’s Homer or Dante): fundamentality is more than just popularity. But I can’t imagine caring about literature without caring about Shakespeare. It’s not that I loved Shakespeare from an early age; quite the opposite, it took me until college to come around. Rather, I cared about literature from an early age, but until I read Shakespeare didn’t understand why.
My pre-Shakespearean thoughts on the subject were drawn from the theorists of “speculative fiction,” and centered around how literature can present counterfactuals. Reading Shakespeare made that way of thinking impossible. He can do the fantastic and the alien, to be sure, but it’s always obvious that supposing what is not is not the point. When we read, say, Macbeth, we are not trying to answer what would it be like if witches really could prophesy the future? Rather the witches, and the ghosts, and the many murders, and above all the language in which they are all realized, make tangible the personality of Macbeth: the play shows a way of being human. This makes the gap between realism and speculation beside the point. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, differ in degree, not kind, from Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, King Lear.
In other words: King Lear is just as fantastical as The Tempest. Both tell us, not about the world, but about our own conflicting desires; they reveal in their contesting characters facets of ourselves, and how those facets articulate with one another–without, like the medieval morality play, insisting that these facets of desire can be cleanly differentiated and delimited. So at all times Shakespeare deals in fantasies, in infinite desires. Moreover, I would say, at his best he shows how these desires, because infinite, must realize themselves in the fantastical strictu sensu. Whether or not the handkerchief in Othello or the storm in King Lear are “possible” or “probable” just does not matter. They are like witches or ghosts; the point is the handkerchief’s power to hypnotize, and the storm’s power to instantiate divine malevolence.
Such is my basic understanding of Shakespeare’s achievement. It also explains, I think, why Hamlet is not my favorite of his plays, and why I never contemplated putting Hamlet on my list. T.S. Eliot said that the outer plot of Hamlet fails to “objectively correlate” to Hamlet’s inner turmoil:
The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.
Unlike Eliot, I’m not convinced that this makes the play into a “failure,” or a “problem,” but it does sound correct, and it means, I think, that unless we “already” know what it is to feel what Hamlet feels, we cannot fully understand the play. To be sure, like Hamlet, I often desire without knowing what I desire, but Hamlet’s desire-without-an-object is of a very particular kind, closely bound to madness and revenge; this feeling is foreign to me. Hamlet speak to me best when, like James Joyce, I imagine that it is the Ghost, not the Prince, in whom Shakespeare sees himself. But this is too clearly a willful misreading.
So if not Hamlet, what? I could give reasons for picking any of the other plays mentioned above, but I always knew it would be King Lear. If Hamlet shows us a single mind, King Lear shows us the entire world. There seems to me little higher than the struggle to comprehend it.
Indeed, it may be that Hamlet bothers me, in part, due to its solipsism; the drama is all within. The solution to Hamlet’s problems is, after all, fairly simple, and we are apparently meant to be absorbed in the mere fact that he cannot bring himself to do it. King Lear is the opposite: Given Lear and Gloucester’s initial mistakes–and these mistakes, though egoistic, are not solipsistic; though self-absorbed, they are not self-obsessed–there may be no solution. History has been let loose upon the world, and cannot be put back into its box. Hamlet’s storm at sea is his solution, his theodicy; Lear’s theomachical storm on the heath is of his own creation, and yet it exceeds him. The latter seems to me more real.
Put differently, in a way somewhat borrowed from Stanley Cavell, both King Lear and Hamlet are about human evil, but in the latter evil seems external, in the past, over and done with; the question, disappointingly, is how to free ourselves from its taint, even if the answer is that we cannot. Only the former shows how evil is within, present, continual; only it asks how to live with this burden. When Hamlet dies at the end, we may perhaps feel a sense of satisfaction, of a journey well-ended; his corpse receives full military honors. Cordelia’s death makes this contentment impossible. She must die for no other reason that than Edmund orders her killed. We can blame Lear, or Edgar, but then the punishment seems wildly disproportionate to the crime. We can say that her death represents escape from the fallen world, or that she must die because France cannot conquer England, but then the abstract reason seems unrelated to the concrete human suffering. We cannot blame Lear, or Edgar, or God, or France, but only Edmund–but Edmund is us; we have laughed at his jokes, felt indignant as his mistreatment, made ourselves complicit in his crimes, recognized him to be a part of ourselves. And his repentance and death cannot purify us, for they do not save Cordelia’s life.
It may be that, with his dying breath, Lear finds redemption, or at least consolation; and it may be that, with Edgar taking charge, the kingdom has been left in a better place. I would, in fact, argue for both of these propositions. But the more important point of the play, I think, is that history never ends. Lear may find consolation, but it changes nothing; and Edgar may reign well, for a while, but he cannot marry Cordelia and inaugurate a golden age, as the 17th-century revision of the play would have it: Cordelia is dead, and Edgar may well become another Lear. The play offers no solution, no catharsis, but only “Never, never, never, never, never.”
Yet–and this will be my final point here–it does, I think, portray a change. King Lear takes place in a pre-Christian age that has already grown ancient and decrepit, grown into a theater of pomp obscuring an underlying brutality. At the end, Edgar announces a new reign of sincerity. But this is deeply ironic, given that the ever-loyal Fool and Kent, though entirely defined by their social roles, are nevertheless the most forthright characters in the play, and that both, while not quite dead, have nevertheless vanished: the Fool has been off-stage since act three, and Kent implies that, given Lear’s death, he now intends to commit suicide. An artificial age has passed–but the new age, one feels, will at best appear to be more sincere. Such is the 800 BC world of King Lear; but such also, I think, is Shakespeare’s newly-fragmented 17th century, and so too all of modernity. King Lear seems to me to be somehow about the end of Catholic Christendom, and about the inevitable failure of whatever comes next to be any more truly Christian.