King Lear: comfort, bleakness and realism

In the final chapter of her book Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter reflects on what it is to teach literature in dark times. Showalter asks: ‘What should teachers do in the classroom in times of crisis, disaster, tragedy, sorrow, and panic? Does teaching literature, rather than economics or physics, demand that we rise to these occasions, and if so, how?’ It’s a question that’s been very much on my mind this week, a week in which terrible events have been unfolding on the other side of Europe and students have come into school jittery and afraid. Should literature be able to offer some kind of consolation? Should it even try?

Many people have argued, over the years, that this is what literature is for. It offers lessons and meanings; it teaches us how to live. Matthew Arnold famously declared, in ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), that we ‘will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us’. For Arnold, this was because religion was crumbling, philosophy was too abstruse, and scientific knowledge was ever-changing and therefore unstable. Poetry offered an eternal store of what he had referred to in Culture and Anarchy (1869) as ‘the best which has been thought and said’. For many reasons, though, Arnold’s premise is a shaky one. Poetry doesn’t exist as an abstract entity, free from all material ties. It’s written by real people, with real allegiances and prejudices, situated in real and very specific contexts. It interprets life in partial ways, informed by particular experiences and world-views. It shows us life through a particular set of lenses, but these lenses can be distorting, and we need to alert students to this rather than treating it as a store of eternal truths.

Bleak. Flooded Fens, by Gary Heayes, at openphoto.net

And comfort, in any case, can often be a bit rubbish. Years ago, I trained as a volunteer for a particular helpline, and one of the first things we were told was that we should never offer comfort, because it didn’t make life any better for the people who used our service. Other people would give them platitudes: what we had to do was to be prepared to go to the depths with them, to face the worst, rather than pretending that the worst didn’t exist.

Ironically, in view of what I’ve just said about Matthew Arnold, one of the most bracing things I’ve ever read is another of Arnold’s works: his poem ‘Dover Beach’. This poem is full of uncertainty. It sets the ebb and flow of the waves against the confusion of human life, and concludes that in a world beset by pain, all we can do is ‘be true to one another’. I remember teaching it to a Year Thirteen class in a previous iteration of the A level course. We spent quite a long time exploring the poem’s final stanza, and especially the lines where Arnold ultimately rejects the idea that the world is a benign, comforting place:

… the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Well, that’s bloody depressing’, one student declared, and most of the rest of the class agreed. But one student didn’t. Her mother had terminal cancer, and didn’t have long to live. This particular student squared her shoulders and paused before she spoke. ‘I think it’s quite realistic, actually’, she said.

I have been thinking about all of this because Year Twelve and I have been looking at the ending of King Lear this week. We’ve been listening to Emma Smith’s fantastic podcast on the different ways in which the ending of the play has been interpreted, and I’ve been impressed by how quickly the students have grasped the various critical perspectives that Smith outlines. We started by examining the idea of catharsis, and thinking about what the ending of Macbeth provides: a sense that the balance of things has been restored, that a world rocked on its axis has been set right by the death of Macbeth and the accession of Malcolm to the throne. Then we turned to Lear. All the bad people die – Cornwall and Edmund, Goneril and Regan – but so do Gloucester and Cordelia and Lear. Cordelia doesn’t need to die: Edmund, wanting to do some good in the last moments of his life, sends Edgar to reverse the order he has issued for Cordelia to be hanged. But Edgar is too late. And there isn’t the neat ending that Macbeth offers, with the rightful ruler back in place. We don’t know who’s going to rule. Strictly speaking, it should be Albany, as the most senior character left alive. But he offers the throne to Edgar and Kent. Nobody seems to want the job. I’m not sure I can blame them.

Smith’s podcast surveys responses to the ending of King Lear from Nahum Tate in 1681 to Jonathan Dollimore in 1984, placing these responses into four broad stages. First, represented by Tate and Samuel Johnson, is the view that the ending of King Lear is too shocking to give pleasure: too cruel and appalling, the deaths of Lear and Cordelia too unnecessary. Second, represented by Schlegel and the Romantics, is the view that the suffering within the play takes place on such a huge scale that it can be seen as an example of the sublime: its very vastness inspires us with a sense of awe. Third is the Christian interpretation offered by A.C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight: that the ending offers a vision of redemption in which Lear’s suffering will be rewarded in heaven. Finally, there is a much darker view, represented by existentialist philosophy and the Theatre of the Absurd: that the play’s ending is just as shocking and brutal as Tate and Johnson felt, but that this is simply the way life is. We are, indeed, as flies to wanton boys: there is no deeper meaning, no higher purpose, no certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. Dover, whether it’s Arnold’s version or in the absurdist interpretation of Shakespeare, is a pretty bleak place. All you can do is square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and keep going.

And we decided that actually, it was this interpretation of Lear that we liked best. It faces the brutality of the play head-on and does not try to offer some consolatory message that isn’t there. It’s raw and astringent. It was one of those lessons that goes way beyond A level, that is far more important than any discussion of assessment objectives or essay structure.

Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ has been mentioned several times this week, for obvious reasons. In Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters there’s a discussion of Auden’s line ‘We must love one another or die’. Auden famously changed this line to ‘We must love one another and die’, commenting that the original was ‘a damned lie’ because ‘we must die anyway’. Barnes’ narrator is sceptical – he argues that there are more persuasive ways of reading Auden’s first version – but I’m on Auden’s side. Face the bleakness, face the inevitability, and make the most of things while you can.

Meanwhile, spring has finally come to this particular corner of the world, at a time when things are so horrific elsewhere. I am thinking of Carol Rumens’ poem ‘The Emigrée’, of white streets and blue sky and an impression of sunlight, and hoping that things will change.

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