Reading Lear in the First Week of Easter
Earlier in the week some train of thought led me to pick up King Lear, and I soon found myself reading it for the first time in thirty years or so. This would seem to be on the face of it not at all what one should be reading in the week following Easter Sunday, but I’ve found it to be perfectly fitting.
In order to understand what it means that Christ has set us free from sin and death, we have to know what sin and death are. We live in a time when it is easier to forget this knowledge than it has ever been, at least for those of us us in the wealthy and industrialized world, who find ourselves in a culture where many people believe quite seriously that scientific and social technique can at least in large part eliminate all the old enemies of human happiness. And most of us live in such comfort that the idea seems superficially plausible. I don’t mean that it is really very plausible to most people who think very much about it, but it may seem so at a glance to those who don’t.
I had forgotten how sudden and terrible is the onset of disaster in Lear. All the gears of ruin are engaged and in motion by the end of the first scene. Nowhere else that I know of in literature is there such a pitiless account of horror and desolation following from a single act of prideful folly. And the disaster sweeps away the innocent along with the guilty, giving us the lines which surely few who have read the play can forget, spoken by the innocent (well, blameless in these events, anyway) Gloucester:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
they kill us for their sport.
Less widely quoted are the words of Gloucester’s son Edgar on discovering his father’s mutilation:
World, world, O world!
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Life would not yield to age.
Just so. I don’t mean, of course, that everyone must expect to suffer such great evil as Gloucester and Cordelia do. But for my part I don’t think I can ever be reconciled to a world where—just to pick one horror—little girls can be raped and murdered. And all of us must, in the end, lose everything to time and death. There is only so much that wealth and power can do to protect us from these “strange mutations.” Technocratic dreams of mankind’s self-salvation will come to little in the end, even if we avoid doing the extremity of violence to ourselves and our natures.
St. Paul said “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” There is a corollary to that: if Christ is risen, it is rather those who do not follow him who are most miserable. The tragedy of Lear shows us what the world without the Resurrection really is, and therefore assists our celebration of it.