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"Is this the promised end?" witness in King Lear and apocalyptic poetry of the twentieth century.

Before the descent into King Lear, let me focus the direction which this paper will take: after dwelling upon the play as "an image of that horror" (5.3.264), I want to consider the idea of witnessing the unthinkable in Lear and in poetry that responds to the apocalyptic dimensions of the twentieth century; despite a separation of centuries, the worlds of the play and of the poems imagine late hours; imagine worlds in which suffering occurs but does not bring redemption. Forced to meet the abyss head on, these texts implicitly stress the idea of witness as (perhaps) the only response to suffering: witness, compassion, and otherworldly wisdom--otherworldly because it comes only at great cost--after the Orphic descent into the underworld and back into light--"Had I your tongues and eyes I'd use them so / That heaven's vault should crack"--that will never again look the same (5.3.257-58).

Apocalyse can be defined as an image of human dealings in their extremity: an "image of that horror." In Lear, we are asked to imagine the state to which humanity can reduce itself. Lear unfolds a world in which natural behavior is exposed as something predatory, bestial: "Human beings ... behave not as rickety civility requires, but naturally; that is, they ... prey upon themselves like animals, having lost the protection of social restraint, now shown to be fragile" (Kermode 184). At stake in Lear, then, is something beyond tragedy. For tragedy, as Stanley Cavell reminds us in "The Avoidance of Love," is about "a particular death, or set of deaths, and specifically about a death which is neither natural or accidental. The death is inflicted ... and it [serves as] a punishment or an expiation" (111; emphasis original). Neither Lear's death nor Cordelia's can be read in this light, for punishment is inadequate when speaking about the play's wreckage. As for expiation: what is purged?--what the reward? Of all the characters, consider the flawless goodness of Cordelia who recognizes, from the play's originating moments, the limitations of language to body forth feeling; Cordelia, who speaks only what she feels, cries: "O thou good Kent, how shall I live and work / To match thy goodness? My life will be too short / and every measure fail me" (4.7.1-3).

In the world of the play, the hour is very late indeed. By the time the action begins, Lear has already divided up his kingdom. The opening scene witnesses the parceling out of lands to daughters whom this king and father expects to speak their love and so claim their portions. Lear, in the originating moments, is revealed as an old man who does not know himself, an old man who acts with poor judgment. In his compelling, "Lateness in King Lear," Lyell Asher argues that the questions the play asks--voiced by a very old man--inevitably stress the irrevocability of what has come before; irrevocability without the promise of the future. Lear poses the question: "Who is it who can tell me who I am?" (12.4.227). Given Lear's age, the question must and inevitably translates into: "Who have I been all of these years?" The play takes Lear to the extreme limit of his existence and, once there, it exposes him to "total loss--a loss that stretches not only forward, devastating his future, but backward devastating his past" (Asher 23; emphasis original).

In the midst of so much devastation, what trebles the agony and the mystery of Lear is the fact that the play entirely disavows a redemptive vision of suffering. In this way, Shakespeare makes old stories, specifically the Book of Job, something radically new. Job's patient endurance is ultimately made right when he is restored to his position. There is no such restoration in Lear. Instead, suffering is represented as a condition of the world as we inherit it or make it for ourselves. It is the result of evil inflicted upon the good by the bad, and "it can reduce humanity to a bestial condition, under an apparently indifferent [or I would add--powerless] heaven" (Kermode 184).


Searching for redemption in Lear we reach in vain. Yes--in his diminished circumstances the broken king does learn compassion, but this knowledge comes too late. With the loss of Cordelia, Lear cannot go on living. If we look to the subplot involving Gloucester, here too we look in vain for redemption. Frank Kermode attends to this with his focus on the crucial scene in Act Five, which he names "a miniature of the play's intentions" (198). Edgar leaves his father in shelter, then heads off to fight. Before taking his leave Edgar tells him, "If ever I return to you again, / I'll bright you comfort" (5.2.3-5). Edgar does not return with words of comfort. Rather, he returns with the bitter news of Lear's defeat.

Such is the world of Lear.

What Lear has to say about the world--"A man may see how this world goes with no eyes" (4.6.151-52)--struck a troubling chord in a century that has known war and genocide: countless "images of horror." Here I connect horror with Maurice Blanchot's definition of disaster: "utter-burn ... [in which] the movement of Meaning [is] swallowed up" (Sicher 298). Lear enacts the unthinkable. And yet there is an afterwards for Edgar and for Kent and--and for the rest of us. We hear this in Albany's closing words: "Friends of my soul, you twain, / Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain" (5.3.317-18).

As for the audience, the absolute reality of evil and the unmitigated representations of the self in extremis are what Shakespeare leaves us with--and yes, he leaves us with witnesses: Kent and Edgar. "We that are young shall never see so much nor live so long" (5.3.323-24). Edgar's words close the play. Kent's profession that "[a]ll's cheerless, dark and deadly" attests to the reality of suffering and evil--without expiation, explanation or compensation (5.3.288). But what of them? What--beyond the world of the play--is the survivors' inheritance? And what is their responsibility? And, I would add, our own? Ultimately, these are the questions the play asks; questions I will attempt to--if not answer--at least explore.


Beyond the evil that men do, Lear seems to say that it is the nature of our world that is perverse. A man grows old, but he does not necessarily grow wise. "'Tis the infirmity of his age," Regan tells Gonoril of her father's poor judgment before adding, "Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself" (1.1.293). The perverseness of nature is that a human being does not grow wise as he grows old, a point the Fool makes when he tells his master, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise" (1.5.41-2). That said, true wisdom accepts not knowing. Cavell harkens back to this statement when he asks: "How do we learn that what we need is not more knowledge but the willingness to forgo knowing ...? Since we cannot know the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing. The world is [not to be known but] to be accepted ..." (115). Acceptance--relinquishing the desire to "know" as a proof--is what Lear must learn. So he demands that each daughter speak her heart as a proof of her love. When she declares: "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth" (1.1.91-92), Cordelia, whose life has been an emblem of her love, is banished.

Despite Lear's foolishness, it is not possible to place the burden for the disastrous cycle of events that follow on an aging man. This is far too great a burden. The larger issue, as Edmund's speeches and as the recurrent allusions to nature tell us, is that nature herself is treacherous. In this play, nature is Edmund's Goddess: crooked, not straight. In this world, a man grows old and foolish and banishes a beloved daughter. This is not a tragic flaw but rather a tragic state of being beneath the fragile veneer of society. Shed the veneer, and one opens the door to disaster. And perhaps underlying this--beyond the world of the play--is a message that collectively human beings do not learn from the past. In such a world, a world in which, as the Fool tells us, we are witnessing "a great wheel run[ning] down hill" (2.4.69-70), the madness of Lear and the feigned madness of Edgar emerge as "natural" and inevitable responses.

To extend the boundaries further, in Lear, Shakespeare, the most eloquent of dramatists, stresses the inefficacy of speech to convey what lies within the human heart. "Nothing will come of nothing" (1.1.90) and "Nothing can be made out of nothing" (1.4.130). Yet there are emotions which cannot be expressed. So Cordelia remains silent. So the grief-stricken Lear finally laments his daughters' murder with the chilling: "Howl, howl, howl ..." (5.3.255). And Kent, looking upon the dead bodies of Lear and Cordelia, can only cry: "Break Heart; I prithee break" (5.3.309).

Is there no compensation in Lear? Yes, but again, it comes at the highest cost. Nothingness--the worldly diminishment of man--can enable empathy and a clarity of vision. Consider the empathy within Lear during the tempest when he humbly offers a disguised Kent a place of refuge:
   Come on, my boy. How dost my boy? Art cold?
   I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
   The art of our necessities is strange
   And can make vile things precious. Come your hovel.
   Poor fool and knave, I have but one part in my heart
   That's sorry yet for thee. (3.2.68-73)

So too, this lost king expresses a radical understanding of what the poor endure when he himself experiences the tempest:
   Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'r you are
   That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
   How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides
   Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
   From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
   Too little care of this!...
   Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
   That thou mayst shakes the superflux to hem
   And show the heaven more just. (3.4.27-37)

Suffering humbles Lear, and compassion takes root in him: "O, I have ta'en too little care of this!" (3.4.31-32) And yet, the bitterness of Lear's discovery is the lateness of it. Towards the end of Act Four, just before Cordelia's murder, Lear breaks out of his "madness" to speak with brevity and eloquence: "You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget and / forgive. I am old and foolish" (4.7.84-85). These are quite possibly Lear's most lucid words and they are spoken to the child he loves, now that he understands the impossibility of what he wished bodied forth in speech.

Julia Kristeva, with her emphasis on love as the creator of meaning, seems to offer a way into reading the mystifying patterns of communication in Lear. For Kristeva, meaning is created in the space between body and culture. Thus, the nature of that space--and whether words will have meaning--is contingent upon the relationship between self and society, and at the most basic level, meaning emerges through the embodied relation of the self and another. It is love that reconnects words and affects. "Love," Kristeva writes in Strangers to Ourselves, "is something spoken, and it is only that" (277). Without love, we are nothing but walking corpses. Love is essential to bringing the living body to life in language. It is love that propels meaning into our lives--from the family outwards into society.

Kristeva would say that the speaking bodies in Lear are articulating the pain of living in a world where the meaning of the words has been detached from what should matter: the bond between father and daughter, father and son, siblings, husband and wife, ruler and citizen. Gloucester speaks the truth, though he gets some of the players wrong when he tells Edmund: "Love cools, friendship / falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, / discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt / son and father ... / there's father against child ... / and the noble and true-hearted Kent banished! His offence, honesty! / 'Tis strange" (1.2.106-118). 'Tis strange indeed. In Lear, the most basic relationships are in chaos, but Shakespeare assigns blame not to the individuals but to the very nature of the world as we inherit it or make it for ourselves: "I am even / The natural fool of fortune" (4.6.192). "When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools" (4.6.177-78). Is this a perverse world?--Yes. Even Edgar, who acknowledges his responsibility to remember at the play's close, is capable of cruelty. After Gloucester is blinded, an old man leads him into Edgar's presence where he cries:
   Oh dear son Edgar,
   The fool of thy abused father's wrath:
   Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
   I'd say I had eyes again. (4.1.21-24)

Perhaps it is not possible to know why Edgar does not reveal himself to his father at this moment. And yet, in denying his father's recognition, there is cruelty in Edgar's actions--not cruelty alone--for yes, Edgar will lead his father to believe that his survival of the fall is a miracle--but there is cruelty nevertheless. Stanley Cavell has rightly observed that the fact "that Edgar is so close to the thing love demands contributes to the grotesque error of the late scenes with his father" (57). So in a Kristevan reading of meaning coming into being in relationship with another, Edgar's garbled language as Poor Tom reflects--in part--his estrangement from his father.


To move towards Lear's kinship with the tragic vision of apocalyptic poetry of the past century--the immediate link between the two is the idea of witness as the only way out of the banality of evil and meaningless suffering. Yosef Yerushalmi, writing on the relationship between Jewish history and memory, emphasizes the Hebrew word for memory--Zakhor--in his discussion of the individual's responsibility after the Holocaust, and asserts: "the command to remember is absolute" (10). Yet set against this command to remember, Yerushalmi recognizes "... an almost desperate pathos about the biblical concern with memory, and a shrewd wisdom that knows how short and fickle human memory can be. Not history ..." Yerushalmi writes, "but only mythic time repeats itself" (10). The originating moments of Lear partake of the frailty of human memory. Lear's very desire to exact proof of his daughters' love attests to this, for with this demand, Lear admits that he has forgotten the basic proof of their shared family history. So too, there is Lear's belated discovery of what it is to be poor; homelessness is not new. He makes this discovery as have countless others before and after him. Yerushalmi's words echo through the years and across the centuries.

As a corrective to human memory, then, Yerushalmi brings forth mythic time. Cyclical and performative mythic time is the time of drama and of poetry. "Break, heart: I prithee break" (5.3.309). Kent begs for release from what he has witnessed and ultimately departs, joining his king. Kent may go, but the Play remembers. And the performance repeats itself again and again. In relation to Lear, then, the next question must be: what then does the play witness? Immediately, there is the self-diminishment that comes with old age. Regan tells her father:
   O sir, you are old
   Nature in you stands on the very verge
   Of his confine. You should be ruled and led
   By some discretion that discerns your state
   Better than you yourself. (2.4.142-46)

So too, Lear witnesses the agony of poverty. Again, to return to the tempest on the heath:
   Poor naked wretches, wheresoer'er you are,
   That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
   How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides
   Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
   From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
   Too little care of this!...
   Expose thyself to what wretches feel,
   That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
   And show the heavens more just (3.4.28-36).

To fully "witness" an experience or event, one must have firsthand knowledge of "what wretches feel." Exposure is a revealing, an uncovering, a stripping away, and it is an apt word for the action within Lear. Here, the darkest recesses within man are exposed; here, man is reduced to nothing before he knows who he is: "Is't not the King?" a blinded Gloucester asks. To which Lear replies, "Ay, every inch a king" and we understand the depths of his meaning (4.4.106-17). In Lear, suffering is stripped of any sentiment or value. Yet suffering has a right to expression: and in Lear suffering demands expression if it is only the grief-stricken "Howl, howl, howl ..." (5.3.255) or the shivering "Poor Tom's a-cold" (3.4.140).

The performance of King Lear sucks the audience inside, transforming the watcher into the witness. In such a world as Lear's and our own, not only is poetry possible, it is necessary. Perhaps this is what Shakespeare is ferrying across the wreckage of King Lear, a play in which the visceral reality of suffering has the final word.

With this collective idea of witness and mythic time, then, let us turn at last to the poems. Though Yeats's "The Second Coming," with its night-mare vision of a rough beast with a pitiless gaze slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, makes the most immediate connections with Lear, it is not Yeats' work but Celan's, Boland's and Roethke's that I plan to discuss. All are spoken by witnesses and survivors. Here, it is worth interjecting that to give testimony makes one a witness. To begin with Paul Celan's "Erblinde schon heut" ["Go blind now, today"]:
   Erblinde schon heut:
   auch die Ewigkeit steht voller Augen--
   ertrinkt, was den Bildern hinweghalf
   uber den Weg, wen sie kamen,
   erlischt, was auch dich aus der Sprache
   fornahm mit einer Geste,
   die du geschehn liesst wie
   den Tanz Zweier Worte aus lauter
   Herbst und Seide und Nichts. (76)

   [Go blind now today;/ eternity also is full of eyes-- / in them /
   drowns what helped images down / the way they came, / in them /
   fades what took you out of language, / lifted you out with a
   gesture / which you allowed to happen like / the dance of the words
   made of / autumn and silk and nothingness.]

Though language, which belongs to a world that annihilated millions, is represented as ephemeral and unworthy: "made of autumn and silk and nothingness," it is through a speech act that Celan witnesses the Holocaust; he records it in a German of his own making and in the process the poet's words leave ordinary time and enter the mythic. "Go blind now, today: / eternity also is full of eyes...." Celan suggests that eternity lies with the continuum of readers who will pick up his words and keep them alive. By committing his experience to a memory larger than his own, the poet performs the role of historian and prophet.

In this vein, consider Anna Akhmatova in her writings about the suffering that took place in Russia after the Revolution:
   The hour of remembrance has drawn close again.
   I see you, hear you, feel you.

   The one they could hardly get to the window,
   the one who no longer walks on the earth,

   the one who shook her beautiful head,
   and said: "Coming here is like coming home."

   I would like to name them all but they took away
   the list and there's no way of finding them.

   For them I have woven a wide shroud
   from the humble words I heard among them.

   I remember them always, everywhere,
   I will never forget them, whatever comes.

   (From the section entitled "Epilogue" in the long poem "Requiem:
   Poems 1935-1940," 287-88).

The poet commits the memory of those forgotten souls to mythic time, enacting the speaker's desire and her responsibility: "I remember them always, everywhere / I will never forget them, whatever comes."

Like Akhmatova, contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland attempts to heal what is forgotten in history by committing it to verse. "There are outsiders, always," she writes. There are always those whose stories we do not know, whose suffering is forgotten or unrecorded and therefore outside of the collective memory, outside of history:
   Outside of myth into history I move to be
   part of that ordeal
   whose darkness is

   only now reaching me from those fields,
   those rivers, those roads clotted as
   firmaments with the dead.

   How slowly they die
   as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear
   And we are too late. We are always too late (Boland, 50).

Like Lear with its keen awareness of belatedness, Boland's poem enacts a double gesture. On the one hand there is the confession, "We are always too late." Yet the writing of the poem, which gives voice to the forgotten ones by acknowledging their presence, negates this last line. Is this not what Akhmatova's and Celan's poems do? And is this not the ultimate achievement of Lear?--The preservation of memory, even if preservation involves invoking, again and again, "an image of that horror" (5.3.262). Edgar and Kent are the witnesses, the survivors, and their suffering and the necessity of bearing it have the final say. In her critical writing on poetry, Boland has written explicitly of the responsibility of preserving memory. She wants to give shape to the suffering of "[t]he real women with their hungers, their angers, endured a long struggle and a terrible subsistence. Those women in all our pasts. We are the heirs of their survival. They exist in history and in family archives as specters and victims, memories and ghosts. Their suffering is our common possession" (Boland, Scar, 25). Boland maintains that in shaping history "the private witness is often all there is to go on" (Boland, Scar, 23). Boland's choice of the word "witness" is absolutely key. Witness stresses the individual's desire to leave her mark on the collective consciousness. Witness is about committing oneself to the world.

The last poem, "In a Dark Time" by Theodore Roethke, is not political but personal. What's at stake here is not a collective apocalypse but a mad or profound suffering--and where it takes one:
   In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
   I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
   I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
   A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
   I live between the heron and the wren,
   Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

   What's madness but nobility of soul
   At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
   I know the purity of pure despair,
   My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
   That place amongst the rocks--is it a cave,
   Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

   A steady storm of correspondences!
   A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
   And in a broad day the midnight come again!
   A man goes far to find out what he is--
   Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
   All natural shapes blazing unnatural light (49).

Roethke's "In a Dark Time" enacts the dark night of the soul. Yet in the profession "What's madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?" we inevitably see Lear on the heath, stripped of his worldly identity and coming to know what it is to be human, which means coming to know what it is to be cold and alone. Long after he has lost everything, Lear professes himself to be "every inch a king" (4.6.107) and we do not question the verity of his words. Yet in going far to find out what he is, Lear cannot come back. With the loss of Cordelia, he too is lost. Lear is not strong enough: he is old.

Edgar, however, does return; and in his return to light after the descent into madness, Edgar is like the speaker in Roethke's poem. Edgar comes to resemble Orpheus, the seer and the poet. Roethke's final stanza reads,
   Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
   My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
   Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
   A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
   The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
   And one is One, free in the tearing wind. (49)

Like the speaker of "In a Dark Time," Edgar climbs out of the darkness. Yet the quality of the light is forever changed. Edgar closes the play with the words: "The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say" (5.3.321-322). Language, Edgar reminds us, carries with it the responsibility of embodying truth, an awareness already contained in Cordelia's words in the first scene, an awareness not heeded or fathomed until it is too late. Such a statement comes very close to those writing about the nature of what language must be after the unthinkable has happened. It is a Kristevan notion of language, though it has been expressed in other ways by Sartre and Steiner for time immemorial. Do we not collectively forget? To recall Yerushalmi: human memory is fickle. In such a world as Lear's, and our own, not only is poetry possible, it is necessary.

What we need, Denise Levertov writes in her essay on the relationship between poetry, prophecy and survival, is an understanding of the artist as translator; and by translator she returns to the Latin transferre: to carry across, to ferry to the far shore (123). Levertov wants a poetry that remembers, and she stresses poetry's kinship with prophecy, but not prophecy as prediction. Rather, Levertov grabs hold of an equally valid though lesser known meaning: "Above all," she writes, "the prophets provide words of witness" (147). As the Inuit poet Orpingalik said, "We make poems when ordinary speech no longer suffices" (quoted in Levertov, 149).

To return to the world of the play with Levertov's statements in mind: there is no more room for what "ought" to be said; one must speak what one "feels," so Cordelia remains silent; while Kent cries, "Break heart, I prithee, break" (5.3.309). The art of King Lear remains faithful to suffering. Or, if we turn to The Winter's Tale, then Shakespeare offers us the hope of "an art which doth mend nature" (4.4.95-96). In romance, the dead are restored to the living. Suffering is not unwritten, but it is alleviated. In King Lear, the mending must come from the performance: from what the witnesses--within the play and without--take away and remember.

Works Cited

Akhmatova, Anna. "Requiem." Selected Poems: Anna Akhmatova. Tr. Richard McKane. Newcastle, Bloodaxe Books, 1989. 287-88.

Asher, Lyell. "Lateness in King Lear." Yale Journal of Criticism 13:2 (Fall 2000): 209-28.

Boland. Eavan. A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition. Dublin: Attic Lipp Pamphlet, 1989.

______. "Outside History." Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990. New York: Norton, 1990.

Cavell, Stanley. "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear." Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 29-124.

Celan, Paul. Poems of Paul Celan. Tr. Michael Hamburger. New York: Perseus Books, 2002.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare's Language. New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2000.

Kristeva, Julia. The Portable Kristeva. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: New Directions, 1997.

Levertov, Denise. "Poetry, Prophecy, Survival." New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992. 143-53.

Roethke, Theodore. "In a Dark Time" in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. 48-49.

Sicher, Efraim. "The Holocaust in the Postmodernist Era." Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz. Ed. Efraim Sicher. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1998. 297-328.

Yerulshalmi, Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1982.

Jacqueline Kolosov

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Date:Sep 22, 2004
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