Tragedy as a Way of Life.
"Imagine you are in the dark."
THAT'S the way it begins. For years, I've led my students, at the start of our study of King Lear, into a thought experiment about death. I ask the students to imagine themselves, alone, sitting on a chair in darkness. I tell them that they know for certain the dark will never turn to light. They also know that the chair is on a platform of stone at the top of a mile-high stone column. They can feel the wind against their faces. They do not know if the chair is in the middle of the platform or at the edge. They do not know how they got to this place, but they know there will be no rescue. No one is coming to lift them off the pinnacle and restore them to the light of the day-to-day world.
And there is one more thing. It is the cry of a child-their child-hanging on for life at the edge of the precipice.
"What do you do?" I ask them.
The students know, of course, that the ghastly scene I have drawn them into is supposed to start us thinking about tragedy. King Lear is a play, after all, that begins with an old man giving everything away to his children so that he can "unburdened crawl toward death." Lear says those words, but he doesn't really grasp what they mean. In the middle of the play, in the storm, he comes face to face with an outcast man. The nearly naked, rain-soaked, shivering human creature teaches him that death is always already inside the living: "Thou art the thing itself," he says, "unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art."
At the end of the play, Lear carries onto the stage the body of the one daughter that loved him. How is it he did not know there was death inside Cordelia too? Among his last words, as if spoken from the pinnacle, he says, "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?"
The students understand the thought experiment is preliminary to the study of the play, but they are more interested in having their say about what they would do in the face of their and their child's imminent deaths. They are playful too. There is some wicked talk about eating one's young. But generally, the discussion is heartfelt. Most say they will move as quickly as they can, given the danger of their situation, crawling across the stone in the darkness toward their child. They will rescue her. They will find words to comfort her.
Two or three disagree. They will sit still, they say. The thought of not moving while a child is in danger draws shocked responses from the others. "What do you mean?" someone will say. "You'll just sit there! You can't just sit there." "No," says one of the dissenters, "I am not just sitting. I am fighting my desire to rescue my child because what you call 'rescue' will only consign her to prolonged suffering before she dies. Remember, there's no rescue. One way or another, we're going to die up here. And she'll certainly die first. You think you're going to save your child, but she is just going to suffer with you until she dies."
Always, some of the students resist the whole scenario. "There's always hope," they say. "As long as there is breath, there's the possibility of a way out. The whole scene is crazy." Then one student will say the scene is strange, crazy even, but it's really one way of seeing mortal life. We're born to die. Our children will die too. The students also see how the thought experiment puts in question all the usual moral principles we take for granted. On the pinnacle, rescue can begin to look like cruelty, and what should be the inhuman refusal to provide rescue can become something akin to loving kindness.
Of course, while it is true that everyone dies, my no-way-out thought experiment isn't anything like real life. It leaves out everything we do while we are living, and it obscures the fact that our children do usually live on after us, and their children live on after them. Death is inside us, but so are the seeds of new life.
I always point out the limitations of my thought experiment as a way of thinking about life, but it is not necessary to do that. The students understand readily the limitations of the analogy. They are fascinated by the strange but appropriate suspension of normal judgments between kindness and cruelty. All the conventional categories of right and wrong have gone up in smoke, yet their decisions about what they would do seem to remain important and morally weighty to them.
I went on introducing King Lear this way for years. On account of the thought experiment, the students started the play ahead of Lear himself. They understood, even if he didn't, that he wouldn't need to crawl toward death. Death was already there with him. It was inside him and his daughters in ways that he would learn only after great suffering.
"All's cheerless, dark, and deadly."
FOR YEARS I introduced King Lear to my students by taking them up to the dark place where death is close at hand. It worked successfully every time I did it. It worked every year until the year my father died.
His dying, in his 84th year, took four months. He fought hard against the congestive heart failure that eventually killed him. His suffering was exacerbated by the C. difficile infection he contracted in the hospital.
Until he was nearly 70, he ran a cutting room in a Montreal clothing factory. The shears he used to cut out "the specials" weighed more than ten pounds. His hands were strong and skilful. Within a month of his entry into hospital, his hands became weak and soft and useless. The terrible indignity of the loss of bodily control was alleviated in some measure by the breakdown of his mind, though I think he never entirely lost his awareness of his decline and impending death.
I did not want him to die. I wanted the doctors to bring him back to health. But they could do nothing. I could not save him. That failure cut me to the bone.
He died a week before we were to start King Lear in my Shakespeare class. I was a dutiful son, and I am a dutiful teacher, so I went to class, and I led the students into the thought experiment, just as I had always done. And then we started our work on the play. I know it's just a metaphor, but I had the taste of ashes in my mouth. "Surely," says the Psalmist, "I have eaten ashes as bread, and mingled my drink with weeping." When Lear carries the body of Cordelia onto the stage at the end, the Earl of Kent, who loves the king, says, "All's cheerless, dark, and deadly." Kent could have been talking about my situation.
So I did something I had never done before. I levelled completely with the students, told them my father had died. I shared with them the meaning of the word "bereft." It comes from the Old English word reafian -"to plunder, spoil, rob"; it describes the condition of having had everything you care about stolen from you. I confessed that the ending of the play, which is a scene of utter bereavement, was overwhelming to me. Shakespeare, I told them, means the final tableau to be like the Pieta-the sculpture, most famously Michelangelo's, of Mary cradling the dead body of her son Jesus. He, of course, will rise from the dead and fulfil his mission to redeem humankind from sin and death. The pagan Lear, ironically, has some such idea in his mind. Believing, or wishing to believe, that his daughter is alive, he says,
This feather stirs, she lives! If it be so, It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows, That ever I have felt.
But she is not alive. There will be no redemption. "I know when one is dead, and when one lives," he says, "She's dead as earth."
I told the students I did not think I could continue teaching King Lear. It was time to move on to one of the comedies. I pointed out that the great writer Samuel Johnson had said, more than 200 years earlier, that the play was intolerable. "I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death," he wrote, "that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor." I see now, I said, that Johnson was right. King Lear is a play that should not ever be seen or read or taught again.
"Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say."
AFTER my declaration, the students were silent for a long moment. Then they began to answer back. They, like the outcast Edgar in the play, who takes care of his blinded father and saves him from suicide, undertook to address my misjudgment and despair.
The students drew on the thought experiment, where death does not bereave action of value. Nihilism, they told me, is not an adequate response to the fact of our mortality. They tried to teach me about the play. Cordelia risks her life when she brings rescue to her father. The soldier who kills her ends her life, but he does not eradicate the goodness of her actions. That is why Lear, unwittingly anticipating his daughter's death, calls it a sacrifice. Death, the students said, does not cancel the moral dimension of action; on the contrary, the darkness of death irradiates human action with a moral light unlike anything in the natural world.
I objected to their arguments for the transcendence of morality over mortality. "Sacrifice" is a mere word, I said, a word that imposes a made-up moral character on the killing of a creature. The killing of Cordelia reveals the only truth worth taking away from the play: even she is no more than a "poor, bare, fork'd animal." Lear recognizes that truth when he says to her dead body, "Thou'lt come no more," and then repeats the word "never" five times. Then he dies too.
The students changed their line of argument. They didn't say another word about the transcendent moral dimension of human action in the face of death. Nothing more about the irradiating power of darkness. Those grand metaphors had, after all, come from me in the first place. Instead, they started to talk about how they had felt on the pinnacle with their child.
They said what they'd done in the darkness felt more real than real life. "Everything I did," one student said, "mattered in ways that my choices in real life don't matter." Another said, "what I did to rescue my child-and, no, I didn't forget we were going to die-my acts of kindness, how I comforted her, made me feel worthy of her love and even like someone special in my own eyes." The students came together around these reports from the pinnacle. One student said her actions unfolded like the shortest story you could imagine, but still a story worth telling and worth listening to. They had become, they said, like the protagonists in a tragedy-like Lear, like Cordelia.
Tragedy as a Way of Life
THE students' wisdom is worth our attention. Death undoes us, but it also bestows on us what I will call our true life stories. These can be short or long, but most of them have endings that define us. It is a shame that modern medicine and the intensive, pharmacologically enhanced care of the dying often remove people from the endings of their own life stories. That is one thing I wanted for my father, but the doctors were having none of it. The doctors rightly let him-an old man in the final stages of congestive heart failure-go down to his death. He died fighting. My father died in character at the centre of his own life story.
The students in my Shakespeare class grasped something that tragedy has known since The Iliad. In Homer's epic, Hector honours the gods, but he is also better than the gods he honours. The fact of death gives Hector's story its shape and confers a dignity on him that surpasses the limitless power and amazing deathlessness of the gods. The gods are poorer than the doomed Hector, their stories directionless and even frivolous, because they do not die.
When Hector says farewell before he returns to the war that will take his life, he prays to the gods for his infant son's future bravery. Then he turns to his wife (I quote from Book 6 in Robert Fagles' brilliant translation):
So Hector prayed and placed his son in the arms of his loving wife. Andromache pressed the child to her scented breast, smiling through her tears. Her husband noticed, and filled with pity now, Hector stroked her gently, trying to reassure her, repeating her name: "Andromache, dear one, why so desperate? Why so much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you--it's born with us the day that we are born."
This is one of the most poignant moments in literature, but Hector's words also confirm that our fated deaths are the endings of the stories that each of us is privileged to enact. The gods are not privileged as we are; only mortals can be the protagonists in tragic narratives.
At the end of King Lear, Kent stops Edgar from trying to resuscitate the dying king: "O, let him pass! He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer." Grief for the death of loved ones is natural, but it is cruel to want our dying beloveds to live forever. It is foolishness to despair because of some imagined failure to rescue them from death. Hector understands that the narratives that make us whole begin with birth and end with the death that is born with us when we begin. So if we could make those we love immortal, we would in fact bereave them of the stories of their lives and take from them any claim they might have to the special dignity that only tragedy can confer.
I have taught King Lear many times since the time my students banded together to educate their teacher. I still say death is inside the characters. But-I add-that is just the beginning of what we must understand about them. Death is not some toxin inside their bodies that over time escapes from its containment. It is the soul of their life stories whose emergence both ends their lives and makes them whole. Once Lear knows for certain that his daughter is dead, his heart breaks, and he dies. He feels the inexorable pressure of cardiac arrest (he asks an attendant to loosen his clothing). But the death that comes from inside and floods across him does not hollow him out. His ending, with his daughter's body in his arms, is the tragic completion of the story of his unquenchable wish to have Cordelia's love.
I still begin with the thought experiment. The students comment on how the experiment, with the parent saving the child, inverts what happens in the play, where the child rescues her father. Even with that irony noted, the students still find the experiment compelling. And I don't turn away from their insights about how the presence of death makes what they do on the pinnacle somehow more real than what they do in their real lives.
Their insights lead me to talk about how tragedy can become a way of living. The students seem to like this existential approach. Tragedy as a way of life connects with their thinking in the experiment. But at least one student will object, rightly, that it would be crazy to live our lives as if they were tragedies: "We don't need to be tragic heroes and go looking for death," a student will say, "like you said, it's already inside us."
That is entirely true. We are not, like Lear, "bound upon a wheel of fire." We are not Cordelia, the young woman who risks everything to secure the truth of her life and her love. She rescues her father, not from death, but rather from the burning wheel of his fear that he is not loved. We are not her, yet we can nevertheless learn from Cordelia and Lear, not to mention from our parents and our students, that there is something altogether wise about seeing how tragedy can become a strong bass line to the always changing music of our day-to-day lives. Or we might take it on as something we can keep always in the backs of our minds-an awareness not of our incompleteness, but of how we can become whole and help others toward wholeness by taking on the full weight of the stories we play out together in the light and then in the dark.
Caption: Colm Feore as Lear in the Stratford Festival's 2014 production of King Lear (photo by David Hou). Images courtesy of the Stratford Festival Archives.
Caption: Lear (Colm Feore) foolishly divides his kingdom and seals his own fate in the Stratford Festival's production of King Lear, 2014 (photo by David Hou).
Caption: Colm Feore as King Lear, suddenly an outcast, 2014 (photo by David Hou).
Caption: Colm Feore as King Lear and Sara Farb as Cordelia, with members of the company, in the Stratford Festival's King Lear, 2014 (photo by David Hou).
Caption: Michelangelo's Pieta-Mary cradling the dead body of her son.
Caption: Jacques-Louis David Andromache Mourning over the Body of Hector 1783
Caption: Colm Feore as the desperate and mad king in the Stratford Festival's King Lear, 2014 (photo by David Hou).
PAUL YACHNIN is Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill University.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2018|
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