Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear and the Great Books

The Great Books concept is centered around the idea that all the readings focus on one great conversation. King Lear is a play that demonstrates the wisdom of this concept. David Hume, for example, in his essay Of Personal Identity raises the question about how much we really know; even about ourselves. In this play we can ask the same question. Does King Lear ever know who he really is? Does anybody? At the start of the play Lear has all the power of a king and isn’t afraid to use it. By the end of the play he’s just a weak old man and can’t even rule his own family. The ending may make some of us question how stern a stuff we’re made of. Does it take some sort of big life test to learn what we’re really made of? How would we react when the chips are down? Lear’s evil daughters know him better than he knows himself. They know he’s getting old and weak and say so: 'Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself. And once he’s lost his power Lear becomes like the emperor with no clothes. Without his power he’s lost. Even Lear himself asks Who is it that can tell me who I am? So Hume was well within the Great Books tradition when asking questions like: who am I?

Dante’s vision of power is quite different from that envisioned in the world of King Lear. For Dante all power comes from a divine source. And in the end all punishment will be in God’s hands. King Lear protests that I am a man More sinned against than sinning. That may be true but it’s not up to Lear to decide the point. People can’t be objective judges of their own cases. God will judge and determine who has sinned and to what extent. In one view King Lear seriously disrupted the natural order of things when he abdicated his responsibilities. Is this a sin or just poor judgment? Or take another case. Edmund and Gloucester both used deceit. What was the difference? Edmund deceived his brother because he wanted to take away his estate and title. Gloucester deceived his guests because they were corrupt and he wanted to remain loyal to the rightful king. But was King Lear still the rightful ruler? He had already abdicated his throne and power. Why should Gloucester remain loyal? Also, at the end Edmund seemed to repent of his evil. Does this result in a Get Out Of Hell Free card? Maybe. Dante had definite views on these things and participated in the great conversation.

Edmund Burke was a citizen of the British Empire, just like Shakespeare. So he also had a unique English perspective. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France showed that he was generally no friend to revolutionary ideas. But put yourself in Gloucester’s place (or Kent’s). King Lear has handed over all authority to his daughters. The daughters and Lear then have a quarrel. Now who should you follow? Who is doing the revolting and who is remaining loyal to legitimate authority? This question of legitimate political authority has a long tradition in the Great Books, going all the way back to the start with Homer. At the very dawn of Western civilization the question was: who has the right to rule? And how much right does the ruler have to make other people obey? Agamemnon and Achilles had a showdown over this very question. Burke is in the Western tradition when he asks why (and who) we should obey.

The Education of Henry Adams is part of the Western tradition too. Adams wasn’t happy about the education he received as a young man because it didn’t equip him to deal with life in the twentieth century. Here’s a question for King Lear: What kind of education would be best if we lived in Lear’s kingdom? In broad terms, should we be educated on how to be good people or how to succeed in a cut-throat environment? Besides, is it even possible to teach people like Goneril, Regan and Edmund how to be good? That’s what the great conversation is all about.


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