Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act IV Facing Adversity)

Life isn’t easy.  Just ask King Lear and Gloucester in Act IV.  A lot of bad things happened to them.  Some bad things were their own doing, some were not.  But either way there’s a lesson here for all of us.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (GB 1) Freud says, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks.  In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”  Dealing with adversity is something we all have to do.  How would the Great Books advise us to do it?  As usual they don’t give a clear answer.  They give several answers.  Then it’s up to us to choose the best one for ourselves.  So what are our options?

One way to deal with adversity is to simply do nothing.  Ignore it.  Maybe it will go away.  In Rothschild’s Fiddle (Chekhov GB1) that’s what a poor coffin maker chooses to do.  He spends his whole cranky life worrying about money.  Not until the very end does he see he wasted his time and could have become rich by doing something different.  A meek office clerk in Gogol’s The Overcoat (GB4) knows his old coat is wearing out but he does nothing about it until it’s absolutely necessary.  Then he’s forced to choose a new coat and he chooses badly.  Doing nothing is a strategy.  But it’s not a very good one. All of the main characters in King Lear are doers.  They all want to do something.  One thing we can always do is commit suicide.  That’s what Gloucester tries to do in Act IV.  And that’s what Faust (GB5) is considering doing at the start of Goethe’s play.  Faust didn’t actually go through with it but in another Shakespeare play Antony and Cleopatra both did (GB2).  Is that a good option?  Absolutely not says Dante in his Inferno (GB5).  All you’ve done is jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  You leave behind the problems of this world only to find worse ones in the next.  And a variation on this theme is: don’t kill yourself.  Let someone else do it for you.  That’s what the early Christians did in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (GB4).  And that’s what the three hundred Spartans under Leonidas did in The Persian Wars (Herodotus, GB2).  Lear takes a different route.  He retreats from reality into a fantasy world of his own.  Hamlet also retreated into madness in another Shakespeare play (GB3).  But Hamlet’s madness was a strategic retreat.  He put it on and took it off whenever it suited him.  That wasn’t the case with Ophelia, who loved Hamlet until he literally drove her crazy.  Her madness was real and overwhelmed her.  Lear’s madness is also genuine.  In Act IV he rambles.  His thoughts are disconnected and make no sense except to him alone: “There’s your press-money.  That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper; draw me a clothier’s yard.  Look, look, a mouse!”  This strategy is not recommended.  A different strategy for dealing with adversity is patience.  It’s different from the do-nothing strategy.  It’s more the “life is a hot bowl of soup” strategy.  It will cool off.  You just have to wait it out.  Job (GB4) used this strategy.  His situation wasn’t too much different from King Lear’s and Gloucester’s.  Job lost almost everything; his wealth, his health, his children.  But he didn’t lose his mind like Lear and he didn’t contemplate suicide like Gloucester.  He went out and sat on a dunghill in silence for seven days with three of his closest friends.  It worked for Job but this strategy is not recommended either.

Freud said life is too hard for us.  Maybe so.  And maybe Gloucester had the best strategy after his failed suicide attempt: “Henceforth I’ll bear affliction till it do cry out itself, ‘Enough, enough,’ and die.”  Shakespeare would have made a good psychiatrist.


Blogger SMJ said...

No. I cannot agree. Shakespeare would have made a terrible psychiatrist. You would go in and listen to his story and you would leave feeling even worse than when you came in. Psychiatry is supposed to make us feel better about life. King Lear offers no comforting advice on how to feel better about our mortality. What is the moral? People will flatter you to get what they want. If you give away all your money and power, don't expect to receive any love or sympathy in return. Life is not fair and the good guys don't always win. In fact, all too often the scoundrels come out on top. But if you suffer long enough, and swallow your pride, and listen to the advice of people who are wiser than you are, then you might just learn something. It won't make you happy, but it will make the road you walk a little less lonely and little less miserable. Either way, though. You are still going to suffer. There is no happy ending here in which you get to avoid pain and disappointment. For life is an exercise in sorrow. We don't need a psychiatrist to tell us that. We just need to read Shakespeare.

6/09/2015 8:10 AM  
Blogger Manik Hossain said...

Religion isn't a way, this is a living, a better and unnatural living, mystical in their main and practical in their fruits; a new communion together with Our god, a new relaxed and serious enthusiasm, a new really like which radiates, a new push which serves, a new delight which overflows. Amiel. *The heart connected with genuine faith breathes gentleness and affability; this provides a indigenous, unaltered relieve towards habits; it is sociable, kind, pleasing; a lot taken out of the particular dark and illiberal disposition which clouds the particular brow, sharpens the particular composure, and dejects the particular heart. Blair. Consecrated, to Shakespeare

7/23/2015 11:51 PM  
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5/01/2023 4:51 PM  

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