Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act IV The Prodigal Father)



In the Gospel there’s a famous story about a son who runs off with his inheritance money, blows it all on wild living, then wants to come back home and live as a servant in his father’s house.  Instead of scolding the boy for being a bad son the father welcomes him back with open arms and there’s a happy ending.  (Note: this story is actually in the Gospel of Luke; not in our GB 3 reading of the Gospel of Mark.)  What if this situation was reversed?  What happens when a parent makes a bad decision, regrets it, and then wants to “come back home” (to undo the damage that has been done by a bad decision)? 

Unfortunately life doesn’t seem to work that way.  That’s one of the lessons we learn in Act IV of King Lear.  The Prodigal Son got an opportunity for a do-over in the Gospel story.  Why can’t a Prodigal Father get a do-over too?  King Lear and Gloucester both made bad decisions regarding their children.  Later they regretted it.  Why can’t they both just “go back home” and start over the way the Prodigal Son did?  One of the advantages of being a child is having a chance to make mistakes and learn from them.  Parents, teachers and other adults can often undo or mitigate the damage our mistakes cause when we’re kids.  But as we grow older the stakes get higher.  Then our mis-stakes often can’t be undone.  Over the years we come to have friends and maybe family and neighbors who are depending on us.  Then our mistakes affect not only ourselves but also those around on us.  And this is the case with both King Lear and Gloucester. 

Earls have less responsibility than kings so let’s take Gloucester first.  In Act IV an old man is leading the Earl of Gloucester by the hand and says, “you cannot see your way.”  Gloucester replies “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw.”  When Gloucester still had eyes he wasn’t able to see that Edgar was really his good son.  Now that he’s blind he understands the truth.  And Gloucester would love to undo the damage he’s done.  He says, “O dear son, Edgar, the food of thy abused father’s wrath!  Might I but live to see thee in my touch, I’d say I had eyes again!”  Gloucester would love to go back home again but the damage is already done; and it’s permanent.  He’s blind and Edmund is conspiring with Goneril and Regan to become the new Earl of Gloucester.  Edmund may not succeed but things can obviously never be the same again.     

Meanwhile King Lear is fighting his own losing battle with thoughts of going back home and returning to the throne.  It’s not going to happen.  Once he gave up his power he gave up any chance of things returning to normal.  Lear thinks Gloucester is much better off and reflects (wrongly) that “Gloucester’s bastard son (Edmund) was kinder to his father than my daughters got ‘tween the lawful sheets.”  That’s not true but Lear doesn’t know Edmund has been even more devious to Gloucester than Goneril and Regan have been to him.  When Lear and Gloucester finally meet again Gloucester asks, “Dost thou know me?”  Ironically Lear answers, “I remember thine eyes well enough.”  What Lear remembers is how things used to be and he wants to go back there again.  In that sense he’s like the Prodigal Son.  Lear has been out in the wild world and seen what it’s like.  Now he wants to go back home.  But he can’t.  And neither can Gloucester.  The damage has been done.  And it’s permanent.  A young prodigal son may be able to change things before it’s too late.  But two foolish old men no longer have that option.  They staked everything they had on the wrong children.  Now they can never go home again. 

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12/22/2015 11:29 PM  

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