Are We Taking the Wrong Message from King Lear?

I had just finished working on two piano duets with a good friend, when I asked her what else she was practicing.  She and I belong to a small group who meet periodically to play for each other and encourage each other in our endeavors at the piano.  Until I retired, and even for a period afterwards, I took piano lessons.  Our meetings and the preparation for them fulfills the same need with less pressure, more support, and less expense. 

In any case, after a discussion of which pieces we were each working on, I told my friend that I was torn in my old age between playing pieces easily within my limited capabilities or challenging myself.  At this particular time I was challenging myself with a Chopin waltz which required so much repetition and concentration that I was not really enjoying the music. 

It was the phrase, “in my old age,” that provoked an immediate reaction.  This kind of statement to any of my (older) friends usually starts with the kind and sincere words, “But you’re not old!”  I remonstrated that 70 is old, that I remember how my mother and grandmother seemed to me when they were 70, and – in any case – my body, which was at that time aching in various places (including my wrist from playing too much piano), was there to remind me.  As are my young grandchildren, who are great tellers of truth.  “Nana, why do you have those little things under your eyes?”  My children and grandchildren never challenge my description of myself as old.

 Once we were past the preliminary quibble over terminology, we then debated the value of challenging ourselves as we get older, and the discussion continued when our piano group met a week later.  The topic has been much on my mind. 

Among other things it has made me revisit King Lear.  Is it possible we all took the wrong message from Shakespeare’s great play?  Generally, people remember that Lear retired too soon, gave his money away without guarantees, and left himself to the mercy of his merciless daughters – at least the two daughters who inherited.  “Hang on to it all as long as you can” is the commonly received message.  Hang on to your power, your money, your ability to do what you always did.   But maybe that is not the message.  Maybe the message is that in the interests of retaining power, Lear spurned the love of Cordelia, his youngest and most honest offspring.  And he insisted on a retinue of hundreds of knights even in his retirement.  Lear wanted it both ways – to be relieved of responsibility but to retain control. 

I have written elsewhere of how we are increasingly governed by the very old. No one wants to give up power.  No one wants to admit that they might be too old.  Our President is old, the Speaker is elderly, politicians are increasingly staying on into their eighties and nineties.  In my lifetime we have gone from inaugurating our youngest President (Kennedy) to our oldest (Biden).  The baby boom generation is not giving up easily.  For a generation that didn’t trust anyone over thirty, they seem to be having a hard time assessing their own capabilities.  Is this a good thing?  The Fool admonishes Lear, “Thou shouldst  not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”  Maybe Lear cannot be wise when he is so concerned with exerting the control and power that he always did.

I can’t help but thinking about Greta Thunberg and her assessment that the older generation has failed the young, has made a mess of things.  She also reminds me of FDR’s comment that “War is young men dying and old men talking.”

Lear learns.  In the end he just wants to retire somewhere quiet with Cordelia and contemplate the world.  But it is too late; he has already made a mess of things (leading to the demise of both).

What does all this have to do with difficult piano pieces?  Good question.  But I guess that it made me think about what happens when we will not acknowledge our own limitations.  At the end of our discussion, my piano group agreed that some middle ground was probably the answer – sometimes challenge ourselves, sometimes give ourselves a break. 

This can mean different things.  Play difficult pieces slower.  Play them very slowly.  Slowing down can be an art form in itself. And tolerate playing less than perfectly.  Slowing down and tolerating a less than perfect performance are, in general, good exercises for people of any age; for the elderly, they are the limitations within which we can enjoy this last part of life.  Don’t look for the media to agree with me though; all things are possible according to Madison Avenue and the self-help experts.

For more on Lear, you could look at my short story, “Lear at Great Books” or my earlier post, “Ripeness and Readiness.”