Lear at Great Books

To the reader: This is the draft of a chapter of a novel I wrote based on my experiences at the Great Books Institute, which takes place every year on the campus of Colby College. All characters are fictional, but the Institute is real and well worth looking into. During the week at the Institute, groups discuss six works in six days. Discussion groups remain the same for the week, while leaders rotate. This is a section of the middle of the novel, so I apologize for the lack of character descriptions. And it remains a draft, perhaps to be revisited at a future time.

World, world, O world,/But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,/Life would not yield to age.” King Lear IV: i

It is hard to talk the language of the great books without having two texts at your left hand as you turned pages with your right, thought Claire as she settled herself on the bench in the morning sun to review King Lear before her group met. You needed to know your Bible and the complete plays of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was almost a constant on the Institute reading lists – it was evidence of his breadth that any theme could accommodate at least one of his plays, and – if that failed – there were the sonnets. An undergraduate English degree in the days when Shakespeare was a strict requirement had given Claire a good basis in the Bard, and she also counted herself lucky to have been forced through a regimen of Methodist Bible study as a child; she was sure that she had been directed to almost every verse of the Bible at one time or another, and many she loved and knew intimately. She chuckled as she remembered that her absolute favorite story had to do with old age, and concerned the announcement by God to the very ancient Sara that she would have a child. Sara laughed. When God asked Sara why she laughed (after all God can do anything), Sara denied it. “I did not laugh” she said, for she was afraid. God insisted. “No, but you did laugh.” Sara, it seemed, had accepted her old age and was not looking for miracles. Miracles nevertheless happened, and Sara became the mother of a race and was mourned and honored.

Lear had also seemed (at least at first) to accept old age. He had decided to divvy up his kingdom among his daughters, and to accept the fact that he was on the setting side of his ride through the heavens. There were no miracles for Lear, and the end was not nearly so glorious as that of Sara. Of course, he had the bad judgement to put himself in the hands of the worst of his daughters, but Claire had only to reflect on the readings to realize that old age was no guarantee of wisdom. She had, in fact, only to look at the people around her. Was there any progress? Did one get wiser as one got older? In ancient times, clearly, old age had been related to wisdom. She thought she remembered that Lao Tse, the author of the Tao, was really a generic name that meant “old man.”

In the Bible, Claire remembered there were only two people who recognized the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple, and they were both old. Anna was eighty-four, and Simeon was so old that he yearned to die, but wanted to see the Messiah first. “Lettest thy servant depart in peace” says Simeon, and – as she did every time those words came to mind – Claire hoped those would be her wishes when she faced the end of her life.

Cicero and Sophocles were certainly wise old men, but there were plenty of foolish and hateful old men and women. If it was a question of learning, why did experience fail to teach us? How can someone live in the world for decade after decade and still not know how to live in the world? Cicero had said that it was all a matter of character; if one is peevish then, “any period of his life will seem to him tiresome.” Claire tossed the words “to him” in the air – like so much in life, it all depended on perspective. She marched into the Lovejoy building and up the stairs to the classrooms, prepared to get some other perspectives on Lear and the question of old age from many who were significantly older and more experienced than herself.

It seemed, however, that the wisdom and foolishness of old age were not to be on the immediate agenda. The leader opened with a question as to justice.

“There are several trial scenes in Lear.” Everyone looked a little puzzled at this, but sat back awaiting further enlightenment. It was not the job of the leader to be obscure, and indeed he did go on to be more specific. “For example, Lear tries his daughters in absentia when he is out in the storm; Regan and her husband have a mock trial before gouging out Gloucester’s eyes.” Now everyone was wincing, remembering the almost unbearable scene in Regan’s castle. “And, of course, the very first scene in which Lear is distributing his kingdom. It seems that he is trying to ascertain through testimony who loves him the most. Why does Shakespeare set this up as a trial?”

Gloria responded, but did not answer the question. “It’s set like a trial, but the problem is that he is relying only on testimony and not on the evidence of experience. It seems that Cordelia has always treated him well, and – judging from the way their characters come out later – Regan and Goneril must have always been witches. I don’t believe they could have hidden their characters so successfully from their father. Regardless, he listens to what they say and disregards their actions.”

Ginger pushed her chair back. “I agree. On top of that, Lear knows how he wants it to come out. He has already decided what he wants them to say. You learn, after a while with kids, to have low expectations with this kind of thing. Otherwise they’ll disappoint you every time.”

“Let’s get back to the question” growled Cecil. “I won’t argue with either of you, but the question on the table is why we start out with a trial. I think that Shakespeare is setting up the whole play as a trial of character. Everyone is put on the hot seat, and the good and bad are sifted out.”

“Sifted out for what? The good don’t necessarily prosper here. Gloucester loses his eyes, Cordelia dies, Lear dies broken-hearted. Sifted out just so the audience can see who is who and then killed off like Gloucester says, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport’ (IV: i)?’” Mertha had all the indignation and naiveté of youth. Claire wondered how many times she had heard her own kids say “It isn’t fair.” Her thoughts were echoed by Gerry.

“You don’t think that life is fair, do you?” He asked the young woman with a twinkle in his eye, and simultaneously scanning the group so we would realize that he knew we were all, at least occasionally, victims of that delusion. “And don’t forget that Gloucester is making that speech just after his eyes are gouged out and just before he thinks that he jumps off a cliff and is miraculously rescued by the gods.  We all think life is fair when we prosper and unfair when we lose. We all think that. Shakespeare, however, knows better and is trying to educate us.”

Mertha was obviously grateful that Gerry had not pinned her as being singularly foolish. “OK, but what does that tell us about how we need to live? Are we just supposed to flutter around hoping that the gods don’t swat us?”

“Or an asteroid doesn’t fall from the sky and obliterate life as we know it?” added Gerry.

“We’re getting away from the question again,” snarled Cecil banging once on his pile of books for every word that he uttered.  As far as old men went, Cecil and Gerry couldn’t be further apart.

“No we’re not.” Claire spoke for the first time. “If Shakespeare is setting up trials held by the characters that fail to deliver justice, that are mockeries, what is he trying to tell us? And, he turns things around. First, Lear is in charge and he screws things up. Then, Goneril and Regan are in charge and it’s even worse. Then, there is a war which is a kind of trial, and – at least for a time – it looks like the bad guys are winning. I think he is talking about how quick we all are to come to judgement and how wrong we almost always are.”

“Trials are not just about guilt or innocence. They are a way of looking for truth. Science does trials, for example. You set out a hypothesis – a possible truth – and then you weigh the evidence. Lear starts out with three possible truths – one: that it would be a good thing for him to divide up his kingdom and step aside, two: that he could determine how much his daughters loved him by what they said, and three: that his judgement was sound and he needed no advice.” It was clear to everyone that Gerry had listed these reasons in the margins of his book as he was reading from a text turned sideways.

“I think Shakespeare is exploring the value of the written or spoken word. I love the line where Cordelia says that she cannot ‘heave her heart into her mouth.’“ Claire did love that line, and was sure all shy and reserved agreed.

Gloria spoke. “Back to what Gerry said, trials can be a way of looking for the truth – setting out a theory and seeing if it works, if it is true for everyone involved – or if everyone involved can agree that it is true. But trials also have to do with suffering. We have it in our language – ‘trial by fire,’ ‘trial and tribulation,’ – we even call someone who makes us suffer a ‘trial’. No one in this play learns anything without suffering, as much as some of the characters try to teach them. Kent, for example, tries to tell Lear that he is wrong about his daughter Cordelia, and he even uses good evidence and rationality. But, Lear will have none of it. It is only after he has lost everything that he thought was dear to him, including his other daughters, that he realizes that he was wrong. He could only get there by suffering. So, in that way, the whole play is a trial.”

“In that way, life is a trial. Life is a trial.” As he said it, Gerry seemed to simultaneously accept it. “Maybe that is what old age is about, coming to terms with the trial and sifting out the results of all those years of suffering. And, coming out the other side if we’re lucky.”

“What exactly would coming out the other side look like?” Ginger’s question was blunt, but her tone was soft and truly curious.

Gerry took a long and wheezing breath. “For Lear, it seemed to mean a willingness to let go of all the things that meant so much to him in the beginning. In the end, he is more than willing to sit in a jail cell with Cordelia. Do you remember that part? It really is touching if you read it the right way.” Gerry thumbed through his text and then read:

…Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou doest ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out –
And take upon’s the mystery of things.
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon. (V:iii)

“At the end, he’s willing to talk about and consider what goes on in the world, but does not want to be a part of it. He wants to be one of God’s spies, just looking around and making observations without being part of the trial any longer. Maybe that is how people in old age homes or assisted living centers feel. He would rather be in a cage than have to “ebb and flow” with the moon. Of course, he doesn’t want to be alone. He wants Cordelia with him, which is a luxury most old people do not have.”

Mertha pounced on this. “What is it about fathers and daughters? We have Oedipus being led around by this daughter until he dies, we have Lear wanting to sing in a nest with Cordelia, we have Emily Dickinson living in the family homestead her whole life and taking care of her family.” (Ginger started to object, but Mertha just waved her off. They had discussed Antigone earlier in the week, so it was fair game. Dickinson, however, was not.) “What is this subjugation of the young in favor of the old? Does anyone think that Cordelia should have spent the rest of her life in a cell taking care of Lear, or that Antigone should have given up her whole life to Oedipus if he hadn’t been transfigured by the gods?”

“Don’t forget,” Ann cautioned, “that these were the days before nursing homes. Someone had to take care of the old people; young people are doing it even now, the only difference is that it is young people who are not related to the people they are taking care of. I am not sure that is an improvement either for the young person or the old person. Like a lot of other things in our society, the whole thing has turned into a monetary or wage transaction. It’s good in that it has the power of a contract behind it – Lear thought he was buying the services of the young for his old age when he gave each of his daughters and their husbands half of the kingdom, but he was wrong. He had no way of enforcing their half of the contract. But, even if Goneril and Regan had not been quite so evil, they would only have taken care of Lear grudgingly.”

Mertha didn’t give anyone else a chance to respond. “ Don’t take this the wrong way, but it sounds to me like you approve of going back to the old days when women did all the drudge work and spent their lives taking care of husbands and parents and children with no pay and no time to pursue their own interests. No time for anything. My grandma was like that. She just finished raising her kids when she had to take care of her parents, and then one of her sons came home all shot up from Viet Nam and she’s still taking care of him.”

Ann smiled and shook her white curls. “I want to go back to the part of the old days where we don’t call taking care of people we love ‘drudge work.’ Obviously, I don’t think anybody should be forced to do such things against their will, but I would guess that your grandma has had a hard but very satisfying life. Is she a happy person, is she content? Do you like to be around her?”

“She’s happy by nature,” said Mertha cautiously. “She believes it would be a sin to be any other way. But, she has a musical gift – you should hear her sing or play this old mandolin she has – and she could have done something with it. And, the people she takes care of don’t appreciate it. My uncle is a handful, and my mother doesn’t half appreciate her mother.”

Claire responded quietly.  “Ah, it is a delicate balance. Helping people is not easy – many people cannot bear to be helped. And, everyone has to suffer to a certain degree or they will have no character at all. But, I agree with Ann. Your grandmother might be such a special person because she has done what she has done. You can’t underestimate the value to her of her time with her parents and children – besides, remember, grandchildren and grandparents are the natural enemies of parents.”

“In Lear, it is not just the girls who help the old men, anyway.” Cecil banged on the text as if his counterexamples would fly out onto the table upon his command. “Edgar goes into disguise in order to help poor Gloucester after he has been blinded and sent out into the storm – even though, like Lear and Cordelia, Gloucester displayed little faith in Edgar’s attachment when Edmund, the bastard brother, stared spreading nasty rumors about him. The good people in this play – Cordelia, Kent, Edgar – are all loyal and loving no matter what happens.”

Patty wrung her hands in front of her. “Is there any worse scene in all literature than when they tie Gloucester to a chair and blind him – and then kill off the servant who tries to stop them? I have read it many times, and it is almost unbearable. It stops me cold. I always put down the book there and pick it up later when I feel stronger.”

Gloria responded. “It’s extreme, that’s for sure. But, are we doing anything very different to old people when we take choices away from them – discouraging them from keeping a driver’s license for example? Also, some of the surgical procedures we put old people through are not much better. Have you ever been with an old person as he or she has to watch the children sell off the family homestead and get rid of the accumulation of a lifetime so the oldster can go into a nursing home? It’s sheer torture for the old person. Sometimes the kids understand that, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they push and push until they get their way, and then bring in a dumpster to clear out the house. They might not send the old person out into a thunderstorm blind, but they leave them with almost no protection in a nursing home. Ask someone who works in one of those places – many of those folks don’t get visitors for months at a time.”

There was silence around the table. With the exception of Mertha, all of the participants were old enough to have experienced some of these actions or thoughts in relation to elderly parents. Others, like Gloria herself, were old enough to have been on the receiving end of such thoughts and treatment.

“I want to go back to something else that Gerry said.” Mertha had apparently had enough of the silence. She gave no evidence that she was rethinking her original position. “Gerry inferred that life was a trial, and that the nature of life was suffering. Do we all feel that way? That’s pretty negative.”

Claire tapped her pencil on the table.  “We’re back to talking about what life is and how it’s going to end. Remember, in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own where she says that life for both men and women is ‘arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle?’ She says it calls for ‘gigantic courage and strength.’ I remember reading that over and over again, and being so happy that someone had finally actually said it. Of course, I was older than you are when I read it with such relief – probably I had read the same thing when I was younger and just chalked it up to an old person talking – and besides it was an old person who was depressed and eventually committed suicide. But, when I was older and I realized that the struggle was never going to end – not in this lifetime anyway – it was just such a relief to have someone acknowledge it. It was not just me – it is the way that life is.” Claire felt great sympathy for Mertha, who was probably feeling surrounded by pessimists at this point. Mertha was not that far away from Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and perhaps it was not fair to try to ground her in reality before she was ready.

Claire continued to talk and tap her pencil.  “And, old age is part of it. We’ve said this a few times, but – so far – old age and death are inevitable parts of life. Christianity and Nirvana aside, there are not happy endings that we can count on. There is nothing we can count on except that it will be over some day – there is some comfort in that.”

“First of all, Woolf is not on the reading list.” Ann looked toward the ceiling where perhaps the rules were written. Claire waved a weak hand of apology. “And there might be something else we can count on,” continued Ann. “Love. Shakespeare seems to think that we can count on love. And, giving it is just as good as getting it.”

“Ah,” croaked Gloria, “but you cannot count on that. All you can count on is that – if you have it – it will help the other things.”

Ann stuck up for her platitude. “I disagree. Love is always in your control. You may not be able to command it – that was Lear’s mistake – but you can give it. You can always give it.”

“What if you give love to Regan and Goneril? Look what happens when Gloucester gives it to Edmund.”

“Lear gives Regan and Goneril land and trust. Gloucester gives Edmund a willing ear. That is not love.”

The group was late getting out and Claire went back to the room to call her mother before lunch, since she was going out to the lake for the afternoon and did not know when she would have another chance. She always tried to imagine what was going on in the apartment when she called; the television always squeaked in the background, and she could picture it flickering in front of the arrangement of recliners and couches among which the two of them reposed and rotated themselves during their days and evenings. The cat would be sitting on the top of the television console; it was warm there and he could watch for the remnants of food that periodically littered the coffee tables in front of the two old folks. The place would be a mess, unless she happened to catch them in the midst of one of their sporadic cleaning sprees. Her mother always answered the phone, and always seemed breathless, as if she was in the middle of something important. If there was something captivating on the television, she was also distracted. All was well, she said, and then went on to describe doctor’s visits, bad nights, and the possibility of yet another operation on Peter’s eyes. Fine to be Lear roaring in the desert, thought Claire, if you did not have diabetes or heart disease or an abscess that wouldn’t heal. Fine to be blind Gloucester or Oedipus, if you had devoted children to lead you through the wilderness and if the gods cared enough to send the oracles information on your future. She lived in dread of losing her mother before her father; not only could she not bear to be Antigone, but Peter’s version of Antigone would spend her life cooking, cleaning, changing channels, and reassuring Peter about how wonderful he was. It was not possible, and Claire doubted whether it would be healthy for anyone. But, the present situation did not feel right either.  The usual conversation ensued and was just as unsatisfying as usual, except that a little guilt was assuaged.

When Claire finished filling up her tray with salad, bread, and fruit in the dining commons, she was left with the problem of where to sit. When Larry was with her, it did not seem so much of a problem, but alone she always felt propelled back to her high school cafeteria where often the biggest problem of the day seemed to be having someone to sit with at lunch. How we waste our youth! How we let our youth spoil the rest of our life! The problem was solved when Gloria waved her over to a table, where she was just finishing her own lunch, but seem content to keep Claire company for a while. They discussed the food, the weather, their group, the dormitory accommodations, all before they finally got to the readings.

“What do you think Lear tells us about old age?” Claire asked, since that question had been in her mind ever since she had gotten off the phone with her mother, and Gloria – being one of the very oldest in a fairly old bunch – seemed a good person to ask.

“Do you mean, as an old person, is he portrayed correctly? We’re not all alike you know.” Gloria laughed. “He’s not like me – male, a king, daughters instead of sons – but I think he is true to a type that I have known and in many ways he does ring true. There is a type of person who has been obsessed with control all their life. They’ve probably even managed to be in control much of the time if they are smart and energetic, and they think that as they lose their powers and die, they can still somehow remain in control. I have friends who try to do it through their wills, trying to control their children by how they distribute their legacies or how they tie them up and limit what the children can do with them. Or leave the money to charity to teach the children one last lesson. There are people at my assisted living center who are still trying to run things, which is really a shame because one of the joys of a place like that is that you don’t have to run anything. You are responsible for nothing – no shopping, no cars, no repairs – it gives you time to think. Lear wants to run things, always has – and at the beginning of the play he wants to run things and yet also retire. He wants to give away and still control. He wants to be loved on his terms. You can’t do that. He is headed for a fall from the very first moment. But, he has a lot of company.”

“But, it wouldn’t have happened – at least not so tragically – if Cordelia had gone along with what he wanted. If she had said what he wanted to hear. He still would have had trouble with Goneril and Regan, but Cordelia would have had her third of the kingdom, she would have taken in Lear, and it would have been better than it was. You can probably tell what is on my mind; I have elderly parents and it is hard to know how much to bend to what they think they want or need. When to argue with them and when to just tell them what they want to hear. Not that they pay any attention anyway.”

Gloria shrugged her shoulders and attacked her pizza with what looked like very solid teeth for a very old lady.