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Old Men & Young Ideas: King Lear & The Tempest

Old Men and Young Ideas: King Lear and The Tempest
by George Soule

(A revised version of a talk given at Shimer College, Waukegan, Illinois, on April 21, 1995)

When I was asked to make this talk, I asked if I could speak on Hamlet. I was told that of course everyone would like to speak on Hamlet. Shimer students, however, were studying King Lear this term--though a few were reading The Tempest. So King Lear (and a bit of The Tempest) it will be. But I warn you, no matter how hard I try, I may not be able to keep a bit of Hamlet out.

First, I will indulge in some literary analysis in order to elaborate two propositions.

To emphasize the importance of analyzing literary texts may seem simple-minded to some. But I know that many people would rather debate moral propositions (like "is it a good thing to divide a kingdom?") rather than look closely at all the ingredients in a literary text and how they affect you. I'd guess they feel this way because they think that if you begin to analyze how Shakespeare produces your gut reactions, you will kill the works of art--that analysis leaves the parts of a play or a poem scattered dead on the floor. To answer them, let me tell you a story.

Many years ago at college I took a biology course. The course's climax was cutting up a frog--a big ashen-gray frog--bit by bit, organ by organ, bone by bone, muscle by muscle, tendon by tendon--down to the large intestine--and I even cut that. The result: don’t ask.

I cut up the frog in the spring. That summer I wanted to escape from my home town of Fargo, North Dakota, and get to the big time. To me, that was New York City. I deviously asked my father to send me to summer school at Columbia--which he did. What I liked most about New York was its restaurants, for they were lots more exotic than those in Fargo. One I liked most was a French restaurant on West 56th Street, and there what should I find on the menu but frogs’ legs! (Frogs’ legs are wonderful--like chicken, cooked with white wine, butter, garlic, parsley.) How would I react, I wondered, if I tried to eat with pleasure something that I had dissected and labeled in the best scientific fashion? How could I reconcile two such different human activities? Well, I ordered the frog's legs and ate them. They were delicious. And I could name each tendon and each muscle as I ate it. I proved to myself that conscious analysis and enjoyment can co-exist. Post-modernism was born in 1949 on West 56th Street.

I would argue that when we analyze art, analysis and pleasure do more than co-exist. Our analysis can heighten our enjoyment because it makes us realize the full nature of what we are experiencing--in the case of this talk, King Lear and some other things.

Now to the two propositions I mentioned earlier, propositions which can benefit from analysis. First: there are such things as old ideas and young ideas. Secondly, Shakespeare may confuse us because he tells stories that on one hand seem to be accounts of something that once really happened somewhere, but on the other hand may be unrealistic but at the same time bristle with universal significance. He presents us with things that make one kind of sense when viewed one way, and another kind of sense when viewed differently.

In my title I talk about "young ideas" and by implication "old ideas." By an "old idea" I don't mean something like the divine right of kings. I mean that, as there are some ideas about life that are usually held and understood by children, so there are ideas that are best understood by the old. One example: death. I was 40 years old before I really knew I would die; I have heard something about that age cited by many other people. In my brief treatment of The Tempest tonight, I'd like to use Prospero the magician as an example as an old man with some old ideas. For example, when the end of the play approaches, he tells us he'll give up his powers and break his staff, he is obviously an old man near the end of his life. Even though he will return to rule in Milan, "every third thought shall be [of his] grave." Old ideas, clearly; old ideas in my sense of the word.

On the other hand, one of Prospero's other most memorable speeches strikes a chord with persons of any age. It communicates young ideas. When Prospero is in the middle of producing a wedding pageant of festive singing and dancing, he is interrupted by pressing and very unfestive business. He must stop the pageant, and he is sad. The dancers and singers, which had seemed so real, leave. He explains to Miranda and Ferdinand that Our revels now are ended. These our actors / . . . were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air.”

Prospero goes on to explain to the young people that what they saw were the illusions of art: the "cloud-capp'd towers" and "gorgeous palaces" were only parts of an "insubstantial pageant." All of us--young people like Miranda and Ferdinand, even children--experience the pain of transition from story-book worlds, worlds of illusion, into less pleasant realities. This is what the lines mean as the action of the play unfolds. Prospero's ideas here are not just those of an old man.

But let me return to the speech again. See if it doesn't also sound like an old man characteristically meditating on the insubstantiality of all things and upon the brevity of life?

Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

If in one way the speech gives us the young idea that illusion must give way to the real world of everyday life, in another way it suggests an old man's idea that the real world of towers, palaces, and temples is, to an old man, insubstantial as well. "We [who} are such stuff / As dreams are made on" can be actors, or ourselves. If in one way, Prospero here is old man with a young idea, he is also once more an old man with an old idea.

Now to King Lear. (I'll refer to the play as King Lear and the character as just Lear.) Despite what I'm told was the thesis of a recent speaker here at Shimer, I'm going to treat King Lear as a play that is concerned, not with national politics, but with the sufferings and joys of a individual souls. I know there is war just off-stage (you hear the noises of battle), and armies march across. But in my opinion, the function of this warlike activity is chiefly to lend seriousness and magnitude to the play's personal stories. Lear is not the only individual to suffer, but individual suffering is the point.

I'd like to analyze several aspects of the play King Lear that bear upon our response to the personal stories we see unfold on stage. And, if we attend a good performance or if we have produced a good production in the theaters of our own minds, our response should be simultaneously intellectual, analytical, and emotional (rather like mine eating frog legs).

First I'd like to speculate on and analyze what we respond to in reading or seeing King Lear. Are we moved by what happened to an old man four thousand miles way from Waukegan two thousand years ago? It was after all 400 years ago when Shakespeare wrote King Lear, and he stole the parts of his story from all sorts of legends and folk tales, many of which had Lear reigning over part of Britain in pagan times just before the birth of Christ. No. I don't think a simple story of one life from the "dark backward and abysm of time" would move us very much.

Do we instead respond to Lear as a senile, weak, befuddled old man? Such old persons are indeed pitiful, and we pity them in our everyday lives, and Lear has been played that way. But that, I think, is a mistake. Such a Lear has limited relevance; we could pity him, but not many of us, especially the younger members of this audience, could identify with his concerns.

Do we pity Lear because he goes mad? For Lear is presented to us as mad. Not mad nor/norwest (sorry--Hamlet!), but crazy. Here is time for some analysis, for Shakespeare is very artful in convincing us that Lear goes mad. As he always does, he does it slyly, making Lear behave and talk in ways that in some circumstances would be normal. His speeches are like Prospero's--they may be taken two ways at the same time.

Let's look at the stages of Lear's madness. At first, Lear is simply enraged. The play's first crucial exchange in 1.1 is between Lear and Cordelia. Unlike her sisters, Cordelia will not say she loves her father to the exclusion of a husband. Lear does not even try to understand. His response is rage and dismissal: "Here I disclaim all my paternal care," he shouts, and proclaims that she will forever be "a stranger to my heart and me." Rage and rash actions, yes--but madness? Not yet.

Lear's rage continues against Goneril, at first it is expressed by heavy-handed irony, then histrionics, then a curse ("Into her womb convey sterility!"). By Act Two, Lear's rage is accompanied by tears and by the sensation of feeling these tears and something more rising from somewhere inside his body toward this throat ("down, thou climbing sorrow"!). Pitiful, with physical symptoms of mental distress, but not quite mad.

Shakespeare dramatizes Lear's real madness by showing us a carefully calibrated process of Lear's mind separating itself from reality. At first, a thought process runs on in Lear's mind as he attends to trivial matters. As he and the fool prepare to leave Goneril's household in 1.5, he reflects on Cordelia ("I did her wrong") while at the same time he plays straight man to the fool's top banana, and even guesses the punch line of one lame riddle. "So kind a father!" he laments, but his next words are practical: "Be my horses ready." Madness? Not at all. But Shakespeare's audience is aware that Lear's mind can be divided.

It is in Act Three's storm scenes where we see real madness. On the literal story level, Lear's ranting may simply be rhetoric, for he personifies the weather and utters what could be termed a rhetorical command: "Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! rage, blow!" But the play takes us past the literal, when the accompanying thunder becomes to Lear, not just thunder, but the agent of a just god: "And thou, all-shaking thunder, Strike flat the thick rotundity of the world . . . that makes ingrateful man!" By this time, we realize that the speeches are not just bombast. Lear really does believe that a vengeful god working though the thunder will destroy the seeds of the world.

In his next storm scene, Lear is conscious that thinking about his problems could lead him from sanity: "O, that way madness lies, let me shun that!" When Edgar arrives, uttering disjointed nonsense and dressed in tatters, Lear may seem simply ironic when he asks "Dids't thou give all to thy daughters?" But it is soon clear that Lear can now imagine no other ills than his own, and he strips off his own clothes so that he can resemble Edgar the madman. Even so, his identifying Edgar as a symbol of the human condition ("bare, fork'd animal") is not mad, nor is his decision to stage a mock trial of his daughters in his next scene. There Lear seems to have resumed a kind of sanity. He appoints Edgar and the fool judges; he glares at the imaginary Goneril; the fool and Edgar make some rather funny jokes. Lear also points at an imaginary Regan ("here's another"). So far, so good.

But then Lear screams "Stop her there!" Regan is escaping! "Arms, arms, sword, fire!" He turns on Edgar: "False justicer, why hast thou let her scape?" It has been a mock trial to us, but to Lear it has been real. He is seeing people--Regan--who are not there. Lear is mad.

The other characters recognize what we realize. For the first time, Edgar drops his disguise: "Bless thy five wits," he says to Lear. Kent is moved. Lear then collapses into a different, this time pitiable, fantasy: "The little dogs and all, Trey, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me." He sees dogs that are not there.

We don't see him again until 4.4., when he enters mid-scene, adorned the way Elizabethan madmen were supposed to be adorned, with a crown of weeds. [Some editions supply him with flowers too, but flowers are not appropriate.] Here Shakespeare dramatizes Lear's mind at its farthest reach from sanity. He sees some things that are really in front of him--Gloucester, for example. But in the main his mind is not only as separated from reality as before, but now it is not even coherent in its fantasy. One moment he is a king in an army camp instructing his archers; the next moment he is tempting a mouse with a piece of cheese.

Such a portrait is pitiable in itself. But for analysis to account for the power King Lear has on its audience, we must recognize one more thing. Lear's madness differs from much madness in real life in that his madness is significant. What first enraged him was real: his treatment by Goneril and Regan. Lear is driven mad. I won't go though all the references, but a lot of what Lear and the fool talk about is real ingratitude, and a lot of what we see on stage dramatizes just that. Picture the end of Act 2 when Lear ignominiously shuttles back and forth between his daughters as they cut down the number of his retainers--emblems of his kingly dignity--until Regan hisses "What need one?"

To return to my title: Lear is an old man, and I grant that you have to be somewhat old to have children old enough to display ingratitude. But would you say he's just an old man with an old idea--an idea appropriate only to an old man? I wouldn't. The pangs caused by the ingratitude of someone one loves--that's something that can be felt by anybody. Shakespeare has used the story of an old man to dramatize this more general kind of suffering.

And Lear has other ideas that are not just those of an old man. Lear gradually learns what most people learn early in life: that he is not the center of a benevolent universe. He feels forced to conclude that all those bonds he once believed held families and society together--these bonds are false. On the heath he decides that the proper emblem for a human being is, not the king and beloved father, but the madman, the poor, bare, forked animal. Lear may be mad on the heath, but he is also heroic in daring to go beyond the somewhat dignified notions of human destiny to what has been called a grotesque vision of mankind, not only as doomed, but ridiculous and corrupt. Later on when he pardons all criminals ("None does offend, none, I say none"), he is not being beautifully compassionate, but harshly ironic. None offends because everything is equally offensive. This is a conclusion that many persons who are not old kings--or just old--come to from time to time. It is a young idea, for it occurs to many young people I know. Everyone who has had his or her world fall apart, when, as the Jefferson Airplane tells us, the "truth is found to be lies / and all the joy within you dies," knows what Lear is experiencing. An old character dramatizes young ideas.

It would not be gracious for me as your guest, nor true to King Lear, to leave matters there. In the play, you know that Lear is saved. Love returns in the person of Lear's good daughter Cordelia. There is love in this world. The Rolling Stones can be quoted here:"You don't always get what you want, / but sometimes you get what you need." Of course, Cordelia and then Lear die very soon, but love has returned--at least briefly. I'd like to think that again is an idea all of us--old and young--can respond to.

Dr. Samuel Johnson found the reunion of Lear and Cordelia in 4.7 to be so emotionally affecting that he could not re-read it. Just a bit more analysis will show us that Shakespeare does not move us so greatly by simply bringing Cordelia back on stage. Let's imagine what a production must look like and even sound like. Earlier on the heath, when Lear's speeches told us that he has discovered that human beings are bare forked animals, we could see that Lear was surrounded on stage by people who love him (Kent, Edgar, Glocester, the fool)--men who, even when disguised, are loyal to him and looking after him. We may not have heard about love, but we saw it. Similarly in 4.7, Shakespeare underscores the speeches of Lear and Cordelia by employing a rich vocabulary of dramatic devices. As before, the loyal Kent looks on. Lear has awakened from sleep--always a restorative in Shakespeare. He is attended by a doctor, and Cordelia's kiss is medicine for his ills. Lear and Cordelia exchange their speeches of love against a background of music. The king is arrayed in fresh garments to suggest his fresh heart and his dignity.

Before I take up one last topic, let me summarize: I have tried to describe how Shakespeare the dramatist often communicates several, perhaps even apparently inconsistent ideas, at the same time. And, to return to my title, I have argued that Prospero is an old man who, although he has some young ideas, mainly expresses ideas appropriate to older people. On the other hand, although Lear is portrayed as an old man, much of what he goes though when his world falls apart--and then comes back together--resonates with the experience of younger persons.

Now, quickly, Hamlet. (I said I'd work him in.) Hamlet is certainly a young man. He is a student home on an extended break. At Wittenberg he certainly studied some great books. He is in love. He is so full of young love that he has written sappy poems to Ophelia. But what he finds out about his mother and his uncle tears his world apart in a very youngish way: he is horrified that violence lies at the center of adult power; he is horrified at his mother's sexuality--and by extension all sexuality, including his own. His initiation into the ways of the world and the ways of sex is painful indeed--a young man with young and painful ideas.

But that's not all. At the beginning, he thinks to escape by suicide--and he envisions the dissolution of the body in death in rather romantic and gentle way: his "too solid flesh" might "melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" Soon, however, his vision of death changes; the ghost his father describes how poison covered his "smooth body" with a "vile and loathsome crust." From that time on, Hamlet's imagination is filled, not only with the horrors appropriate to a young man (though not really with ideas of suicide any more), but also with visions of death and what happens after death. He wittily describes the dead Polonius as being host to a "convocation of politic worms" and lugs that tedious old fool's body across the stage. The graveyard scene needs its humor to enable us to bear its grisly visions. Hamlet stares at a Yorick's skull and considers that Alexander's dust now stops a bunghole.

If it is sometime in middle-age that one's acute consciousness of death usually begins, we may have a clue to the enormous power of the character of Hamlet. Most people face the problems of youth when they are young and the problems of middle-age when they are middle-aged. The character of Hamlet, the dramatic construction of character which we call Hamlet, may not be realistic, but it is extremely potent: In his three hours on stage, Hamlet faces the horrors of youth and age almost simultaneously. Although Lear is shown to us as an old man, many of his problems are essentially ones faced by the young. Hamlet, on the other hand is presented as a young man, but he is actually a powerfully resonant dramatic creation: a man tortured by very young and very old ideas. Here we have the reason why Hamlet seems so young, perhaps eighteen years old, in the beginning of the play, but then is said to be thirty years old in Act 5. He is not a real person, but a dramatic creation who embodies the visions of youth and of adulthood in the same actor’s body.

To draw a moral from these idesa, I'd like to cite Prospero again, a character I have fitted into my scheme as an nice old man with some old ideas. But remember he is not just an old man; he is an artist, a magician. The occasions he created for Ferdinand and Miranda may have been illusions, but they had real effects that continued on even after the occasions were over: Fedinand and Miranda fell in love. Whatever your age, you are like Prospero because you too can create imaginative, or loving, or intellectual worlds for yourselves and for others.