The Mist on the Mirror: Learning to Lament from Lear

It was a small but emblematic drama of The Way We Live Now. One that played itself out on a Web-based discussion list for Shakespeare scholars. It was the kind of dilemma that I suspect many other people in many other niches are going through in their lives, in one way or another: a conflict over how totalizing, how transformative of what was once “ordinary life” the tragedy (and the response) should be. Can one-should one-separate out, shelter, any aspect of life from being overwhelmed and subsumed in the Overwhelming Subject?

It’s something I’ve thought about in another context, having devoted some dozen years of my life to writing a book about Hitler and Holocaust scholars: how to reconcile the awareness-even at a distance-of unbearable horror to ordinary life. (That’s one reason I haven’t even tried to get tickets to The Producers . I still resist the idea that-as many who loved the show have said-laughter is some kind of “victory” over Hitler.)

It’s a different calculus of distance and magnitude with Sept. 11, but still something of the same kind of question inheres: To what extent does all of life become About the Thing That Happened?

In any case, it was illuminating to see the way this conflict acted itself out as it flared up on the cyber-stage of the Shakespeare scholars’ discussion list. The focus of the drama was the list’s much-admired editor, a tireless and good-natured scholar who is chargedwiththeseldom-exercised power to rule in or rule out certain threads of discussion.

Several years ago, for instance, the list editor ruled out the notorious “authorship question” because the Oxfordians-those who choose to devote their lives less to the substance and resonance of what Shakespeare wrote, than to the shadow question of whether he was “someone else”-didn’t want to talk about anything but their Cause.

And then recently, the list editor had to rule on the controversy over the porn-centered posts of an irrepressible professor who specializes in tracing pop-culture-and, in particular,porn-culture-references to Shakespeare (e.g., a porn film entitled Julius Eats ‘er ).

After some complaints about the professor (who proudly features photos of his half-clad wife-and fellow scholar-on his Web site), the discussion-list editor decided not to banish porn-related posts, because porn is a part of popular culture and Shakespearean influence on popular culture is a legitimate subject of study.

All that was before Sept. 11.

The controversy began the day after, when two conflicting kinds of posts appeared on the list: one from a Canadian scholar simply expressing deep sympathy to her American colleagues, and another from a scholar in the U.K. who felt impelled to lecture his American colleagues in a condescending way about what was, and was not, a proper military response to the attack. The condescension was embodied in a sneering allusion to Shakespeare he’d chosen to express his concern. It’s a line from Henry IV, Part II , in which the cagey monarch Bolingbroke advises his wayward heir apparent Hal on what to do to secure his reign when he assumes the crown: “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”

Beware! the U.K. scholar warned us, George W. Bush was about to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” It was certainly thoughtful of him to explain to us giddy colonials that what we were feeling was not grief and anger, but rather the kind of hysterical giddiness that would blind us to the cynical designs of our leaders. Clearly this was a fellow who’d learned a lot about tragedy from his study of Shakespeare.

At this point, the editor of the list stepped in and stopped the discussion. One suspects that the editor realized that, once he’d opened the flood gates, arguments about military tactics and “why they hate us” would crowd out Shakespeare. He made a touching plea to “preserve peace in this small corner of the world’s stage.”

But his decision doesn’t call into question the idea of looking to Shakespeare to learn more about how to think of history and tragedy. I mean, if someone regarded as the greatest poet in the language can’t help us express and deepen our thoughts-and conflicts-about these things, one has to question if he is the greatest poet in the language.

My own path into these questions began in the aftermath of the attack, when I started watching all of Shakespeare’s history plays in sequence in DVD versions of the excellent BBC series produced in the 80’s. Wondering once again whether Shakespeare’s apparent historical relativism amounts to an argument that you can’t always know the truth or the right side in a dispute over history. Or if it’s an argument that there is no such thing as truth. The first is irony; the second, nihilism. I believe Shakespeare’s relativism is ironic. You might call it relative relativism as opposed to absolute relativism; agnostic rather than atheist.

But I found myself drawn even more to Lear , because Lear has something to say about lamentation, about trying to bear the unbearable. I was drawn to Lear as well because of conversations I had with two thoughtful Shakespeare scholars. The first was Tom Pendleton, the co-editor of the Shakespeare Newsletter and a multifaceted Shakespeare scholar in his own right. His newsletter was about to go to press on Sept. 11, but he wanted to insert some appropriate Shakespearean allusion to the tragedy into it-although when we met for lunch at the Oyster Bar, Professor Pendleton had not yet settled on a selection.*

I made a suggestion, a line from Lear . The one that had leapt to mind in the first few days after the attack-especially while watching the slow-motion shots of the second plane’s sinister glide into the second tower-was the evocative, apocalyptic exchange at the close of the play, the two lines of dialogue that go:

Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?

It’s an exchange between the two witnesses to an emblematic moment of horror in Lear : After all the shattering tribulations, just as it seems the forces of decency have won the field and the death sentence for Cordelia, Lear’s saintly redemptive daughter, has been revoked, Lear appears bearing her lifeless body. The reprieve had come too late: Cordelia has already died on the gallows, and Lear enters literally howling with grief. One of the most thoughtful and judicious Shakespeare scholars Stephen Booth calls it “the most terrifying five minutes in literature.” (Seventeenth- and 18th-century editors and adapters found this moment so unbearable that they tacked on a happy ending wherein Cordelia lives and marries good guy Edgar.)

The awe-fullness of the moment is deepened when an utterly undone Lear cries out in desperation and delusion for a looking glass. Not to see himself-too late for that-but to place it under Cordelia’s lips in hopes of capturing a telltale sign of life: the mist on the mirror that might be formed by her breath, if life and hope were left.

It is this very moment-the efflorescence of this sad, false hope-that leads the two witnesses to introduce the language of the Apocalypse:

Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?

Lear is set in pre-Christian times, but most scholars see “the promised end” as a deliberately anachronistic reference to the End of Days, as promised in the New Testament.

Professor Pendleton gently suggested that my selection might be striking a bit too pessimistic a note.

My own problem with the “promised end” line is not so much that it’s too pessimistic, but rather that it’s too optimistic ; it places a current horror into an apocalyptic, redemptive, salvific narrative: The end of the world must come so God’s justice can be executed and the Kingdom of the Elect established. Thus, tragedy-personal or public-can be accepted as “part of God’s plan,” one more step to salvation. All those TV preachers of every faith trying to console people by saying “It’s all in God’s hands,” “It’s all part of God’s plan,” “God’s still in charge,” aren’t saying anything different in kind (only degree) from Jerry Falwell’s statement, that God in effect willed the attack. All these commentators are assuming what’s called a “providential” theory of history: that history is ultimately for the Good, however harsh it seems to those whose lives are shattered by it.

The big question in Lear -anyway, the one I find myself turning to in conversations with Shakespeare scholars (I’ve been working on a book about Shakespeare studies for several years now)-is the question of redemption. Is there redemptiveness to be found, or does the play deliberately set out to raise and then crush the hope for redemption? Is redemption merely the illusory mist on the mirror? Should Lear be seen, as it has been fashionable for the last half century, as having a close kinship to the Beckett of Endgame-Lear as the Ground Zero of Shakespearean tragedy?

Others find elements of redemptiveness. But what kind of redemptiveness might there be in tragedy which prompts one character to cry out that man is to the gods “like flies to wanton boys … They kill us for their sport”? This is more than “God is dead”; this is “The gods are evil .”

The cruel and facile redemptiveness of the apocalyptic framework-and of those who believe that Lear is somehow an affirmation that all suffering is “part of God’s plan”-is one I don’t find helpful, or hopeful. It recalls to me the way some post-Holocaust theologians have tried to say the Holocaust itself was “part of God’s plan.”

It’s something I can’t accept, unless one conceives of the God of this world, the God of “God’s plan,” as some (not all) Gnostic sects did: the ones who believed that the Creation was the work not of God, but of some lesser deity or even demon whose malign creation-our world-is actually hell.

But there are some things to learn from Lear , even if it’s not that kind of redemption. One, I think, has to do with lamentation as the necessary preliminary to any true sense of redemption. Lamentation: It’s an old-fashioned, Bible-class-type word, something people in the Old Testament did in sackcloth and ashes. The grief-counseling industry-influenced by the bogus “science” of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ “five stages” of dying and grief-aims to speed us through the early stages of dealing with tragedy, moving us rapidly on from tears and lamentation, to words and “narrative,” and then to the all-important “closure.”

But Lear isn’t big on closure of any kind; Lear is big on lamentation of all kinds. One of the main things people do in Lear -and spectacularly well-is lament: Lear laments his daughter’s ingratitude, Gloucester laments his eyes being gouged out after he sticks up for Lear; Lear laments his own ingratitude to Cordelia; and then, finally, Lear laments her death. But this last lament goes beyond the others, soars into a realm of pain beyond words, to a Howl. As Lear comes onstage bearing the weight of her body, he cries out:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stone. Had I your tongues and eyes I would use them so That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever! I know when one is dead and when one lives. She’s dead as earth.

I had a phone conversation about Lear with Grace Tiffany, a scholar who specializes in religious questions in Shakespeare, and who teaches at Western Michigan University (she also writes witty reviews of scholarly articles for the Shakespeare Newsletter , gently deflating the pretensions of the jargonistas).

I said something about lamentation not just being a stage to get beyond , and she suggested that the play’s redemptiveness is not in who wins, who suffers in the end, but, rather, in how those who suffer bear their suffering. And in the small acts of kindness often made by minor characters in Lear , such as the servant who ministers to Gloucester’s bloody eye sockets with soothing egg whites. (I thought of the volunteers who’d lined up for hours in order to be able to hand out eyewash to the rescue workers at Ground Zero.)

Professor Tiffany spoke as well of the cryptic final quatrain of King Lear . It’s a kind of coda to the tragedy, one delivered by Albany (the highest civil authority) in the 1608 Quarto of Lear and by Edgar (the highest moral authority) in the 1623 Folio text version. It’s the one that begins, in both versions:

The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

She recalled something Rudy Giuliani said in the immediate aftermath of the attack that reminded her of those lines. It was the remark, she believes, that defined what made Giuliani’s response so pitch-perfect and deeply resonant.

“It’s that line he uttered when he was asked repeatedly if he knew how many might be dead under the rubble. Whatever the number, he said, ‘it will be more than any of us can bear.'”

That frank statement of the weight, the frankly unbearable “weight of this sad time,” she believes was key: not trying to diminish it, not trying to find anything redemptive about the moment. Most telling to her is Giuliani’s implicit suggestion that it’s a weight that no one individual can bear alone, one that has to be borne together.

Then she pointed to the second line in that penultimate couplet:

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Perhaps this is part of lamenting: bearing the weight and speaking from the heart. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say : Speech as lamentation, but argumentation as well. It may not be about redemption, but it might be about catharsis.

The Mist on the Mirror: Learning to Lament from Lear