It is a dark tale. Some would reason, the darkest tale in all of literature. William Shakespeare’s King Lear tells a story of such brokenness, such demise, and such butchery, that august writers and critics have struggled with how they are to approach it. In the early nineteenth century, essayist Charles Lamb shuddered that “to see Lear acted . . . has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting.” The celebrated British essayist Samuel Johnson admitted, “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play.” And famed Irish playwright Nahum Tate was so stricken by its horrors that he crafted an alternative happy ending that became the standard for nearly two centuries. King Lear is second in death and destruction only to Shakespeare’s bloodbath Titus Andronicus.
In spite of this, King Lear has a special place in my heart. Every month, I teach medical students and residents about what William Shakespeare can teach us about the practice of medicine, and I especially enjoy revisiting the darkness of King Lear. We talk about how Lear’s story is relevant to the care of our patients. We explore who he was and who he became, his self-defeating habits and tumultuous emotions, his brokenness, collapse, and ultimate loss of everything. He is every success story that has gone bad and every victim who has railed against “the injustice of it all.” Lear embodies the complexity of the human condition. At times, he is you and me. And it isn’t always pretty.
To be sure, King Lear is tragic.
But in answering the question of great thinkers and shocked viewers: Is it too tragic? Is there no grace in all of its consuming blackness?
Let us revisit this greatest of all tragedies. But let us start with the greatest of all scenes. It is a scene that scholars describe as the most dramatic and most difficult visual ever to be attempted on stage.
An enraged old man in a violent thunderstorm.
Let’s have a look.
There was Lear. With furrowed brow and windswept hair, he glared hatefully at the blackening sky. Spattering raindrops quickly turned to cutting sheets as, slit-eyed, he wrenched his neck skyward against their force. The wind unforgiving. The thunder deafening. The surrounding heath shuddering against the elements. And the former king’s finery now hung as drenched, heavy rags-turned-manacles on their gaunt wearer. Lear spat. Once master of all Britain, he now was uncertain whether he retained sovereignty over his own mind.
With fists clenched and teeth gritting, Lear howled,
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!
Estranged from his daughters, deprived of his friends, and bereft of his kingdom, Lear’s life had become alien to him. How had it come to this?
Insidiously, he reckoned.
Betrayal heaped upon betrayal, he scowled.
And it all started with a sorry spectacle at the play’s very beginning.
In the graying years of his long reign as king, Lear’s story begins with him simply wanting to benevolently surrender his crown to the daughters he loved. Or so he claimed. Ostensibly, the partitioning of his lands between his three daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia would allow, in his words, “that future strife may be prevented now.” Perhaps, in anticipating bitter wrangling that would ensue upon his death, Lear had a glimpse into the uncertain character of his own children. And yet, this did not temper him into waiting a bit longer and correcting his children. His abdicating act was not magnanimous; it was selfish. First, to claim their share of the kingdom, Lear dragged his grown children before his entire court only to preen as they proceeded (as expected of them) to fawn over him. Second, to tend to his kingdom without tending to the character of its future overseers was an act of administrative negligence and fatherly malpractice. To step down (or as Lear would say, to “shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths, while we unburthened crawl toward death”) without preparing his heirs or their subjects for the trials they may encounter was a reckless abdication of responsibility greater than his abdication of the crown. And finally, to banish the truth-telling Cordelia who refused to falsely flatter her father (remember Lear’s chilling “Nothing will come of nothing.” to Cordelia’s silence?), while rewarding (and ingratiating his future to) the dissembling, disingenuous Goneril and Regan, is a shameful upending of a kingdom’s legal and cultural foundation: the defense of right against wrong.
Nonetheless, as King Lear steps aside, Goneril and Regan (along with their husbands the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, respectively) gleefully lorded their enlarged powers over their disgraced sister. And before long, they begin their fearsome plot to first emasculate and, ultimately, eliminate their father while enlarging themselves. Meanwhile, the seemingly carefree Lear assumes something of the sophomore. He drinks too much. He levels impotent orders. He lazes around with his hundred knights. He is petulant when delayed and sullen when denied. When delicately chastened by the Fool and the Earl of Kent—the play’s two reasonable figures in logic and devotion—Lear rages (“Peace, Kent! Come not between the Dragon and his wrath”), or curves pathetically inward (“I am a man more sinned against than sinning”).
Lear’s descent is swift. As daughters peevishly shrink his retinue of knights and bicker over who is charged with living with him, Lear erupts in fury.
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags!
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep.
No, I’ll not weep.
As the menace of thunderclouds approach, Lear storms away to the wild, to an unprotected heath. Unmoved, Regan tuts,
To willful men
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters.
The storm we began with is the storm to which we now return. The tempest within Lear—of rage and pride, self-pity and self-aggrandizement—mirrors (if not dwarfs) the ravaging tempest without. It overwhelms and confuses. “What is the cause of thunder?” the half-naked, disheveled Lear demands in earnest not only about the noise of heaven, but the noise of his soul. Notwithstanding the untethered greed of and abuse by his daughters, Lear’s rage is blind. It lacks introspection. It blackens and consumes to no true end. Lear is no more, only wrath remains. Darkness falls and sleep overtakes his madness.
Upon awakening, Lear realizes that he has been rescued by his—once banished, now Queen of France—daughter, Cordelia. Before long, however, the pursuing armies of Goneril and Reagan would capture them both. They would face long imprisonment until Cordelia is precipitously executed and Lear, in his deepest abyss of despair, dies cradling his dead daughter in his arms.
And that’s how it ends.
Profoundly and undeniably tragic.
And so we must answer the question: What redeeming value does this story of abject loss have? How can we possibly be edified when every character (save Edgar and the Earl of Kent) dies or is murdered viciously?
But we might ask ourselves the same question about the story of our faith. A story of lives called, hardships suffered, and death certain. To a point, Christianity is a story of abject failure. Of Jobs and Judases, of Passions and prisons. If to unbelievers it is a fairy tale, then it is a very dark fairy tale. And yet we know that all of this suffering isn’t for naught. What seems a story of loss is in fact the most brilliant, if not stealthy, triumph. Enveloped in pain and suffering, the Christian narrative sneaks in tender mercies and unexpected miracles, loving acts and timeless wisdom. And it is all capped off with an unfathomable Resurrection. There is grace that ultimately and completely washes away the devastation of man. There is a faith that understands the larger story.
So it is with King Lear.
There is a sublime, oft-forgotten scene in the play that is unparalleled in literature. It occurs just as Lear awakens after the storm, emerges from his stupor of rage, and encounters his beloved daughter Cordelia for the first time in years. It is a scene of profound grace in the midst of encroaching tragedy.
Seated in a wheelchair, his torn clothes mended, his hair freed of detritus, he gazes at his rescuer—his youngest daughter, Cordelia. Bled of all hope, Lear laments,
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
To which, the weeping Cordelia—in two words—restores Lear.
No cause. No cause.
In these words and in this moment, from the heights of his splendid arrogance to the depths of his humiliating brokenness, Lear had finally landed on something that transcends his paltry desires and ravenous appetites, something ineffable, something true: the reconciliation with and the unconditional love of his beloved daughter. His mercurial moods and fiery passions, his poor judgment and selfish behavior, all fade in the face of this moment of sheer and absolute beauty. The man who had forgotten who he was is reminded of the dignity he had forgotten. This is why I teach King Lear. And why I love it. This is what I want my medical students and residents to understand. That though we are broken and complex, our dignity (and the dignity of our patients) is independent of status, power, or possessions. And sometimes, in this world of tragedy—a world that sometimes just doesn’t give a damn about you or me—we need to be reminded and to remind others of the dignity that we have forgotten. The dignity of being a child of God.
The grace of Lear’s moment with Cordelia is not lost even as the pursuing armies of Goneril and Reagan overtake them. Their imprisonment does not matter. Lear is changed. While Cordelia frets for her father, Lear beams,
Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost 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 wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
The grace that has alighted upon this broken man (and his daughter) is something sublime and transcendent, inexplicable in its effects. It is a shaft of penetrating light piercing a world of consuming darkness.
As the play concludes in death, we return to our original question: Is King Lear too tragic?
In fact, it is a story for us all . . . for we all suffer.
Notwithstanding the deaths that led august readers such as Samuel Johnson to blanch, and Nahum Tate to rewrite his happier ending, the ephemeral moment of childlike solace—the simple grace—that Lear relished with Cordelia incomprehensibly outlives such tragedy. King Lear’s fall and momentary rise has something of the Passion with a kiss of the Resurrection. Grace moves beyond sin and selfishness. It overtakes greed and egotism. It purifies and restores. It reclaims forgotten dignity. In the end, a fallen king in a fallen world received a delicate kiss. A kiss of redemption. The sweetest kiss of grace that will never go away.
And suddenly, the old man and his terrible story is not so tragic after all.