And my poor fool is hanged.—No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Oh, thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.
Look there, look there.
I have wrestled with a text to begin this sermon today. Some of you will recall that my task is to reflect on the tragedy of King Lear and our Lenten discipline. I suppose I should give a health warning on this. King Lear is probably my favourite piece of literature. I scanned the very book I used for my final high school English exam in 1973 as I prepared for today. I looked at some of the notes I had taken and said to my wife, Adey, ‘You know, I must have had some great teachers. These notes about the parallel plots and how they echo the physical and metaphysical…’
Unlike many people I talk to, I was far from put off Shakespeare at school. Indeed, the opposite is true. My teachers were so caught up with it, so enthusiastic, so enraptured with Shakespeare, that I have developed a lifelong passion for his verse and drama. So nice to be able to say something positive about the Christian Brothers.
And, this play, King Lear, which was one of the set texts for what was the equivalent of my A levels (HSC for Australian readers), has become something of a life quest. I can almost bore for Britain on the king who gives away his kingdom to two of his daughters - even though he has already divided it into three - after the folly of getting his daughters to say publicly how much they love him. Things go wrong: he is cast out into the wild, lives with a dying Fool and two people pretending to be what they are not - a banished courtier and a duped son. With them he rants at the weather, goes mad, gets caught up in a war, meets his beloved wronged daughter again and, after he kills the man who murders her, he dies.
It sounds like a truly great night out, doesn’t it? And it is only three and a half hours long. That is, if you cut the complete script. This does not take in the parallel plot of Gloucester, the trusting but similarly duped nobleman who, for his trouble, has his eyes plucked out so his bastard son can get his hands on his dukedom, as well as both of the King’s daughters. A bad business, as one of the characters says. And I try to see it just about every time it is on the stage.
Why might I have chosen, from all the wonderful, mysterious and memorable lines of the play, to begin with the quote I did? In some ways, it is simple: they come near the end and they are not the most obvious ones we go for. Our faith, like our relationship to scripture and church services, is not all that different from much of the world we live in. We remember the bits that please us, or the bits that annoy us, while skipping over some real gems or pieces of old dross.
There is a moment buried in this final speech of Lear’s which, having had my attention brought to it by the actor, Oliver Ford Davies, in his wonderful book Playing Lear, points to the gentle, frail dignity of someone who has lost everything. ‘Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.’
He has carried in the corpse of his daughter. He has ascertained what he really already knew: that she is dead. Some around him still think he is just stark, staring mad and, with all the stress of having just killed a man – he is supposedly in his eighties –he has the gentleness to ask someone to undo his button. We assume the fixture is on his collar and he want to be able to breathe more easily. This being done, he says, quite politely, ‘Thank you, sir.’
The arc of Lent is one through some of the darker sides of life, to the realisation of the reality of humanity that terminates in death but is transfigured by the astonishing events of Easter. Jesus, dead on the cross, laid in the tomb for three days, rises from the dead and meets his followers and commissions them to tell others.
Sometimes the Church can be so busy going about telling people about the Good News that it rushes past them. Some of us have learned the script so well that we forget an important part of the process is actually attending. Lear’s last words, ‘Look there, look there’, are almost unbearably touching. Perhaps it is an order, or just an appeal for others to see what he sees. He is asking others to grasp what he has come to realise that his sins, ever before him, have come to this.
We could contrast that with the first words we hear from this king in the play. He enters, with some show of force. What does he say? ‘Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.’ At the beginning, ordering Gloucester, we see Lear as the agent of his own destruction. He orders with confidence.
He is so full of himself and his own plans he cannot imagine that they will not turn out the way he expects them to. At the end, he urges people to look at what they can really see, the tragic arc of events set in train by someone who did not show due respect to anyone else but himself. That’s folly.
How often can we grab at that eruption of self justification, spoken by the tormented king in Act Three, Scene Two: ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning.’ As we look at the play, we can see that this may not be so with Lear. But it is with Gloucester. The duke, who like Lear, begins with a cheery scene with a child who will betray him, gives shelter to the raving king, has his eyes plucked out and, in a failed attempt, sets out to kill himself. It is Gloucester who sums up the problem of evil:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
In Holy Week Christians follow the path of Jesus from the celebratory entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, to dining with his friends, to anguish and betrayal and a grisly death on what they call Good Friday. It is still one of the most important questions children ask: if it is so sad, so brutal, why do we insist on calling it good?
The Christian faith dares to say that the separation of God and humanity is over. They became one when Jesus was born and, in his life, death and resurrection, made light triumph over darkness, joy over grief and life over death. It does not always seem like that, and nor should it. The tragedy of King Lear is that, in many ways, he was the architect of his own downfall. Yet in this suffering, madness and chaos he gets to realise the power of love.
In her Revelations of Divine Love the 14th and 15th century anchorite Julian of Norwich gives an example of a view of God. She poses and answers some questions: ‘Wouldst thou wit thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Wit it well: Love was his meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed he Thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? for Love… Thus was I learned that Love is our Lord’s meaning. ‘
Love is God’s answer to us. Love can hide, feel a long way away and, at times, not run too smoothly. But God has shown us a way in Jesus which, if we look to him rather than ourselves, as Lear did before he realised the power of love lost, we can rest in him. So, we like the dutiful Kent we can say:
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.
My master calls me; I must not say no.