What do we see? And what does it matter? As an older father and educator of my youngest daughter, now sixteen years old, I have the joy of truly learning Shakespeare for the first time. In recent months we have tackled two Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. One is billed as the greatest love story of all time and the other as one of the darkest and greatest tragedies of all time. But which is which?
Our modern world clearly considers the tale of frustrated young lovers the romance and the story of a king descendant the tragedy. But in Romeo and Juliet there is no love, only a pubescent-adolescent infatuation that ends without hope in the suicides of two children. There is no romance. Totally absent is the patter of two people coming to know one another. There is only the hormonal rush of physical attraction and the drive to climax. To live without real love and die without hope is the ultimate tragedy. On the other hand, the seemingly horrific King Lear is a love story from beginning to end. It is a about a man who runs from love but ultimately finds himself redeemed in the very love he ran from.
How we see does matter. To see Romeo and Juliet as a love story renders love puerile. To not see the love story in King Lear is tragic because we cannot encounter a love we do not wish to see. King Lear is about seeing and why it matters. It is the story of a man who literally asks for love and cannot see it in front of him. What follows is the reflection of a homeschooling father overwhelmed by the redemptive beauty he saw in King Lear.
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At the beginning of King Lear, an aged king, intent on retiring, asks his three daughters to describe their love for him. These declarations will determine how his kingdom will be split among them. His two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, proceed to shamelessly flatter him. But the youngest, Cordelia, the one who truly loves him, tells him she has “nothing.” The honesty of this answer lies not in her lack of words, but in the fact that in asking to be flattered he truly asks for nothing. She then explains that she loves him “according to my bond,” meaning she loves him as his child. She loves him as one who owes her very life to him. Lear cannot see true love presented to him in its simplest terms. On the other hand, he sees substance in the flowery but empty words of his two older daughters. Where there is truly love, Lear sees none at all. Where there is no love, he grabs its illusion as if it were real. Lear chooses blindness.
In seeing nothing and asking for nothing Lear gets what he asks for. He rejects and disowns Cordelia while embracing the lies of Goneril and Regan. The play descends into a world where the facade of empty flattery gives way to the reality of two daughters without love. Blinded by his pride and tenaciously grasping the oppressive weight of a self-centered world, he sinks into a hell where love hides and its absence prevails. The love Lear thought he saw is not there, and nothing sits in its place. Ultimately, he slips into madness, the natural state of a man who can no longer distinguish the real from the unreal. In banishing Cordelia, he banishes love and all that is real. He enters the dark void of a soul seeking nothing and seeing nothing. Only when he truly sees himself does he see Cordelia’s love and rise from the void. As the play approaches its final act he submits himself to her punishment, seeing both his “cause” for offense and her right to punish him, even offering his very life: “If you have poison for me, I will drink it.” She finds no fault and replies, “No cause, no cause.” She simply forgives. Her love is divine. It neither demands nor expects payment.
On such a note the play could have ended. However, the play goes one more act. The army Cordelia leads is defeated and she and Lear become prisoners. But Lear is now a free man. He has lost all, offered all and, finally, sees love. He leaves behind the slavery of a world blind to love. Cordelia and Lear are sent to prison, but to Lear it is now heaven with no bounds:
Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like bird’s i’ th’ cage.
He will bless. She will forgive. They will tell tales, laugh and look down on the foibles of those who consider themselves great.
Lear then praises Cordelia’s sacrifice. His next line is prescient:
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The Gods themselves throw incense.
But Cordelia’s sacrifice is not complete. Cordelia must sacrifice all before Lear can see all. Lear’s newfound heaven is a child’s fantasy. Like Cordelia’s sacrifice his heaven is incomplete, the walls he chooses not to see still confine like the prison he is entering. He sees love incompletely, as a duet between two where love is owned and lorded over others. But love is the one thing that cannot be owned and possessed at the same time. Only in giving it can we possess it. Cordelia is love in King Lear. She will give everything while a world without love or hope tries to destroy both. In an attempt to hide love behind despair and hopelessness, Edmund, one of many antagonists, orders Cordelia hung in her prison cell and the murder disguised as suicide. But as darkness is only light’s absence, evil is only love’s absence. Nothing cannot destroy something. Cordelia dies but love lives on.
Lear has not traveled to this point unaided. When Lear rejected Cordelia he entered a world upside down where goodness is unseen and its absence, or nothingness, seems real. But even in the underworld Lear is accompanied by goodness he cannot see. When Lear banished Cordelia, the Earl of Kent, his councilor and friend, speaks to her account, telling Lear, “See better, Lear.” The king refuses to “see better” and banishes Kent from the kingdom. But Kent is Lear’s conscience, his guardian angel. He continues to see even when Lear refuses to do so. As Lear descends into his world of darkness Kent reappears disguised as a common man who seeks to serve the king. Though Lear no longer sees his friend, Kent continues to martial him back to Cordelia, back to seeing and back to love.
In the final scene in its final moments Lear walks on stage with Cordelia dead in his arms. He rages and wishes a plague upon her murderers. In the anguish of Cordelia’s death, love’s redeeming light darkens and Lear again drifts toward blindness. Then, for the first time since he banished Kent, Lear recognizes the friend who never really left him: “Are you not Kent?” Immediately he drifts back into madness. But it is a new madness. It is not the raging madness of the dark but the gentle madness of a simple mind. Holding Cordelia, now seeing what others cannot, he exclaims, “Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.” Because the sight was for his mind only we do not know what he sees, but whatever it is, it is a clear sign that there is more, that the corpse he cradles is not the end. Hope is knowing that love is, not that it was or will be, but that it is ever present and eternal. Lear dies seeing hope with Cordelia still in his arms. It is Kent who ensures his passage onward, “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass.”
By now evil has caught up with Lear’s older daughters and they are dead also, having descended in the nothingness from reigning power to a fatal squabble over a man who manipulated both and loved neither. They died chasing love’s illusion in the loveless world they created. The throne now empty, Kent is offered half the kingdom. But Kent rejects the offer and all but closes the play with the lines:
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.
My master calls me. I must not say no.
In a recent PBS version of King Lear, Kent then picks up a pistol and walks off stage. If all we see is dark tragedy, if we miss the love story, we must conclude, as the director of this production did, that with all hope gone Kent is off to kill himself. But if we see the love story, if we see a man who rejected love, and if we see him pursued and brought back to love by one who felt his every pain, we might see the ambiguity in Kent’s final lines. We might see an angel reporting back for his next assignment.
Though Cordelia’s time on stage is short, the entire play is a journey from Cordelia and a return to Cordelia, a rejection of love and a return to love. It is the story of the prodigal son, a man who turned his back on love and found redemption only in first seeing himself covered with the muck the pigs wallowed in. Only in seeing his own unworthiness, as one who needed forgiveness, was he able to see his way home to a father who had every reason to condemn him but chose not to. Only in the unqualified forgiveness of his father did he fully see the love that was there all along. Seeing that love is his redemption. Ultimately, redemption is resurrection. The father of the wayward son explains to the put out brother, “this brother of yours was dead but has come to life.”
Like the prodigal son, it is Lear who turns his back on love, rejecting Cordelia in unequivocal terms:
Here I disclaim all paternal care,
Propinquity, and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this forever.
This rejection is mortal and we see its effects as he dies before our eyes, descending into madness, becoming a nobody and a nothing. Only in seeing his unworthiness does Lear again see the love of Cordelia that was always there. Only then can he be redeemed. Though Cordelia dies, Lear is resurrected. Like the prodigal son, Lear was dead but has come to life. Cordelia’s love lifts him from the void of death. He dies a risen man rather than a fallen one.
What we choose to see does matter. Ultimately, King Lear is about the choice of seeing or not seeing, of accepting or rejecting love, of seeking something or chasing nothing. Cordelia loves. Lear did not have to earn that love, but for it to touch his life and redeem him, he had to see it, accept it and embrace it. He could only do that naked, losing both clothes and wits. He could not see love through his pride. He could not see love by demanding it. He could not see love by bolstering his self-esteem. Only when he knew he didn’t deserve it could he truly see it and begin to understand it. His worth was not in his kingdom, his power or his grandeur but in the love that deemed him worthy.
Even in his chosen darkness, in the very goodness he rejected, Lear finds love disguised and returned to him as a disheveled Kent, inviting him back and guiding him toward the light that is Cordelia’s love. Above all, King Lear suggests an answer to the perennial question that asks why God would allow pain. Perhaps only through pain can we begin to understand, to witness and to participate in the stunning and sublime beauty of forgiveness and redemption that Shakespeare portrayed so well.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Cordelia Comforting Her Father, King Lear, in Prison” was painted by George William Joy in 1886.