How Our Present Situation Echoes Lear
Okay, students, open your books to Shakespeare’s Lear, Act I Scene 1. Pay attention:
The story is familiar. The tragic premise is an old man’s insistence of the alteration of the realm and the delegation of his royal power, that his underlings compete with each other in the extravagant expression of their loyalty and love for him. Some, sensibly, realistically, refuse to join in this ridiculous game and resign in protest.
Unhappy that we are, they say, We cannot heave our hearts into our mouths: We are loyal to your power according to our Oaths; no more nor less.
Lear, angry at this response, asks them to mend their behavior a little for the sake of show (which they refused to do). Then the old man, in his rage, banishes his Lawyer and, heretofore, the most loyal of his retainers.
Lear, expects a continuance of his royal privileges, but, little by little, has his retainers and therefore his power stripped from him. Great numbers of his resign or are fired. Or betray him. He is left alone, raging against nature itself in his twitters for the plight he finds himself in. He becomes an unaccomodated man, stripped of power, naked in a hostile country, advised his naked clowns, a madman in a storm, fantastically garlanded, reduced to eating snared cheeseburgers raw.
If Lear does not know what has happened to him, the audience does. We know every terrible step of the way what has happened to the old Ruler. Where old men should be wise, venerated, and die, in proper sequence, he is old and a fool. He suffers abuse and rejection by his people. We watch this. The pity and terror of it. We know.
When the story is done, we are not only purged, we are somehow uplifted.
Because the royal house is invaded from the outside, and adults fill the room.
But for Lear, it is too late. The course of a corrupt life is revealed. All has failed him. He is told but does not hear:
Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.
We have seen the emptiness and the pointlessness of a ruler’s rage, his threats, knowing he could have ruled in a prosperous kingdom had he not acted like a damned old fool. An upwelling of compassion occurs for him.
The Old Man is defeated.
But the Nation will survive.