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My 1000th Blog Post! – “King Lear” by William Shakespeare: An Exploration on Aging

Before I delve into my thoughts on Lear, I want to say thank you to all of you who have followed me, shared your comments, and encouraged me to continue with the blog. My goal is to keep writing for as long as there is interest.

Now, on to King Lear.

So I have read this play numerous times, and for me, it is right up there with Hamlet. There is so much depth in this text, and so much that could be explored. But considering that I am past middle age, the issues on aging were what struck me deepest during this reading.

In this play, both Lear and Gloucester suffer because they are old. There are two main forms of age-related suffering: suffering caused by bad decisions resulting from mental decline associated with old age, and suffering as a result of abuse from younger people who view the elderly as hindrances to their personal advancement.

Very early in the play, Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril recognize that their father is exhibiting signs of senility.

Goneril:

You see how full of changes his age is; the
observation we have made of it hath not been
little: he always loved our sister most; and
with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off
appears too grossly.

Regan:

‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever
but slenderly known himself.

Goneril:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but
rash; then must we look to receive from his age,
not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed
condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

(Act I. scene i)

There is the archetype of the wise old man, but as Lear’s fool rightly points out, not all people who are advanced in years possess wisdom. Wisdom is gained during your younger years; but if you fail to seek wisdom in your youth, then you become a foolish old man.

Fool:

If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’ld have thee beaten
for being old before thy time.

King Lear:

How’s that?

Fool:

Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
been wise.

(Act I, scene v)

Regan starts to show her resentment against having to care for her father. As is often the case, when a parent ages and begins to require assistance, all the baggage, resentment, and anger from the past begin to surface (note that Regan is an anagram for anger).

O, sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be ruled and led
By some discretion, that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you,
That to our sister you do make return;
Say you have wrong’d her, sir.

(Act II, scene iv)

One of the most powerful and symbolic scenes in the play is when Lear is cast out must face the storm.

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

(Act III, scene ii)

The storm symbolizes Lear’s own inner turmoil, as well as the constant pounding of life’s challenges that eventually wear a person down. As he relives his mistakes, regret breeds a storm of chaos in his mind, which can no longer make sense of what is happening around him. He feels his last frail hold on sanity beginning to slip.

The tendency of the young to usurp power from the elderly is most clearly expressed through the character of Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son.

This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
That which my father loses; no less than all:
The younger rises when the old doth fall.

(Act III, scene iii)

This is still a part of our society. We all like to think we hold reverence for the elderly, but the fact is that neglect and abuse of the old is rampant. In addition, there is the subtle and insidious elder abuse which manifests as ageism in the workplace. Older workers are routinely passed over in favor of younger candidates, which only adds to the feelings of uselessness and despair that sadly accompany aging all too often.

When Lear is finally reunited with his Cordelia, his estranged daughter who he cast out, he realizes that he is nothing more than a foolish old man, and he humbles himself to ask forgiveness, because there is nothing worse than spending your last days bearing the weight of regret.

You must bear with me:
Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.

(Act IV, scene vii)

Finally, after his wits are restored, Lear gains the true wisdom that comes with age. He begins to understand what is truly important in life: family, relationships, and simple pleasures.

No, no, no, no! 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.

(Act V, scene iii)

The play concludes with some advice which all of us should heed.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(Act V, scene iii)

We should never postpone speaking that which is in our hearts, especially to those who are dear to us. Because one day soon, before we expect it, we will be old, and the time to express our love for others will have passed. Do not allow fear or appearances to prevent you from telling someone how you feel. Missed opportunities are rarely retrieved.

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Mythological Cycles in “Library of Souls” by Ransom Riggs

LibraryOfSouls

If you follow my blog, you probably know how I feel about trilogies. They are not my favorite and I am frequently annoyed by stories that start out great and then seem to drag on in an attempt to fill three volumes. Thankfully, this book is one of the exceptions. In fact, this is as great if not better than the first book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy. Not only is it very well written and illustrated with “found” vintage photographs that add to the overall surreal weirdness of the book, but the text is rich in symbolism and mythology. I was so engrossed in this book that I found it difficult to put down.

I want to focus my post on the allusions to mythology that permeate this book. For those of you who have not read this yet, fear not, I will not include any spoilers, and hopefully this will help you enjoy the richness of this novel.

On the whole, this book is a classic example of the hero’s journey. We have all the motifs that make up the hero myth, and early in the book we are clued in to the fact that we are going along on the epic adventure.

The present seemed suddenly strange to me, so trivial and distracted. I felt like one of those mythical heroes who fights his way back from the underworld only to realize that the world above is every bit as damned as the one below.

(p. 47)

There is a beautiful scene where three of the peculiars encounter Sharon, the boatman. He is a spectral figure and clearly a representation of Charon, the mythical boatman who ferries souls across the river Styx.

“STOP!” came a booming voice from inside the boat.

Emma squealed, Addison yelped, and I nearly leapt out of my skin. A man who’d been sitting in the boat—how had we not seen him until now?!—rose slowly to his feet, straightening himself inch by inch until he towered over us. He was seven feet tall, at least, his massive frame draped in a cloak and his face hidden beneath a dark hood.

“I’m—I’m so sorry!” Emma stammered. “It’s—we thought the boat was—“

“Many have tried to steal from Sharon!” the man thundered. “Now their skulls make homes for sea creatures!”

“I swear we weren’t trying to—“

“We’ll just be going,” squeaked Addison, backing away, “so sorry to bother you, milord.”

“SILENCE!” the boatman roared, stepping onto the creaking dock with one enormous stride. “Anyone who comes for my boat must PAY THE PRICE!”

(pp. 50 – 51)

A common theme among myths is the classic battle waged by the gods, the proverbial “clash of the titans.”

“… There dawned a dark time, in which the power-mad waged epic battles against one another for control of Abaton and the Library of Souls. Many lives were lost. The land was scorched. Famine and pestilence reigned while peculiars with power beyond imagination murdered one another with floods and lightning bolts. This is where normals got their tales of gods fighting for supremacy of the sky. Their Clash of the Titans was our battle for the Library of Souls.”

(p. 194)

I had read in a book by Umberto Eco how legendary and mythological lands occupy a unique place. We cannot say for sure that they never existed, but through the retelling of the stories, they become places that also exist in our collective consciousness, a place that is the source of our imagination and creativity.

“We may never know for certain if Abaton is a real place,” Bentham said, his lips spreading into a sphinx’s smile. “That’s what makes it a legend. But like rumors of buried treasure, the legendariness of the story has not stopped people, over the centuries, from searching for it. It is said that Perplexus Anomalous  himself committed years to the hunt for the lost loop of Abaton—which is how he began to discover so many of the loops that appear in his famous maps.”

(p. 195)

But in the end, what makes a story a myth is that it is more than just a story. It is a story that contains universal truths that convey what it is to be divine, sentient beings living in this realm of existence. The myth expresses parts of us that cannot be told other than through the rich symbols and metaphors that comprise the myth.

Just a story. It had become one of the defining truths of my life that, no matter how I tried to keep them flattened, two-dimensional, jailed in paper and ink, there would always be stories that refused to stay bound in books. It was never just a story. I would know: a story had swallowed my whole life.

(p. 371)

I confess that I felt sad when I finished this book. I felt really invested in the story and connected with the characters. I didn’t want it to end. But isn’t that the thing with stories like this? They never really end. They just cycle around again, waiting in our collective consciousness for the next great writer to resurrect the mythical beings that have inspired us since time immemorial.

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Neil Gaiman’s “Miracleman” Issue #4

Miracleman_04

Gaiman incorporates some very interesting metafiction into this issue. The story is about a woman writer who is in a failing relationship with a man who is getting ready to leave her. She is putting the kids to bed and they ask her to read them a bedtime story, so she reads them “Winter’s Tale,” which is a kids’ book about the experiences of Winter, Miracleman’s daughter. The central part of the story is “Winter’s Tale,” as a story within a story.

Symbolically, Winter’s story is based on the archetypal hero’s journey, where she ventures away from home, learns deep truths, and then returns home to Miracleman, who symbolizes the divine source.

The entire story implies a world where the divine masculine has become the primary creative power. The mother symbolizes a creative divine that has become weakened and subjugated in our modern society.

This is a very sad story. The mother is depicted as lonely and unhappy, hoping that her joy for life will be rekindled through her children. Unfortunately, this is the reality for too many women in our society, who think that having children will ultimately save them from an unfulfilled life. But contentment and happiness can only come from within. Any time you seek something outside yourself to change how you feel, it will always lead to disappointment.

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“Sonnet 13: O! that you were yourself; but, love, you are” by William Shakespeare

Pavel Korin

Pavel Korin

O! that you were yourself; but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you yourself here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
You had a father: let your son say so.

This is another of the first 17 sonnets that deal with the theme of procreation and address the fair youth. What strikes me as different in this one are the declarations of love in the first and thirteenth lines. I do not get the sense that this is anything sexual, but more of a paternal love. I suspect that the speaker sees himself as a father figure to the youth he is advising. In fact, in the final line where he tells the youth “You had a father: let your son say so,” I get the impression he is referring to himself as the father. Also, the fact that the speaker refers to the youth’s father in past tense implies that the actual father is deceased, supporting the idea that the speaker envisions himself as a surrogate father.

Shakespeare employs some of the metaphors we have seen in the previous sonnets on procreation: the transfer of beauty to your children, winter as a symbol for old age and death, and the continuation of one’s lineage as represented by the house symbol.

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“Sonnet 11: As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest” by William Shakespeare – A Promotion of Ethnic Cleansing?

Shakespeare

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestowest
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase:
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow’d she gave thee more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

I had mixed feelings about this poem when I read it this morning over my first cup of coffee. But before I delve into why this poem troubled me, I figured I’d talk about the basic theme and metaphors.

This is another of the “fair youth” sonnets, where Shakespeare is entreating an unnamed young man to procreate. The opening lines describe how a child will grow at the same rate as a parent ages. The child’s physical and mental development progresses at the same pace as the parent’s abilities decreases. I suspect this was very important at a time that lacked elder care and care for the elderly was generally the responsibility of the children.

Lines 5 and 6 address heredity:

Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase:
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:

I like this image. For me, the idea of wisdom, beauty, and increase describes the parents’ ability to pass on to their children what they have learned in life, an appreciation for art and beauty in life, and an increase in wealth, both material and spiritual. Without a family to share these things with, all we have will atrophy and decay along with us in our later years.

So now we get to the point that I find troubling.

Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow’d she gave thee more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:

So I understand what Shakespeare is getting at here. He is saying that if the beautiful and artistically creative and intelligent people of the world failed to procreate, then the world would become dominated by those who would not be in as much of a position to advance culture and society. But looking at this from a 21st-century perspective, we can see how this type of ideology has led to abuse and human rights violations throughout history. Racist and ethnocentric propaganda consistently depicts “others” as breeding like vermin and threatening to overrun the purer population, while at the same time encouraging those of the desired race to procreate and ensure their continued existence and dominance. So when I read a line claiming that those who are “harsh featureless and rude” should “barrenly perish,” I cannot help but feeling horrified at the idea that the value of one class of people is elevated and preferred above another.

While I concede that Shakespeare probably did not have ethnic cleansing in mind when he penned this sonnet, it’s hard to read this today and not have those images conjured. Let’s just hope that the “wisdom, beauty and increase” of tolerance and acceptance will occur in our lives, and that hatred and intolerance will “barrenly perish.”

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“Sonnet 9: Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye” by William Shakespeare

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye,
That thou consumest thyself in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children’s eyes her husband’s shape in mind.
Look, what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty’s waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused, the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murderous shame commits.

This poem is another of Shakespeare’s “fair youth” sonnets. Basically, Shakespeare is asking the youth if the reason he fears marriage and children is because he is afraid of causing his wife pain should he die. I suspect that this is a legitimate concern for some, but I think it is just a lame excuse for many. Commitment, especially marriage and having children, is scary, especially for a young person. To say that you do not want to marry because your wife might suffer if you die is no reason to deprive yourself or another of the happiness of marriage.

When my wife and I began discussing having kids, I was unsure. I did not view the world as a great place and had genuine concerns about bringing kids into a world that seems to be crumbling before my eyes. But now, I am so grateful for my children. They are a blessing and my glimmer of light and hope. I could not imagine a life without them.

Fear should never prevent you from doing what you know in your heart to be right. Whenever we are confronted with fear, we should counter it with faith and courage, and place our trust in the fact that we are doing what is best.

Cheers!

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“Sonnet 8: Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?” by William Shakespeare

"The Musicians" by Caravaggio

“The Musicians” by Caravaggio

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:
Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly,
Or else receivest with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tunèd sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

As a musician, this poem really works for me. I connected with the musical metaphors used to convey familial harmony.

Shakespeare is again addressing the fair youth and asking why the songs (or poems) encouraging marriage and children make the youth sad. As with most youths, he likely views marriage as the loss of freedom and liberty. He does not want to be tied down to responsibility. But as Shakespeare points out, marriage is more than just responsibility and commitment; it is about the joy of being in harmony with other human beings.

If we look deeper at the metaphor of musical harmony as used to express marital happiness, we can see just how appropriate this is. In music theory, a basic chord is built on a triad, which is comprised of three notes: the root, the third, and the fifth. The traditional family structure is also based upon a triad: “sire and child and happy mother.” While each individual string can create a note, it is the combination, the strumming of multiple strings, the shared vibrations, which create rich chords. Likewise, it is the family, the shared love, which creates richness and harmony in life.

In music, the combination of the various parts creates something that transcends the individual elements. It is the same with a loving family. When humans bond and share their feelings, it creates something that surpasses the sum of the individuals, and this is what Shakespeare is encouraging the youth to discover.

Thanks for stopping by, and may your day be filled with joy, music, and harmony.

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