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.
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.
‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever
but slenderly known himself.
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.
If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’ld have thee beaten
for being old before thy time.
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
(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.