Monday, November 15, 2010
On Teaching King Lear
[don't even think about reading this until you've conversed about Karl's Middle English syllabus]
Those of you who have friended me on Facebook or who read my twitter stream know that the past two weeks have seen an outpouring of punning complaints about King Lear. Now I'm bringing the grousing to Blogger for full media assault.
And I'd like to share with you my mixed feelings about teaching the play, a drama that has such an emotional hold on me that I lose two weeks of my life whenever it's on my syllabus. Reading the text moves me to tears. I brought the Folger edition along this weekend as my son and I sat in a café with our separate books; he mocked me for my sniffling (meanwhile he was reading an R. A. Salvatore novel, the cretin). The play puts me on edge for as long as I am teaching it, and preoccupies me outside of class until I am finished. My agitation comes, I think, from my not knowing exactly what to do with King Lear: the ending is so sorrowful, so lacking a redemptive impulse that I feel like I am doing a violence to my class to teach it.
I have ninety students in "Myths of Britain," a reconceptualized "Intro English Lit" class that stresses the archipelagic and transnational vectors of medieval and early modern insular literature. My students come from all over the university, and are typically very good: the course inevitably reaffirms my faith in 18-21 year olds and the future they will bring about. King Lear makes perfect sense to study as we near the end of the semester since we read Geoffrey of Monmouth earlier. I do wonder, though, if the darkness of the play isn't potentially destructive to the idealism of their age. And then I wonder why I harbor such parental feelings towards my students in the first place, because I know they get in the way. Let me explain.
I began today's lecture by showing the closing sequence of Grigori Kozinstev’s powerful version of King Lear: the horrific segment in which an arctic howl erupts offscreen, and the camera cuts to Cordelia hanged from a rock by the cold sea. The wordless vocalization from Lear is my entry into speaking about the play's fascination with language failure, with single words repeated so many times that they convey more affect than meaning, from "Lear, Lear, Lear" and "no, no, no" to "never never never never never," the fifth never culminating and decimating, no recovery possible. Even in Russian, the drama communicates directly, viscerally.
As an experiment, I played for my class a song that I had been looping in an endless repeat while composing my introductory Lear lecture last week. White Blank Page had haunted me for reasons that I could not work out until I began to speak about Lear with my students, and then it seemed obvious: the song's deceptively soft beginning, the sudden eruption of storm-like rage, conveyed by sound more than word, its dissolution into a repeated syllable that possesses incantatory and affective force, its lyrics of hurt and misunderstanding and mistakes and love. I asked them to close their eyes or simply look down at the table and listen as attentively as they could. My lecture room has a good sound system, and I could see immediately the impression the song made as it resounded. The students did an admirable job of connecting "White Blank page" to the day's theme, and even back to the song that resounds in the stormy heath of Lear, "The Rain It Raineth Every Day."
After the film and the song I was already feeling spent. We had an hour of class remaining and the end of the play to approach, so I threw myself into it as best I could. We looked carefully at moments of beauty (Cordelia's sunshine in rain, Edgar's poetic vision from the "cliff" top) and movements towards redemption (Edmund's attempt to prevent catastrophe, precipitated by the knowledge that he has been loved; Edgar's providing his father with the play's only good death). We looked at how each of these moments and gestures is either defeated or insufficient, especially in the face of Lear's "Howl, howl, howl" when he enters with the body of hanged Cordelia. We spoke of the play's harrowing end, with its intimations of death and catastrophe, with Edgar's closing statement that the young will have it even worse than their dead elders. I told them that I wasn't going to do my usual, and give some moment of redemption, a vision of beauty or justice or endurance to walk out of the room with and feel they'd been made better for the text we'd conversed about. I didn't have any fulfillment to provide; the play hadn't offered me any words of comfort. Some extraordinary moments aside (Edgar's monosyllable of "Up!" to his blind father, Cordelia's heartbreaking yet easy forgiveness of her father), the play seems hellbent on snatching such moments, such easy morals from us.
And so I ended by confiding that each time I teach the play I swear it will be my last. I asked my class, should I indeed take Lear off the syllabus? Should this be my last class on Lear? I was curious to hear what they would say. I feared they would tell me what I suspected: that I'd hurt them by making them face such darkness, such a void. They reacted viscerally, and with unity: NO. Lear must remain. They told me how the drama hurt but spoke to them, how despite the assumption that college years are the happiest and most free of care in life the play's bleakness resonated with thoughts they had, with tragedies they had faced. No one claimed that they had been made better for the play; it isn't medicine, and it isn't a humanist's bible. But something in the drama's imagining of the worst and then the trapdoors that open and bring us even lower touched them profoundly.
I resisted my impulse to sum up what they together put forth. I asked everyone to leave the room today thinking about what their peers had offered, because I can't say anything better, with more passion, with more truth.