Monday, November 15, 2010

On Teaching King Lear

by J J Cohen

[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.


Karl Steel said...

GREAT stuff. Thanks for this.

Steve Mentz said...

Great stuff, indeed. Makes me think that one of my usual pedagogical responses to Kozinstev's great film, emphasizing the politics of suffering and collective action, esp in the hovel scene but also in that tableau with Cordelia's body, may be another way of avoiding the "nothing" at the play's heart. Those trapdoors keep opening...

I also think about the richness of non-English language Shakespeare films. I just took my students to a stage play of "Throne of Blood," back-formed from Kurosawa's great 1957 black and white version of *Macbeth*. Sometimes it helps to get out from under those great speeches, much as I love them.

Eileen Joy said...

Thank for this post, which is very helpful to me since I have taught "King Lear" pretty much every year since about 2002 in my early Brit. Lit. survey. But I want to propose, too, that there are 2 ways of producing a more hopeful ending for the play, one by way of the Russian film [and I also want to say that I don't think one HAS to go for the hopeful interpretation nor does it need to be forced in there as I think it's implicit in some ways]. Here I quote Ian Johnston, a professor in Canada who teaches a "great books" course and makes his lectures available online [I really love them], talking about how Kozinstev stages the ending of his film [and keep in mind that in the play, the Fool disappears at Act III, scene vi]:

"Kozintsev has, throughout the film, associated the Fool with music, specifically with playing a small wooden flute. In the closing moments of the film, we hear the Fool playing his music above the desolation, and as he plays, we see the crowds of people (including, significantly, women) slowly and tentatively start to pick up things and move towards the beginning of some reconstruction.

Incidentally, the music in this film (composed by Shostakovitch) is truly memorable, one of the most eloquent reminders in the history of Shakespeare film production of the importance of music in shaping and sustaining a particular interpretative mood.

This final image of the common people initiating a process of rebuilding has important implications for the political sense we take from this play (something I will not be discussing in any detail). For it suggests that the old order of patriarchal feudalism has now gone. Most of its leading members are dead or about to die, and the few remaining (Edgar and Albany) are so isolated that there is no rich social hierarchy for them to repair. The aggressive self-serving individuals are also dead. Hence, the future of the community is going to be in the hands of the people, the ones who earlier in the film looked to the imposing figures of the court for security and guidance. Such a vision would, of course, accord well with any Marxist view that this play envisions the destruction of both the feudal aristocracy (which lacks any intelligent sense of virtue) and the new individualism (which turns everyone loose against everyone else). Any hope for the future thus rests with the common people working, as they are here, together, in harmony.

At the presentation of his film, Kozintsev spoke eloquently about how his vision of Lear had been shaped by the experience of the siege of Leningrad, the site of particularly painful and sustained suffering in World War II. And, as I recall, he referred to how a sense of the recuperative powers of humanity, as presented in King Lear, had sustained him during that horrific time."

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


So this leads, also, to my own reading of the play, which, to a certain extent, follows Kozinstev's instinct, or experience, of reading the play within a particular historical context. As I tell my students, whether in Monmouth [where Cordelia actually survive, at least initially], or Shakespeare, the bastards always win, but that does not, at the same time, means goodness loses. As Levinas once argued, goodness can never be a "regime"--it can't have institutions, armies, and the like, but can only be achieved through small, singular acts, thereby holding out spaces of light in what is often an encroaching darkness [in "Lear," these spaces of light are maintained by Edgar and Kent, especially, but also the Fool and Cordelia]. So, for example, when the unnamed servant [a character I dwell on at great length when I teach the play] tries to stop Goneril's husband from blinding Gloucester, although he doesn't succeed, still, it shows us that goodness is possible even in the worst of times & situations.

Also, I read Edgar's closing words differently, I think [and I also think we had this discussion once before on the blog, a couple of years ago!]: when he says, "The weight of this sad time we must obey; / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say," I take that as a counter-move against all those stuttering moments in the play when words fail, when nothingness looms, but also when people speak at great length, but their words mean nothing at all [are deceptions]. In this sense, the play tells us that language has a singular power: although the persons in this fictional world move within realms of great political power and have armies and weapons and lackeys at their service [in other words, they have a certain amount of brute force at their disposal], mere words could have made all the difference toward a better outcome [this also means Cordelia is partly to blame for what happens, too--I've always viewed her as a part of the problem in this respect].

And finally, although the relations between love and politics may be finally untenable [a lesson we also learn in Plato's "Symposium"], the play seems to insist nevertheless that filial affections [which I, in my own quirky way, have decided to interpret broadly as affections between those who have *chosen* each other as family] are of the highest value. Also, that singular *bodies* matter and that we need those bodies, those Others.

Anonymous said...

Great post, as always. I was wondering if you have seen any of the Canadian TV series called _Slings and Arrows_ that ran a few years back. It is this wonderful show based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario and is (according to one of my actor friends) now a show so revered by actors and Shakespeare lovers that it exists as something like Holy Scripture for many. Each season focuses on the acting company's attempts to put on one of the great Shakespeare plays: Season One is Hamlet; Season Two is Macbeth; and Season Three is King Lear. The last season on Lear is particularly interesting because the actor (William Hutt) who plays the actor playing Lear supposedly did this legendary stage run as Lear that was never captured and preserved on camera. Hence, his recreation of the role for Season Three is the only record we have of that great Lear performance. You should check the show out sometime, if you haven't already.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Steve: agreed. Beautiful as the famous speeches can be in any Shakespeare play, they carry a weight that can, perversely, be a burden. _Throne of Blood_ is my favorite way for knocking at the gate of _Macbeth_ and finding a freer way into its fortress.

Eileen, I admire your sustaining that redemptive reading until the end of both Shakespeare's play and Kozintsev's film, something I have not been able to accomplish myself. While I get Johnston's reading of the film's end as offering potential hope via citation of the siege of Leningrad (in the rebuilding by the peasants; Kozintsev limns his film with peasant bodies, crowding almost every outdoor scene with their mute and ever-moving presence) and the haunting music played by the fool, I don't find these small glimmers of what could be hope especially compelling. The bodies of Lear and Cordelia are carried by cart across an apocalyptic landscape. It's not clear to me that the peasants are rebuilding in harmony: they could be just as well dealing with the unbearable aftermath of a war not theirs. We don't exactly see buildings rising, just rubble cleared so that some minimal existence can endure. The fool playing the flute also seems devastating to me: it's not a song of hope, but some lonely notes of grief, a small, brave front against falling dark.

I'm with you on Edgar's closing words as embracing what has been a movement throughout the play, towards affect over expressibility (no coincidence that this isn't a play known for its beautiful poetry), but the lines you quote are not the end of his speech. They are followed by "The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much nor live so long." I'm left dumbfounded by this vision of the future: could it be more bleak, more distressing? Devastation, again.

Jeremy: I don't know this series but it sounds terrific. Thanks so much for the reference.