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Lear Versus Lear

Denis Solomon • 741 words

In my column of October 8 I drew a parallel between the Bhagavad Gita and Shakespeare’s King Lear in terms of the treatment of the theme of renunciation. This, like all serious ideas, might be contested: but not on the grounds put forward by a reader, Mr. James Godineau, who writes to me that King Lear “was not even close to being a renunciant, retaining as he did a bunch of knights with whom he wandered around looking for free food”.

My reference was not, as Mr. Godineau seems to think, to King Lear but to King Lear; an important difference. False renunciation was precisely Shakespeare’s point. He indeed shows Lear as an insincere, or at best incomplete, renunciant, a man who wants to have his cake and eat it. He gives up his kingdom but wants to retain the dignity of office. His rage when he finds that this is not possible turns into madness, which is to say, the outward manifestation of disconnection from reality, whether productive as in the poet or mystic, or destructive as in the simple lunatic. It is only at the end that his fury turns into acceptance of a situation he has created by his own free, if misguided, will, but by that time his own death and that of Cordelia are already decreed by fate, for the world has rolled on all the more inexorably for his disconnection from its workings.

There could hardly be a clearer parallel than this with the exhortations of Krishna to Arjuna in the Gita. Renunciation, if it is to be meaningful, must be complete; and paradoxically, it is not renunciation of one’s duties, kingly or otherwise, that counts but renunciation of attachment to their fruits, which is possible while the duty is still being performed. Renunciation and asceticism is indeed part of the Hindu ethic; it is a godly condition, but so is kingship, and the two must not cancel each other out.

The dramatic form of the two works is of course different. Both are parables but one is for the theatre and must show action (hence the storm and the knights), the other can be a simple dialogue. The Krishna of the Gita forestalls Arjuna’s renunciation: Shakespeare’s Fool comments on Lear’s after it happens, and continually reintroduces, Sancho Panza-like, the vision of sane and practical life outside the ambit of Lear’s high-minded folly.

The theme of renunciation, asceticism, madness, attachment to and detachment from the world is of the deepest psychological and metaphysical significance, and so King Lear (notice the italics this time) is only one of many literary works that have treated it in one way or another. I might have cited, instead, Don Quijote, Doctor Faustus, or Dream on Monkey Mountain. And the lives of real people are also replete with illustrations. Mother Teresa is a renunciant who is also deeply involved in the world. George Orwell, in an essay entitled “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”, draws the parallel between Lear (no italics) and the real case of Tolstoy, who, according to Orwell, failed to understand Lear (or Lear) precisely because he could not see that the renunciation he himself undertook at the end of his life was fake. Orwell also makes, a propos of Tolstoy’s persisting authoritarianism, the following remark: “...it is obvious that the illusion of having been reborn may allow one’s native vices to flourish more freely than ever, though perhaps in more subtler forms”. All fathers of the nation, please note.

Mr. Godineau’s confusion of the theme of King Lear with the portrayal of King Lear is more serious than a misreading of typefaces. It has to do with the way we are taught to read literature. I recall that when the television film of Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain came out in the “revolutionary” seventies a lot of well-educated Trinidadians, including some intimately connected with the theatre, hated it because the protagonist, Macaque, comes into his kingdom but goes back to his mountain. They could not see the play as an examination of psychological liberation as opposed to blind action motivated by unexamined resentments, as a searching interrogation of the moral legitimacy of political action. They felt, I suppose, that it would have been a better play for the times if Macaque had killed a few white people and ended up as Prime Minister.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top