Theological Consequences in King Lear Shakespeare's King Lear is not primarily a theological text. It contains no direct references to Christ, and its characters are not overtly religious, except perhaps in a strictly pagan sense. King Lear is, however, a play that seeks out the "meaning" of life, a play that attempts to come to terms with life's pain; or, rather, plummets the reader into such a storm of chaos and meaninglessness that any preconceived meaningful assumptions must necessarily be challenged. At the time in which Shakespeare wrote, amidst the recent activity of the Reformation, the assumptions the general public took into a theater were varied, but, more often than not, within some context of Christian thought. As Shakespeare was undoubtedly aware, interpretation of the play would necessarily be set in Christian context. (Even anti-Christian interpretation would be considered to be a Christian context in that it is reactionary.)
The question arises as to whether or not Shakespeare, intentionally or not, has emphasized one strain of Christian thought while denouncing another? Or, in this play without any obvious redemption, has Shakespeare denounced Christianity altogether? I do not think he has gone to this extreme, but has instead challenged Christian interpretation as a whole. As we shall see, the distinction between Christianity and Christian interpretation is crucial.
For my premise that Shakespeare and his audience were in some way effected by the Christian thought of the day, I am indebted to Stephen Lynch, who has researched the evidence for this position in a chapter from his Shakespearean Intertextualities entitled "English Reformations in King Leir and King Lear." Within the chapter, Lynch explores possibilities in theological interpretations of the play in light of its predecessor King Leir. It is Lynch's contention that Shakespeare's Lear is reactionary to certain Calvinistic implications communicated in Leir. Shakespeare's negation of Leir's theological values are not, however, a necessary affirmation of a different theological stance. It might be the foundation of a new theological view, or it could be an utter negation from which, to quote the King himself, "Nothing can come of nothing"(1.82). The question of what truly follows from "nothing" is at the heart of King Lear. Can any good issue from the apparently needless suffering that a character like Lear is forced to endure? Lynch, in the end, seems unsure: "Ã¢ÂÂ¦if the play moves toward redemption, it is not the absolute and certain redemption of the old play, but an incremental, unsteady, and indeterminate redemption"(56). If there is any redemptive value to be found in the play, according to Lynch, it comes about only through the very internalized purgatorial suffering of its characters. In the original Leir play, though, redemption was always regained through grace and divine acts of providence. Hence, ready-made acts of religious piety were honored instead of any transformative experience of religious suffering. Even if Shakespeare's version is not truly redemptive, it serves as at least an indictment against the earlier view that largely ignored the harsh reality of suffering.
The reality of the actual experience of suffering is also given great importance in a 1986 article by James L. Calderwood entitled "Creative Uncreation in King Lear." Rarely in his essay does Calderwood directly confront the different theological analyses of the play, but then it is more effective that he does not. The point that Calderwood does make has immediate implications upon theology. Also, an excess of discussion would belabor the point he makes, for, in a sense, an excess of discussion is what he is rallying against. The pain and suffering of the play, Calderwood argues, is caused by a confusion in the convention of language. This confusion lies in the difference between "what is" and "what is said." The difference between the two is perhaps best exemplified in Edgar's saying, "Who is't can say 'I am at the worst'? / I am worse than e'er I was. / And worse I may be yet. The worst is not / So long as we can say 'This is the worst'"(4.1, 25-28). Language, for Calderwood, is merely a cushion that shelters us from the harshness of reality. And, as the convention is grows more sophisticated an awareness of the reality may be lost. There comes a time "[w]hen a culture reaches the point where reality has been definitively charted - when fluid forms have petrified into institutions, and live meanings have deadened into clichÃÂ©s"(6).
Further, Shakespeare, who was a playwright and used language as his medium, must have been aware of this confusion. As a critic well aware of the relationship between meaning and its conventional context, Calderwood shows obvious deconstructionist tendencies. Here, though, he opts not to deconstruct but instead to show how Shakespeare already has. The play operates under a process of "uncreation," where everything that is "something" moves towards "nothing," "requiring us to return with [Shakespeare] to a point of creative origin, the unshaped, meaningless stuff with which he began" (8). King Lear is a play in which Shakespeare is acutely aware of the inadequacies of his medium, thus explaining the irresolution of its complicated ending: to deliver us to the "immediate, uninterpreted experience" of suffering unbuffered by constraints of language.
Towards the end of his essay, Calderwood goes on to admit, "Despite the intensity of his concern for immediacy in King Lear, his play remains unavoidably a saying - not the agonizing 'it is' itself but a mediated representation of the worst"(18). With this in mind, one theological implication may follow from Calderwood's interpretation. Lear may be viewed as a sort of mystic text. Like any other mystical text, the value in Lear lies not in the words themselves, but the experience to which the words are pointing. Of course, such a mystical experience, as Lear may have had, would not necessarily be distinctly Christian. Part of what makes a mystical experience mystical, after all, is the transgression beyond the delineations of the conventional world, religious delineations, and the various dogmas of Christianity included. In any case, as both Lynch and Calderwood seem to lead us, if Shakespeare is making an appeal to a new brand of Christianity, it is a living, breathing, experiential brand of Christianity.
It has been traditionally recounted, however, that mystical experiences generally have some sort of inherent, redemptive value. They classically result in periods of profound understanding, feelings of oneness, and peace of mind for the mystic. As to whether Lear receives any redemption of this sort, is addressed directly by Lynch and indirectly by Calderwood. The question is answered for Lynch by whether or not Lear is smiling on his deathbed and if such a smile would be in earnest or in madness. Lynch's final idea of redemption, though, is not of the "immediate, uninterpreted experience" from which Calderwood has led me to suggest mysticism, but of a more traditional heaven, "a paradise that is not an earthly prison" (57). On the other hand, Calderwood's worldview is Hobbesian. He does not recognize any sort of mystical redemption that I have alluded to. Lear, for him, confronts the harsh truth of the world directly but it is altogether grim. For him, it is a world whose "late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good to us" and whose "wheels of fire will not be metaphors" (19).
I agree with Calderwood's sense of the truth in King Lear being found in immediate, uninterpreted experience, but contend that the outcome of seeing such truth might not be ultimately bleak. It is quite possible that Lear never reaches such a point of understanding, and that this lack of understanding is in fact his tragedy. Calderwood suggests that his tragedy is not in his lack of understanding but in the fact that he understands too much, making his tragedy more the tragedy of all humankind. But, there seems evidence, to me, that Lear is still not at the point of seeing "what is" immediately. He, for instance, kills the guard who has hanged Cordelia in an act of revenge and later brags about it to her corpse. This suggests that he is still in the glaze of at least a false conventional sense of revenge, in which one killing justifies another. Also, he is far from readily willing to accept the death of his Cordelia. He admits that she is "dead as earth," but then revokes the statement as he deludes himself into believing that the feather stirs and she lives. Lear has not even entered upon the possibility of purgatorial transformative suffering because he is not willing to experience the immediate reality of "what is," the dead body of Cordelia. Even at the end he fails to make any real acceptance as he still looks upon her lips for the breath of life, this time in a frenzy ("Look there, look there!") Lear's failure to come to accept the pain of the present reality should be made obvious to all at this point. Kent's "Break, heart, I prithee, break!" can even be seen as a command towards Lear's condition. If Lear had faith enough to allow his heart to break, to feel the full immediate pain of death, he might gain some redemption. Instead, Lear unnaturally clings to illusions of life in death's closing hour, and this struggle causes him more pain than the acceptance of death possibly could. As such, Kent's command can also be seen as a sort of warning to the reader. We are to learn from Lear what Lear could not.
Perhaps, though, I have been granting too much credence to the views of Calderwood. It is true that Shakespeare does uncreate his play, as he "begins with art Ã¢ÂÂ¦and subtracts from it towards nature as the chaotic immediate," to deliver the feeling of that immediate in its rawness. The purpose of the play, however, might be not to "inform us that this is not the worst after all, only a saying of the worst," not to show the inadequacy of language, but, rather, to reaffirm the language (18). Shakespeare brings us to nothing at the end of King Lear, but as Calderwood has shown us, "Something frequently comes of nothing in King Lear" (6). The most significant instance of nothing is the first, the "nothing" of Cordelia's pronouncement. Cordelia's "nothing," however, is much more of a something than the dead flattery of her sisters. She is the only one who loves her father but cannot "heave her heart into her mouth." But, because of his merely conventional way of seeing, Lear interprets Cordelia's something as a nothing. From here we see Lear unfold and come to nothing himself, undergoing what may be viewed as a transformational suffering. If Lear's transformation is completed he would recognize the value of the experiential/mystical process as opposed to hardened conventional forms. And from here, he could gain a new understanding of language, bringing the play full circle and offering some redemption. As Edgar says in the end, "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." The new power of language is not in what is said, but how it is said. Thus, in the end, Lear recognizes Cordelia as a fool for breaking from convention earlier, but a wise fool. He has perhaps actually learned the value of Cordelia's lesson, to love unconditionally, as with his last words he tells all to look on her lips from which issued the original loving paradox that lead to Lear's final redemption.
Redemption in a play where the suffering is deeply internalized must necessarily be difficult to express. King Lear is one of the rare pieces of art whose meaning many people would readily admit cannot be easily stated in any convenient terms. The play revolves around emotion more than cognition, and as such, moves beyond the realm of any dogmatic interpretation. This does not necessarily mean, though, that it moves beyond the realm of religion. Any religion with the elasticity to encompass the whole scope of human emotion and experience can be related to Lear. As Lynch says, "While Leir is a play about carrying crosses, Lear is a play about dying on them" (55). If we read Lear once, live and die with it completely, then never say anything else about it, so be it.