“King Lear” reminds us that only a love that cracks our hearts through loss can truly reveal the gift of the Incarnation.
When John Henry Cardinal Newman writes about Advent in one of his sermons, he meditates on how this season of expectation falls at the end of the year. “All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated,” writes Newman. “We are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable.”
Newman’s words also fit the mood of the ending of King Lear, Shakespeare’s play set in ancient Britain long before Christ. The noble Kent rebukes his companions for trying to revive the dying king at the end of the play. He insists that they let him die, because after all that has happened, old Lear “hates him/Who would upon the rack of this tough world/Stretch him out longer.”
And no wonder. The end of King Lear is unsparing in its bleakness. The king, well into his eighties, has just been beautifully reconciled with the lovely, loving daughter he offended so deeply at the beginning of the play. When I taught the play on Monday to the juniors, we paused over Cordelia’s forgiveness of her father, one of the most beautiful scenes in literature. “No cause, no cause,” she says when he insists that she has reason to hate him. As they go together into captivity, Lear sounds like a man who has found a new and joyful reason to live:
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…
It is all the more unbearable, then, when the evil Edmund’s orders are carried out despite his own change of heart, and Cordelia is hanged in prison. Lear kills the man who was hanging her, but nothing can revive his beloved daughter. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,” he asks in anguish over her, “and thou no life at all?”
How many parents, how many spouses, have asked the same question? The great 18th-century poet and scholar Samuel Johnson was so distressed by the ending of the play that he could not read it again until he came to edit it. In 1681, a playwright named Nahum Tate took it upon himself to change it: he revised the ending to keep Cordelia from dying (she marries Edgar instead), and he had King Lear resume his kingship. Historians of theater tell us that Tate’s version of King Lear was the one staged for almost 150 years until the time of the Romantic poets, as though the truth of the play simply could not be sustained, as if literature could not or should not reflect the whole horror of loss.
I admit that at times in my life, Cordelia’s death has seemed evidence of a meaninglessness in the very frame of things that Shakespeare allows his audience to glimpse without mediation or consolation. But teaching the play this week — in Advent — made that interpretation seem feeble. I find it difficult to put words to the intuition, but what we saw in class was a truth about love. What dominates the end of the play is not so much death as boundless love. Lear leans close to his daughter’s face, looking for any sign of life, exclaiming, “Look on her, look, her lips,/Look there, look there!” and so dies. Cordelia’s death, answered by Lear’s death for her, strangely releases love from its boundaries in their finite lives.
Is the ending hopeful in a human way? Not at all. The old man’s belief that she lives is a fond delusion. His love for her, on the other hand, makes her innocent death pierce us to the heart, very much unlike the deaths of her wicked sisters or the Machiavellian Edmund. His infinite bereavement takes us directly into the profundity of loss. Yes, this happens—this kind of terrible irony, this kind of bereavement. Let us never think otherwise.
For that very reason, as Newman says, “we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer”—and yet we await, in this season, the birth of “new heavens and a new earth” in Christ. In Romans 8, St. Paul writes that “the whole creation groans and travails in pain together.” Yes, and in the depths of loss, “the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
It might not be the truth we prefer, but it is a truth for Advent. King Lear reminded us on Monday morning that only a love that cracks our hearts through loss can truly reveal the gift of the Incarnation.
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The featured image is “King Lear and Cordelia” (1793) by Benjamin West. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.