The Tragedie of King Lear

The Tragedie of King Lear - Claire Van Vliet“Shakespeare pictures the potential depravity of a godless world. I think it’s no accident that the gods are referred to that number of times.

“The other prediction that’s made in the play is ‘if the gods don’t come down and intervene then it must come, humanity will prey upon itself like monsters of the deep’.

“We are at the moment daily aware of the seemingly limitless possibilities of human cruelty, of human certainty that gods are on their side and therefore any amount of human sacrifice is permissible in the name of the gods.

Trevor Nunn quoted in Sydney Morning Herald.

One of the deeply troubling aspects of Lear is that human cruelty appears to win the day. The continual appeal to the gods is met only with a bronzed silence. Within the world of the play either there is no God, or, there is no just God.

(or, one might conceivably say that the play demonstrates the terrible justice of God – a justice which is demonstrated in the pile of bodies at the end – after all, none of the characters are particularly morally upright…)

‘if the gods don’t come down and intervene then it must come, humanity will prey upon itself like monsters of the deep’.

This is an appeal for divine intervention, for a divine act of revelation and justice tied together – what we call ‘theodicy’. It is an appeal for God to do justice for humanity and thereby to vindicate himself.

In the world of the play, the appeal to the blank face of heaven is haunting, it plays upon a deep fear we all feel, it lends Lear incredible power.

And it is a good appeal – God save us from ourselves!
It is an appeal that relies on the character of God.
What does it mean for an appeal like that to go unanswered?
What would that mean for God?

The truth of Nunn’s observation that we are, ‘daily aware of the seemingly limitless possibilities of human cruelty’ is easily proved from a reading of the rest of the pages of the newspaper.

Nunn appears to agree with Shakespeare on the ‘potential depravity of a godless world’ and indeed, to believe that this is no longer a potential, but the reality of the world we inhabit.
Who could argue?

But Bard never fails to see more clearly than his interpreters – even those as brilliant as Trevor Nunn.

(I think it must be the combination of Shakespeare’s careful ambiguity and the incredible freedom of play within his language which leaves ample room for the reader to be read into the text.)

What would an intervention from God look like? How would God act to do justice for humanity?

Well, if the world is as Nunn describes it – full of the ‘seemingly limitless possibilities of human cruelty’, a possibility that finds some refuge in every human heart, and some expression to a greater or lesser extent – I wonder very much if the kind of intervention for which we appeal might not end up looking something very like the end of King Lear?

…Blindness, Bodies, and Madness…

That’s what we would properly expect.
That’s the natural narrative trajectory and there isn’t anyone with a better ear for narrative than Shakespeare.

Which is why the gospel is a NewsFlash. A piece of information that breaks into the storyline, coming from outside, interrupting, changing completely the natural progression.

The gospel is the twist in the story which makes our world something other than the world of King Lear.
(sadly, it is possible that for Trevor Nunn our world is nothing other than the world of Lear)

The coming of God in Jesus knocks the human narrative off its rails. God acts to do justice for humanity by condemning human depravity in the person of one man – he takes our position at the end of the play.

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One thought on “The Tragedie of King Lear

  1. Did you notice the way in which Nunn turns around the potential nihilism of the play (King Lear) to make a thinly veiled attack on religious fundamentalism?

    Nunn's claim that 'We are at the moment daily aware of the seemingly limitless possibilities of human cruelty…'
    is expanded and explained as
    'of human certainty that gods are on their side and therefore any amount of human sacrifice is permissible in the name of the gods.'

    I take it he is saying that the 'seemingly limitless possibilities of human cruelty' are the result of this human certainty of divine sanction/justification for their actions.
    Let me first of all agree with the notion that religious fundamentalism is a profoundly wrong thing. I know I need to defend and clarify that statement for the present company – but it's too late at night right now.

    However, the subtext seems to be something similar to what we have been hearing peddled by Richard Dawkins, that we would all be better off without belief in God.
    After all, Religion causes wars and unspeakable human suffering. etc, etc…

    Which is really all just a dressed up version of the position stated by John Lennon in his humanist hymn:
    Imagine there's no heaven…

    It is important to properly engage with this critique – but again, that would be for another time.

    What really gets me going is how daft it is to agree with Shakespeare in one paragraph – regarding the depravity of a godless world. And in the next paragraph to blame that godless depravity on certain people's belief in God.

    Surely you can't have it both ways?

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