I saw BAM’s staging of "King Lear" this weekend and thought this blog would be about the titular role. Lear is the play’s cynosure, but Shakespeare spreads his talents liberally–no character goes without his quotient of richly rendered language or keen moral insight. Even the immortal lines of the play’s chief villain, Edmund, have just as much truth as anything mouthed by Lear:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance
(Act I, Scene II)
But even if the evil Edmund reminds us that his tragic victims can themselves be fools, excusing their mistakes result merely from the whims of gods, Gloucester–one of the many targets of Edmunds treachery, and those treacherous lines–at least gives them equally pleasing expression. In Gloucestor’s famous riposte, he says: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport." (Act IV, Scene I).
Surely there are reams of rabbinical commentary on the timeless question both these quotes address: how much can we really control? Even if we have free will, are we not just hapless pawns in some absurd and cosmic game?
But rather than even attempt an answer at that one, I instead want to point out just one other Jewish anecdote that struck me while watching "Lear." It’s the uncanny Biblical allusion we get from Gloucester and his deceit by his own sons–the evil Edmund, and his naive brother, Edgar. In "Lear," the relationship between Gloucester is meant to mirror the deception Lear gets at the hands of his daughters. Early in the play, Gloucester’s son Edmund tricks him into thinking his other son, Edgar, is trying to kill Gloucester and inherent his sizable estate.
The same thing is going on simultaneously with Lear and his daughters: Goneril and Regan feign adoration for their father even though all they really want is his empire. When Cordelia refuses to offer that kind of sycophantry–"Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty / According to my bond; nor more nor less."–Lear banishes her from his palace. Flattery gets the better of him, at least then.
But the subplot between Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar has another parallel too: Jacob and Esau, and their aging father Isacc. I have no idea whether that Hebraic tale was circulating in the Bard’s mind when he devised this storyline, and neither do I care to suggest it. Merely being reminded of the Biblical parallel made me search for paths of convergence.
There are many.
Just as Gloucester is physically blinded–Goneril has his eyes gouged out in one of the most horrofic scenes Shakespeare ever wrote–Isaac is going blind from old age. When these respective fathers lose their sight, both their sons try to deceive them. What I find most fascinating is that it is the good son, not the evil one, who does the deception. Edgar, not Edmund, assumes the identity of a lost country fool in order to assist his father in a suicide. Likewise, in the Book of Genesis, it is Jacob, not the more brutish and wicked Esau, who tricks his blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that will gaurantee him God’s promised land.
Of course the power of both Shakespeare’s "Lear" and so many of the Hebrew Bible’s tales is their moral ambiguity. Esau is certainly no devil, for instance, at least not when we first meet him in Genesis. He is simply deprived of his mother’s love, which is showered on his twin brother Jacob instead. And it is their mother Rebeccah who instructs Jacob to cover himself in animal hide in order to trick his father into believing he is his hirsute brother, Esau. Naturally, Esau is enraged by this wanton betrayal, and his wickedness seems to stem from his decision to wage war against Jacob in retaliation.
Jacob is no saint, either, of course. I for one find his willful servitude to his mother morally indefensible. Speaking of free will, does he not have one? Can he not disobey his mother no matter her orders? No matter their source? This being the Bible, though, that source is critical: God. It is God, after all, who tells Rebeccah that Jacob will be the rightful scion to the kingdom in Jerusalem. She uses that prophecy as a moral absolution, telling herself that since God promised Jerusalem to Jacob, and not Esau, it is okay for her order Jacob to steal his brother’s blessing.
This is the God of the Bible, and these our the Jewish people’s founders. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, their actions comfort as much as they confound us. In any event, Shakespeare offers his own absolution for what are clearly the poor choices of human beings. Nor was he above expressing, and so eloquently, the dubious consolations we tell ourselves in order to absolve us of responsibility. Those words are best said by Gloucester, in the fourth act, and their worth repeating again: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport."
Or at least that’s what we wish.