“I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep?
No, I’ll not weep.”
These are words spoken by Shakespeare’s character King Lear in the drama of his of that name. They seem to me to be some of the most feelingly pathetic words to have been written – I mean affectingly provocative in a reader who understands them, of a great sorrow and pity – to be found in all of the literature I have read in my lifetime.
As such they appear to me to be a marvel of sympatheitc creativity and of expression of innermost human pathos and suffering. It is for lines of verse such as these that Shakespeare himself stands the premier of his peers in dramatic literature and as up there with the most feelingly creative and passionate human hearts of them all.
There is much romanticising made and said about Shakepeare; Shakespeare as demigod; Shakespeare as icon and saint, as some kind of surrogate for religion – or worse – for God. Lines of verse such as these cited hereabove as spoken by his King Lear then; need therefore to be handled quite circumspectly and without an unwarranted impassioned sentimentality blinding our sights; if one is going to impress the more taciturn of one’s readers with the true greatness of them and so of part of Shakepeare’s real achievment.
I begin nonetheless with a generality which I believe is largely true of human beings at large; and this is that for a person to be able to reach depths of feeling and pain and sorrow and express them in their creative outputs; those same persons have to have at least envisaged and so realised intheir minds and hearts some such levels and depths of passion, of harrowing sorrow and pain.
Most of us get a fair share of upsets and sadnesses in our lives and so get the raw edge of emotion to deal with in our hearts every so often. Some more than others feel their barbs and pangs; some feel these less so; some deal better with them; others deal less well with them; but close to all of us is experience of them.
In as far as the word ‘universal’ can be used safely, we all experience a mixed life of ups and downs. Few of us are so able in communicating our sorrows or our joys in words; neither in dramatic representations; nor even in our demonstrative actions and responses. We have to some degree a situation where we find a barrier before us; not enough vocabulary or articulateness; not enough self-control and discipline to form reasoned and informative expressions; not enough reflective power in our minds to diagnose or to analyse our pains and sorrows; not enough patience to deal with such a poor deal at the time of the height of its affects.
There are many reasons why so few of us make the rolls of honour as writers or as artists; but yet aritsts of all kinds do often take a role for us of being our vents, our articulators, our expressors, our formulators, and our expounders of passion and of that rage of grief and sadness we cannot ourselves put into a manageable shape for discussion, and so for subdual, by our hearts.
Shakespeare was one such par excellence a fumerole, a release, a simulator of our common human life, in its joys and its sorrows; and in great variety and in very broad contexts. Here in King Lear he has surpassed himself even; and I want to place you here in some context of the background of the play King Lear in which this speech of the King’s is situated and spoken; and thus for us to further explore.
Once you have this context; the great passionate words of Lear the King become even more powerful and distressingly feeling in our hearts; and for him and for his own distress we are opened up involuntarily.
The world of the play of King Lear is an Ancient Britain in which the God of Abraham who saves to the uttermost; and the Incarnation of Christ Jesus; neither are known. The Incarnation has not yet occurred in history; and the Israelitish God is known only too far away geographically-speaking to have had impact on the social mileau of the play of King Lear’s setting.
The gods referred to in the play are some of those cluster of Roman deities Juno, Jupiter, and so on; whose characteristics are anarchic and indifferently unconcerned with love and care of humankind. The setting of the drama of Shakepspeare’s King Lear is an existential nightmare; wherein there is no greater court of appeal available than the considerations and judgements of a most falible humankind upon one another.
There is no sense of any higher metaphysical justice or mercy being present; nor of any Providence nor of any teleological or ontological purpose or meaning to the lives of those who live under its terms of existence. King Lear is a play for today indeed for the UK and USA and Europe.
Under such a regime King Lear himself has chosen to abdicate his throne in favour of his three daughters; each of whom shall inherit one third of his domains. Lear reserves for himself some horsemen at arms and an open house of standing hospitality due from his daughters who are to provide for him and for his horsemen.
Lear’s youngest child is Cordelia; a woman pure of heart who refuses to lie and toady; and so be over-egging the cake when Lear asks each daughter previous to each obtaining a share of the Kingdom, how much she loves her father and monarch, King Lear. Two elder daughters Goneril and Regan lay on the lard and speak profuse flatteries and hyperbole in hopes of obtaining the best share. Cordelia is modest and praises proportionately with moderation and judgement.
Lear flares up in anger at Cordelia because she has not gone OTT about her love for her father; and Lear consequently endows half shares of the Kingdom on Regan and on Goneril to spite Cordelia.
Of course his scheming elder daughters collude soon after their inheritance to rid themselves of Lear and of his retinue of horsemen and so they soon leave him destitute of house, of familial love, and of a home. Lear in response to this filial emotional betrayal goes mad and raves violently; just as a great storm starts raging across the Kingdom – it is during his great mad rage and out in the weathers of this great storm that he pronounces those words which form the titlular citation to this essay.
Lear is eighty years old; yet having been one whose every word has been jumped to by his courtiers who surrounded him; whose will has accustomed itself to indulgence without let or hindrance for eighty years; he has never suffered an environment in which he might have been taught by nature about himself and about his charcter and nature. Thus in his self-knowledge he is still but a child; petulant, wilful, volatile and an extremely demanding almost self-righteous prig in his indignation and in his sense of person and entitlement.
Hence his having by his own hand been utterly disempowered and frustrated at every turn; events abetted by his own elder children; these errors of judgement impact upon him and give rise to a manifest uncontrollable madness in his mind; too sudden; too much thwarted; utterly frustrated – his will has driven his mind wholly beyond the pale.
The great storm in which he raves his madness is a representation within the natural world of Lear’s inner turmoils and his mental disorders – a sympathetic outraged outbreak of weather as the King becomes in what were once his own realms no more than a beggar and a ‘houseless wretch’.
His great passion yet pressing upon him he swears revenges on his daughters; but here is the thing; he has much difficulty in framing what such revenges his passion so fiercely demands; that he might wreak them on Goneril and on Regan. His great passionate tantrum is absolutely stonewalled with an mighty impotence of ability to act in revenge or in any other way against his daughters; nor else to weild any power in any other respect He did not foresee this; that when he had given up his power by way of him giving up his kingdom; he had in fact destroyed himself; as well as quelling utterly his standing and everything he had previously taken as a given in his life and realms.
Lear hesitates as he tries to envisage such revenges as he might have, revenges which might be possible from him; he being presently in his destitute position. He finds means to articualtion of his passion, but at a cost of definition and of particularity. He says of his revenges: ‘that all the world shall—I will do such things—What they are yet I know not, but they shall be The terrors of the earth.’
Each hesitation represents a retreat back further into generality and towards hypothesis. that all the world shall—is pretty solid, but he seems to realise that he being no longer King means that the world is no longer at his bidding – and so he moves back a little further – I will do such things— he says, giving himself time for revisions of thought and for marshalling sufficient deeds in his mind to lay approriately upon Goneril and Regan; but again he has to step back yet further to get there with – What they are yet I know not, – a retreat into hypothesis and into an implicit admission of having emptied his bag of tools for use in revenge – however Lear does manage to frame a final peal or two of thunder and these are perhaps the best he can do and offer, under the circumstances he is in, by him saying a deprecation – but they shall be The terrors of the earth.
All in all, his words are bitter fruit for him; they form a part of his late, very late realisation that there are more important things than retinues and pomp and majesty; and in regard to the innocent and kindly Cordelia, more important than flattery and fine words. But the cost to him to have found out this knowledge has been – to use the words of T S Eliot – ‘not less than everything’.
His proposed wreaked revenges as cited above – when they are strung together and viewed as a whole form an expresion of exquisite pain; the pain of loss – of power and of dignity; – of esteem and authority; an expression of perplexed impotence; – of the will to do and to command great things – he is confronted with a dawning understanding that the time has passed irrevocably when he might have been able to do such things; so that his final phrase – they shall be the terrors of the earth – resounds as being a sad and pathetic cry – yet it is also grand and epic simultaneously – a noble, albeit lacking in self-knowledge, man’s realisation that he has been destroyed.
The mediator of such an ambiguity is the phrase – What they are I know not yet – which is a sort of straw Lear grasps at to save his passionate dignity and struggling intention, but by him grasping at it he has not just deferred his decisions on revenge in its particulars, but he has bankrupted his imagination in his having to face that he is now a derelict pauper outcast ex-King.
We might call a person fallen on evil times in our day – or not long since our day – a shabby gentile sort of person – one who holds onto certain pretensions and who claims to some social grandeur and dignity of person; who has fallen in the social ranks and is poorer in wealth than they once were. These afterglow pretensions are a way of the shabby gentile person drawing to themselves the attention of those of an inferior class now circulating around them; an attention to the fact that they are, or were once, something a little better in the eyes of the world. And these pretensions form a way for them asking a little condescention of acknowedgelemt of a right of privilege, even amongst the lower social scale of persons among which they now find themselves mix among by necessity.
The British are very good at this – of giving that undue consideration to such shabby gentile folk; simpy because many British are even now good mannered, but also because of a simple and plain sense of pity we have and show for the unlucky socially mobile downwards types.
This sort of shabby gentile scenario is a King Lear event in trivial anaolgy. Lear’s fall is more like Lucifer’s from Heaven than him merely dropping down a social class or two. It’s impacts are that much more astounding and earth-shattering.
Lear goes on to add the icing to the cake of his pitiful impotence and pathos when he concludes his somewhat histrionic and posed set piece in his words with – You think I’ll weep? No, I’ll not weep.”.
There is defiance here; but far more powerful than defiance is that stubborn refusal to feel self-pity, to gird up his loins and so bear the consequences –
Lear is learning – he is getting a difficult lesson in love and in character; and as an octagenarian. He will not give Goneril and Regan the pleasure of seeing him destroyed and weeping; but also he will not give in to those destructive forces ranged in batallion all around against him. The thought of tears has struck him; and so we can assume he is near to tears; but he is also quick wittedly thinking through events as his learning curve. So he quickly rejects tears, thus holding onto that vestige of dignity which even the natural man – even other beggars like himself – are able to hold onto by way of not stooping to self-indulgent self-pity and weak complaining.
And this too, this decision of Lear’s not to weep, given that we know he has thought of the possibility and is thus near to tears; it enobles him and yet makes him even yet more an object of our pathetic sympathies.
Here perhaps we have in an existentialist atheistic world setting of Ancient Britain, beginnings of a working out in the natural world and by the normal course of things as they are universally found in the existence of men and of women on earth; some few of the first inklings of a possibility of a Revelation akin to that having been given to the Children of Abraham elsewhere in a world yet largely unknown to Lear. Likewise and as a necessary corollory we may also have the first hints of a Redeemer Who is to come; One Who is destined to ‘wipe away the tears from every eye’.
I have little doubt, especially bearing in mind the evidence of his late and final plays, that Shakespeare himself was working through towards some such hypothesis of a Natural Theology being at work in the day to day schemes and experiences of men and women; and that his play King Lear is very much a sounding board of these nascent and developing considerations in his world view.
St Paul of course in his Epistle to the Romans allows that such a Natural Man might have taught to him knowledge of God through the workings of nature and of daily existence surrounding him; however there is in my own experience a long way for a person to go before a person is able to actually to realise and to internalise and so make his/her own, emotionally and spiritually, such a truth of the fact of there being such a Natural Theology.
Once more the words of T S Eliot are shown to be on the money; he says I think indubitably rightly that there is nothing in the spiritual realm to be newly discovered; that there is only spiritual knoweldge which has to be preserved and transmitted; and which sometimes has been lost and so has been needed to be re-discovered or re-unearthed; for the sake of the universal solace and welfare of each subsequent human generation.