Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air
(So many fathom down precipitating),
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg: but thou dost breathe,
Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st, art sound.
Ten masts at each, make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.
–from Shakespeare’s “King Lear”
Dr. Natalie Elliot–a Political Science professor at St. John’s here in Santa Fe–gave a talk tonight on “The Weight of Pathos in King Lear” and it was so hefty and lumbering (the most zaftig of discussions!) that I rushed home to unburden myself of a passion to reread the play immediately.
When Shakespeare was writing the play in 1606, falling body experience (the theory that all bodies fall at the same rate) was all the vogue in scientific circles.
So when it comes to the scene above from the end of Act IV (in which Edgar–disguised as a beggar–leads his suicidal father–the blinded Gloucester–over what Edgar pretends are the cliffs of Dover–and then makes his father believe he has survived a great fall) it is a sort of science experiment. Gloucester cannot trust his senses–and at the same time the language is all about “weightiness” and “welling up”–the “pathos” in the title of the lecture.
Six years ago, my father was hospitalized next to a Shakespeare scholar who had been run over by a taxi. (Leave it to my Dad to find his match as a conversationalist in his hospital roommate.) The two got to talking about “King Lear” and the academic said it was Shakespeare’s best.
“King Lear” is the classic father-daughter play. (Though I always feel sad when Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with his money and breaks his heart in “The Merchant of Venice.”) Cordelia is Lear’s heroic and truthful daughter.
At the time, my father had terminal cancer, and he had never read “King Lear.” What a perfect book to bring him, I thought to myself. Pretty heavy stuff but sort of a primer on mortality.
But when I handed him a paperback of the play, he was horrified that his roommate might see him reading it. He didn’t want to seem that uncool. Anyhow, he was reading a thick volume about World War II that he had just started digging into.
At first I felt sad that he was missing out on what I felt were “key” books–everything from “Anna Karenina” to “Middlemarch”–and so on. Shouldn’t he be burning to read the “classics” (i.e., all the books I held dear) before he died? This was more than a little self-righteous!
In the end, my father never did read “King Lear.” And was he the worse off for it? Probably not. His life didn’t need more heaviness and pathos. He was plenty wise. And if I had been very sick, would he have brought me a door-stopper of a book about World War II to cheer me up in my hospital bed? No, he would have brought me something I liked–just as he brought me comic books when I was a little kid with bronchitis.
And in the end, as Shakespeare wrote, “Thy life’s a miracle.” You don’t have to read “King Lear” to know that much.