“King Lear shows me how to ask what to hold on to and what it is right to let go of,” writes Arthur Frank in King Lear: Shakespeare’s Dark Consolations.
This recently published book is part of Oxford University Press’s My Reading series, which offers personal models of what it is like to care about particular authors and works, and to show their effect upon a reader’s own thinking and development.
Frank is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at University of Calgary and his work has focused on the experience of serious illness.
Read an excerpt below from the first chapter.
Why is this book about King Lear? Because I needed, as a companion, a story about fathers, about the love between parents and children, and about the destruction that tensions between generations can bring about. My father celebrated his 101st birthday at the time I began writing this manuscript. He lives across the continent from me, alone in the house he and my mother moved to more than fifty years ago. My mother died when my father was ninety-three. During the years leading to his 101st birthday my visits had become more frequent and turned increasingly into care of my father, a significant part of which is care of his house as it too gets old, and exchanging many messages with those whom I hire to offer him direct care when I can’t be there.
After my mother’s death, my father undertook some projects that improved his life and others he could start but not finish; my wife and I had to pick up the pieces. As years passed, the disconnection between what I and professional caregivers believed he needed and what he insisted he could do for himself led to some difficult encounters. Reading King Lear, I once again felt the companionship of living my version of a very old story. Then my sense of connection shifted. The old man I saw reflected in Lear was myself as well as my father.
‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ (1.4.203), Lear asks in a moment of desperation as his identity is stripped away. My father asks me that question, in his own words, almost every evening when I call him. Slowly and reluctantly I realized I was asking that question myself. Old age makes Lear’s question inescapable: I become less sure about the person I am becoming. King Lear shows me how to ask what to hold on to and what it is right to let go of, an issue my father and I share with most people our age. What parts of the person I have been should I continue to try to be? Behind that lurks the complementary question of what I have been in my younger life. Old age should be haunted by Lear’s self-criticism, ‘I have ta’en / Too little care of this’ (3.4.35–6). I need a story that offers itself as a witness to the losses and uncertainty implied in having to ask myself who I now am; not a story to answer that question, but one that leaves open future possibility. King Lear, a story of two old men and their children, offers itself.
But here I remember Dromgoole’s warning: Lear is not there to be an image of my father or of me. King Lear does mirror my troubles, but to see only that would be narcissism; it would miss the story’s magic of taking us elsewhere. To reduce any of the characters in Lear to being who I want them to be treats them not as companions but as sidekicks. The sidekick walks a step behind, supporting, not questioning. A companion should provoke us, cause us to rethink what we need and what we ought to desire. King Lear provokes us in multiple ways, and those provocations give the play’s eventual consolations their feel of truth, the truth of what we may need to hear, rather than what we want to hear.
Nor does King Lear reduce to being only about ageing and its twin threats of irrelevance and madness. Nothing ever occurs one at a time in Shakespeare. I like moments in the Shakespeare productions at the Globe when the actors who have been in one scene literally run off stage while those in the next scene enter, already speaking. Writing about the play is a struggle against separating too neatly what in the playing of the play runs on, overlaps, and interrupts. Chapters 2–6 of this book follow the play act by act, because arranging the chapters by thematic concerns risks reducing how enmeshed the familial and political, economic and emotional, mundane and transcendental are in King Lear. Shakespeare draws us into the maelstrom where these issues converge; from their entanglement he creates drama.
King Lear is about insiders who with terrible suddenness are shoved outside, and what they learn or don’t learn from finding themselves positioned there. Some learn about power and what sustains it. Others learn about the riddle of what we call identity and what props it up. Issues of power and identity are cross-cut by human vulnerability to deception. In the play’s darkest moments of destructive rivalry and cruelty, characters’ bodily suffering instigates their struggles against the limits of what language can express. All this begins with, and never stops being about, our human difficulty believing that we are loved and have a capacity to love.
I come to Lear with my own anxieties and preoccupations, not only the critical and chronic illness experiences that I lived myself and then studied for thirty years but also the political moment at which I write. You who read bring your own. The challenge in reading King Lear is to let Shakespeare speak to our troubles, but in his magical terms: to go far enough into his world for that to change how we experience our own. In the theatre we trust the actors who in turn trust Shakespeare’s words. Those actors are making constant decisions about how to play their parts. Reading King Lear, we have to be actors and audience, both. We can’t sit back in the dark and expect it to happen without our participation.
© Arthur Frank
Extract from King Lear: Shakespeare’s Dark Consolations (My Reading) by Oxford University Press in August 2022, available in hardback and eBook formats, £18.99
Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.