“I have full cause of weeping, but this heart/Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws/Or e’er I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.”

King Lear

Act Two, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


kle_playbill_1859_243x317For my Sunday evening post, and before we dive into Act Three (perhaps the pinnacle OF the pinnacle that is King Lear), I thought we should step back a bit and take a look at how the play itself has been seen over the years – how it climbed up the “hit parade” of Shakespeare’s plays to where it is now – seen as his greatest achievement.

As you all know, I’m very much impressed with Marjorie Garber’s reading of Shakespeare, as found in her book Shakespeare After All.  There’s another book of hers, Shakespeare and Modern Culture which I find equally impressive – a collection of essays with the basic premise “that Shakespeare makes modern culture and that modern culture makes Shakespeare.”


From her essay, “King Lear:  the Dream of Sublimity”

lear mantell“As far back as the late eighteenth century, Hamlet had been considered as perhaps the ‘greatest’ of Shakespeare’s plays, and certainly as his most popular tragedy. Coleridge said so in England, Goethe said so in Germany. But in the middle of the twentieth century, a shift occurred in the public consciousness of two of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet and King Lear. This shift was clearly and cogently noted in a 1993 book by R.A. Foakes called Hamlet versus Lear.

Foakes argued that the primacy of Hamlet changed at mid-century in part because of a change in how audiences understood King Lear. When Lear was read as a play about redemption, and particularly Christian redemption, it had a host of fervent admirers, but it nonetheless stood apart from the experience of many. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, Foakes contended, the ‘meaning’ of Lear for audiences and readers began to change in response to cataclysmic world events like the exploding of the hydrogen bomb, political turmoil in Eastern Europe and Cuba, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the start of the Vietnam War. The play then ‘became Shakespeare’s bleakest and most despairing vision of suffering, all hints of consolation undermined or denied.”

In support of his thesis Foakes presented three lists: a list of critics who called Hamlet Shakespeare’s ‘best’ or ‘greatest’ play, or at least his greatest tragedy; a list of other critics (some as early as the nineteenth century or the first years of the twentieth) who made similar claims for King Lear; and a list of major events of the period 1954-65, beginning with the explosion of the H-bomb on Bikini Atoll and the consequent spread of nuclear fallout to Japanese fishing  boats and to islanders in the region, and ending with the first bombing of North Vietnam and the Watts riots in Los Angeles. His claims are not causal but relational; the world, or at least the world of Shakespeare readers, directors, and students, was ready for a new Lear, or receptive to the Lear that they now found and made.

Had he continued his list beyond 1965, Foakes might have listed two more tragic American assassinations, those of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; as well as the growth of the counterculture and the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’; the intensification of both the Vietnam War and resistance to it, and the ‘events of 68’ in France, Prague, and around the world. ‘Never trust anyone over thirty’ was a saying that emerged out of the Free Speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-sixties, but its resonances continued through the next several years, in politics, generational conflict, music, and popular culture.

How can we calibrate and document the reasons why King Lear rose on the Shakespearean stock market in the middle of the twentieth century? In doing so we will see that the trend was not ‘universal’ (to use yet another one of the words of high praise characteristically applied to both Hamlet and Lear as well as to Shakespeare himself). Praise for the relevance and moral power of King Lear was not usually, if ever, linked to any dispraise of Hamlet. It was rather, as Foakes claimed in the last sentence of his book, that in his view, and the view of several other critics at the time, King Lear, ‘speaks more largely than the other tragedies to the anxieties and problems of the modern world.’

We should not, from the perspective of the first decade of the twenty-first century, that there has been a certain, perhaps inevitable, fluctuation in the market, with high-school and college students, particularly, returning to a closer identification with Hamlet than with Lear. Fueled by the spate of new action-oriented Hamlet films starting Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh – not to mention the ‘slacker Hamlet’ played by Ethan Hawke in director Michael Almeredya’s version, filmed in 2000 – younger viewers find it easier to identify with Hamlet than to find a place for themselves within King Lear. When I met with a group of secondary school teachers to discuss the presentation of Shakespeare in the classroom, several of them mentioned that Lear was a difficult play to teach. Although the instructors responded to the play’s bleakness and sublimity, the students tended to find it somewhat estranging. If their mode of reading is not existential or allegorical, the plight of the old king may strike them as distant from their own concerns, and none of the younger generation – Edmund or Edgar, Goneril, Regan, or even Cordelia – is so readily available as a transferential ‘hero.’

The role of Hamlet in the formation of modern culture seemed to have been predicated on one of several scripts, like personal identification, as in Coleridge’s ‘I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may so’; biographical detection, as in psychoanalyst Ernest Jones’s claim that ‘the play is almost universally considered to be the chief masterpiece of one of the greatest minds the world has known. It probably expresses the core of Shakespeare’s philosophy and outlook on life as no other work of his does’; or allegorical extrapolation, as in Emerson’s famous declaration in his ‘American Scholar’ address that ‘the time is infected with Hamlet’s unhappiness, — ‘Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’’ When Emerson made this observation in 1837, it was already something of a truism – a commonplace phrase that would be recognized by his listeners. (Indeed he went on to say that things were in fact not ‘so bad,’ that the time was ‘a very good one,’ in which literature was responding to the ‘topics of the time,’ the complex political and social needs of the ear.)  But the sentiment continued to be expressed for the next hundred years and more.

For Georg Brandes, the Danish critic, author of an influential study of Shakespeare published in English translation in 1902, Hamlet was emblematic of ‘the typical modern character, with its intense feeling of the strife between the idea and the actual world.’ Notice the recurrence of this word ‘modern,’ which seems almost reflexively to have come to indicate something of the affinity critical observers felt with Hamlet as a character. They recognized themselves, as well as their times, in him.

In Europe, especially, this overthinking, underacting Hamlet was considered a version of the irresolution of political intellectuals, whose ideas could not be translated into action – and it was but a short step to identifying the malaise of an entire nature in this way. Foakes notes that ‘Germany is Hamlet’ was the beginning of a poem written in the mid-nineteenth century, and both Poland and Russia had moments of thinking of themselves, explicitly, as Hamlet. In France, Mallarme saw Hamlet as a kind of ghost, tormented with the necessity of having to appear. The French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel reflected on Mallarme’s observations: ‘With Hamlet their appeared a theme…which waited two centuries to find an atmosphere it could develop in the attraction to Night, the penchant for unhappiness, the bitter communion between the shadows and this anguish of being mortal.

‘Hamlet’ became cultural code for ‘a troubled, indecisive, or capricious person (OED). A character in Eugene O’Neill’s play A Moon for the Misbegotten (written in the period 1941-43) confides that ‘suddenly, for no reason, all the fun went out of it, and I was more melancholy than ten hamlets.’ Not only was ‘a Hamlet’ moody, though; he was often ineffectual, rendered immobile by too much consideration. The shorthand notion of Hamlet as a delayer who misses his moment has continued in political discourse throughout the twentieth century and to the present day. Thus, for example, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, George P. Schultz, cautioned that ‘We cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations, worrying suddenly over whether and how to respond.’

To a certain extent this version of the modern Hamlet has been recuperated by actors and critics who have made him into an action hero in a time of inaction. In this view, it was the time that was out of joint, not the hero. If Olivier’s Hamlet was, famously, ‘a man who could not make up his mind,’ he was, nonetheless, a heroic figure, struggling against a corrupt world.

In any case, though, whether heroic or neurasthenic, athletic or languorous, thinking too much of just thinking, Hamlet became a byword, a figure for intense (even overintense) subjectivity – personality, individuality, consciousness.

But this has never been the case with King Lear. For all its use of soliloquy, and Lear’s impassioned and brilliant speeches in act 3, the play of King Lear, which has been interpreted in a wide range of ways over time, has come for us to signify something else that is modern: the emptiness, illogic, terror, and absurdity of the modern condition. The play has been read in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as an existential allegory, as a social treatise, as a philosophical statement: an icon of modern life, not of modern man.

Some earlier critics had already elevated Lear above Hamlet. William Hazlitt, the Romantic critic, for example, expressed the opinion that King Lear ‘is the best of all Shakespeare’s plays,’ basing his argument, interestingly, in part on a claim of sincerity: ‘it is the one in which he was most earnest.’ For Hazlitt ‘the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted,’ since ‘the greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual, and if we read the play rather than watch an actor in the role, ‘we see not Lear, but we are Lear.’ A.C. Bradley, in his Oxford lectures on Shakespearean tragedy, expressed the view that Lear was ‘Shakespeare’s greatest achievement’ (although he thought it ‘not his best play’):

King Lear has again and again been described as Shakespeare’s greatest work, the best of his plays, the tragedy in which he exhibits most fully his multitudinous powers; and if we were doomed to lose all his dramas except one, probably the majority of those who know and appreciate him best would pronounce for keeping King Lear.

Yet this tragedy is certainly the last popular of the famous four. The ‘general reader’ reads it less often than the others, and though he acknowledges its greatness, he will sometimes speak of it with a certain distaste.’

Hamlet, by contrast, is several times described by Bradley, admiringly, as ‘the most popular of Shakespeare’s tragedies on our stage’ and as the play that is highest in ‘general esteem.’ But popularity was only one gauge. In trying to explain why and how King Lear could be Shakespeare’s ‘greatest’ without being his ‘best play,’ Bradley had telling recourse to the comparison with other arts. He says that Lear is ‘greater than’ Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth, and the ‘fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power’ (‘I find that I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.’)

As we will see, this intuition, linking King Lear to the profoundest achievements of Dante, Beethoven, and Michelangelo, speaks not only to the language of suffering, but also to the question of sublimity. IN fact the story of King Lear in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries offers a striking example of the intersection between timeliness and timelessness that has been a hallmark of Shakespeare’s persistent modernity since Ben Jonson eulogized him as ‘not of an age, but for all time.’ In the case of King Lear, this meant not so much an ‘identification’ with the hero’s dilemma, as with the way in which the hero’s consciousness of catastrophe became a cultural mise-en-scene.

From the 1960s on, King Lear held price of place among Shakespeare’s ‘greatest’ plays, at least in the view of many. In its first edition, in 1962, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, the basic canonical textbook for college English majors across the United States, printed only two plays by Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part 1 and King Lear (not Hamlet). In 1975 the Yale English scholar Maynard Mack published a short book called King Lear in Our Time, based upon lectures he had given at Berkeley in the previous year. At the same time there appeared for the first time in English translation another, equally influential book that also put King Lear at its center, the Polish writer Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Kott’s interpretation became vastly important for the itinerary of King Lear in the theater and on film from the sixties on. In both of these books – books which could not; in other ways, be more different – the word ‘our,’ a classic shifter (whose time? whose contemporary?) signals both a problem and a market for modernity.

But the story begins much further back.

When Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Shakespeare editor dictionary maker, poet, and moralist, came to edit the scene of Cordelia’s death for his edition of 1765, he added a personal note in his edition: ‘I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.’

Johnson’s shock was, we might think, salutary and indicative of the play’s power – but for critics, writers, and audiences in the years before this, the death of Cordelia was a major flaw, and one that could be, and was, corrected. Shakespeare was a great poet, no doubt, but he lived in a barbarous age, and his works could be ‘improved’ according to modern taste – the modern taste of the Restoration, the last years of the seventeenth century. Shakespeare died in 1616; the First Folio of his plays was published, by friends in 1623, ‘according to the true and perfect copies’ of the plays he had left them; in 1681, only half a century later, Nahum Tate had rewritten the play, as Shakespeare would have written it had he only known how to do so. From 1681 until 1838, some 150 years, only Nahum Tate’s King Lear was performed on the English stage. You could read Shakespeare’s play, but you could not see it performed. Hazlitt and Keats read Shakespeare, but they saw Shakespeare as rewritten by Tate.

lear tateWhat kinds of ‘improvements’ did Nahum Tate make? Well, centrally, he invented what he clearly felt lay close beneath the surface: a love affair between Cordelia and Edgar. Cordelia thus consciously ‘tempts’ her father to leave her no dowry, so that Burgundy will refuse to marry her, and she will be free to pursue a relationship with Edgar. (Both the King of France and the Fool are eliminated completely from the plot, since the first seemed superfluous, and the second, indecorous.)

Cordelia is indeed fairly crafty. She at first refuses Edgar, so as to test his love for her, driving him to the device of disguising himself so that he may prove his love and be of potential service to his lady. (This is also what Kent does in Shakespeare’s play, disguising himself as a common man so as to serve the exiled and broken King.) In Tate’s version, Cordelia is abducted by ruffians at the behest of Edmund, who plans to rape her. She is rescued by the disguised Edgar, who then can reveal his real identity, and the lovers exit, satisfactorily, together. At the end of the play Lear, who has been sleeping in his prison with his head in Cordelia’s lap, rouses himself when soldiers come to kill her, dispatches two of them, and holds on valiantly until Edgar and Albany come to rescue them. The play, in short, has become a melodrama – very effective theater, though not the play Shakespeare wrote.

Nevertheless, Tate’s version was ‘Shakespeare’ on the English stage for a century and a half, until the great actors and theater managers of the middle of the century restored Shakespeare’s words and actions. William Macready was the first, in 1838, and from that time Shakespeare’s play displaced Nahum Tate’s. The Fool, banished as coarse and grotesque – the very elements that would make him a perfect figure for twentieth-century modernity – returned to the play, but initially, for Victorians, more like a sprite than a sage. (Maynard Mack reminds us that this was the time of Peter Pan.)

Edmund Kean (1787-1833) as Lear, from 'King Lear' by William Shakespeare (engraving) (b/w photo)And what about Lear himself? For a long time on the nineteenth-century stage he was almost a kind of Polonius – a doddering lunatic, an ‘old man teetering about the stage with a walking stick,’ as Charles Lamb said. The majestic actor Edmund Kean, wrote Hazlitt, “driveled and looked vacant.’ The magnificent language of the play, the towering speeches, the enormous pathos of conception and experience, were often turned into something like bathos instead. It was only gradually that the change was perceived, a return to the region of the sublime.

The later nineteenth century, and the early twentieth century, insulated itself in a way from the raw emotions produced by the play by overproducing it – elaborate stage sets, caves, huts, storms mechanically evoked, where the noise of the stage machines overwhelms the actor and the voice, leaving nothing to imagination – and also by situating the play in deep time – at the time of Stonehenge, or early Britain, with a kind of resolute primitivism. That was then; this is now. The language of the play permits an early modern as well as an ancient British ambiance – ‘robes and furred gowns hide all,’ says Lear.


On the eve of World War II, in 1938, W.B. Yeats published a poem called ‘Lapis Lazuli’ about the transformative emotion of tragedy. In the central stanza, Hamlet and Lear are yoked together as, implicitly, the greatest or most canonical figures in Shakespeare’s works:

All perform their tragic play,

There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,

That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;

Yet they, should the last scene be there,

The great stage curtain about to drop,

If worthy their prominent part in the play,

Do not break up their lines to weep.

They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;

Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.

All men have aimed at, found and lost;

Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:

Tragedy wrought to its uttermost

Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,

And all the drop scenes drop at once

Upon a hundred thousand stages,

It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

A drop scene is an alternative term for what is more usually called, in the theater, a drop or act-drop – that is, the painted curtain lowered on the stage between acts to shut off the audience from a view of the stage. But the term ‘drop scene’ was also used, as early as the mid-nineteenth century, in explicitly political and cultural contexts, to mean the final scene of a drama in real life. And ‘blackout’ another technical term from theater, means ‘the darkening of a stage during a performance,’ or ‘a darkened stage.’ But by 1938 the term was also frequently used in Britain to describe the compulsory extinguishing or covering of lights at night to protect against air raids. (Pilots, both German and Allied, also sometimes suffered ‘blackouts’ of consciousness because of sharp turns in the air or fast acceleration.)

So in Yeats’ poem, all Europe is a stage. Everyone is a Shakespearean character, whether he or she knows it or not. ‘There struts Hamlet, there is Lear/That’s Ophelia, that’s Cordelia.’  Both on and off the stage we are actors, and we hold to our parts. ‘If worthy their prominent part in the play/[They] do not break up their lines [i.e. come out of character] to weep.’ Art is cognate to life; it anticipates it and scripts it. And art in this vision is even ameliorative – ‘gaiety transforming all that dread.’ Art is what we are trying to save the world for. As well as what may, unwittingly, save it.

Tragedy wrought to its uttermost

Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,

And all the drop scenes drop at once

Upon a hundred thousand stages,

But this vision, so close upon apocalypse of a kind – the glimpse of an Ireland and a Britain caught between terrifying modernity and elusive transcendence – is still offered at the level of high art. ‘Tragedy’ is an aesthetic category, and, indeed, a saving one.

What happened to King Lear in the 1960s and after, what propelled it past Hamlet into the top place in the pecking order of Shakespeare’s plays was the way, precisely, that it combined the affective sublime (Lear and Cordelia) with the bathetic grotesque (the Fool, the blinding of Gloucester). In other words, the very thing that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries objected to – a certain indecorum, a certain excessiveness, a certain nihilism – was what made the play so modern, and so devastating. A few lines stand as suggestive signposts:

Kent’s ‘Is this promised end? followed by Edgar’s ‘Or image of that horror?’

Edgar’s ‘I would not take this from report; it is,/And my heart breaks at it.’

Lear’s ‘Howl, howl, howl, howl!’

And the final lines of the play: ‘[W]e that are young,/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’

lear_1962_gallery_prod_04Against the array of world-disrupting events that took place in the late fifties and sixties, King Lear came to look, perhaps, all too familiar. Even the tensions between father and outspoken daughter had their local resonances. Poor Tom and the Fool seemed very familiar characters. The bleakness of the Lear landscape was like the bleakness of an atomic winter – or the bareness of a stage.

Her is the voice of William Butler Yeats again, this time as essayist, commenting on what makes a play work. Yeats was a brilliant modern playwright, very involved in staging as well as in the text. His own plays are very spare, as are the plays of Samuel Beckett. But what he found so exciting and successful about Shakespeare was what he called ‘emotion of multitude.’

‘The Shakespearean Drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is Gloster, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow till it has pictured the world.’

It is never the case that ‘influence’ goes only one way. The terrifying developments on the world stage, from the atom bomb to the Korean and Vietnam wars, were certainly contributory causes to the new view of King Lear, but so, equally, were the New Theater and anti-theater then being developed and staged in Paris, New York, London, and other places around the world. The fifties and sixties were also a time of enormous creativity and growth in theater, from the so-called Theatre of the Absurd to the kind of conceptual art event, improvised performance, or situation known as a ‘happening.’ The term happening was coined by the artist Allan Kaprow, whose first exhibition in this mode – an ‘event’ of eighteen ‘happenings’ – took place in 1959. The term enjoyed a lively currency for the next decade. As for ‘Theatre of the Absurd,’ a label that is sometimes contested, its invention has been credited to the theater critic Martin Esslin, who used it as the title of a 1962 book on playwrights like Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter.

This was King Lear time – or one of its times. We have seen that Bradley and Hazlitt and in fact many others, like Keats, thought of King Lear as Shakespeare’s crowning achievement one hundred and almost two hundred years ago. But to the cold war generation and the postwar art world, the play seemed like a prescient vision of the present moment. And, importantly, it was not so much because of the pathos of its title character (or his daughter), but because of the worldview the play seemed to body forth – a bleak, bombed-out landscape of nihilism. In fact the characters that seemed most ‘modern’ and familiar to this contemporary world were not the kings, dukes, or courtiers, but the Fool, Poor Tom (the disguised Edgar), and the mutilated Gloucester, stumbling across the stage, perched on what he thinks is the top of Dover Cliff without the use of his eyes, persuaded into a pratfall (falling from flat stage to flat stage), which is a comic gesture and not a tragic one. Chaplin’s Little Tramp was the social and sartorial model here, a ragged figure who faced each new and unexpected task with aplomb, and without self-pity.

How did King Lear come to be both the icon of Shakespearean greatness for the mid- to late twentieth century and, at the same time, the most ‘modern’ modernist, and indeed postmodern of Shakespearean plays?

There is, of course, never an answer to ‘how’ something like this happens. But history, politics, and theater were becoming, perhaps had already become, versions of one another. And in this case, perhaps surprisingly, the spark that lit the fire was a book of literary criticism.”


And that book was, of course, Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary.  More, then, from Kott’s essay on King Lear, picking up from last Sunday’s post:

festlear_640It is this situation that Durrenmatt’s Romulus finds himself in. He is the last emperor of a crumbling empire. He will not alter the course of history. History has made a fool of him. He can either die in a spectacular fashion, or lie on his bed and wait to be butchered. He can surrender, compose. speeches, or commit suicide. In his position as the last Roman emperor, every one of these solutions is compromising and ridiculous. History has turned Romulus into a clown, and yet demands him to treat her seriously. Romulus has only one good move to make: consciously to accept the part of a clown and play it to the end. He can breed chickens. In this way the historical inevitability will have been made a fool of. The absolute will have been flouted …

Antigone is a tragedy of choice, Oedipus a tragedy of ‘unmerited guilt’ and destiny. The gods loyally warn the protagonist that fate has destined him to be a patricide and his own mother’s husband. The hero has full freedom of decision and action. The gods do not interfere; they just watch and wait until he makes a mistake. Then they punish him. The gods are just, and punish the hero for a crime he has indeed committed, and only after he has committed it. But the protagonist had to commit a crime. Oedipus wanted to cheat fate, but did not an~ could not escape it. He fell into a trap, made his mistake, killed his father and married his mother. What is to happen will happen.

The tragedy of Oedipus may, perhaps, be posed as a problem belonging to the game theory. The game is just, i.e. at the outset both partners must have the same chances of losing or winning, and both must play according to the same rules. In its game with Oedipus Fate does not invoke the help of the gods, does not change the laws of nature. Fate wins its game without recourse to miracles.

The game must be just, but at the same time must be so arranged that the same party always wins; so that Oedipus always loses.

Let us imagine an electronic computer which plays chess and calculates any number of moves in advance. A man must play chess with an electronic computer, cannot leave or break the game, and has to lose the game. His defeat is just, because it is effected according to the rules of the game; he loses because he has made a mistake. But he could not have won.

A man losing the chess-game with an electronic computer, whom he himself has fed with combinatorial analysis and rules, whom he himself has ‘taught’ to play, is not a tragic hero any more. If he plays that chess-game from the moment he was born until he dies, and if he has to lose, he will at most be the hero of a tragi-grotesque. All that is left of tragedy is the concept of ‘unmerited guilt’, the inevitable defeat and unavoidable mistake. But the absolute has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by the absurdity of the human situation.

The absurdity does not consist in the fact that man-made mechanisms are under certain conditions stronger, and even wider, than he. The absurdity consists in that they create a compulsory situation by forcing him into a game in which the probability of his total defeat constantly increases. The Christian view of the end of the world, with the Last Judgement and its segregation of the just and the unjust, is pathetic. The end of the world caused by the atomic bomb is spectacular, but grotesque just the same. Such an end of the world is intellectually unacceptable, either to Christians or to Marxists. It would be a silly ending.

The comparison between fate’s game with Oedipus, and a game of chess with an electronic computer, is not precise enough. An automatic device to play chess, even if it could compute any number of moves, need not win all the time. It would simply more often win than lose. But among automatic devices that really exist one could find a much better example. There is a machine for a game similar to tossing coins for ‘heads or tails’. I put a coin on the table the way I like, with ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ on top. The machine does not see the coin, but it has to predict how I have put it. If it gives the right answer, it wins. I inform the machine whether it has given the right answer. I put down the coin again, and so on. After a time the machine begins to win by giving the right answers more and more often. It has memorized and learned my system; it has deciphered me, as it were. It foresees that after three ‘heads’ I will put down two ‘tails’. I change the system, and play using a different method. The blind machine learns this one too, and begins to win again. I am endowed with free will and have the freedom of choice. I can put down ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. But in the end, like Oedipus, I must lose the game.

There is a move by which I do not lose. I do not put the coin on the table, I do not choose. I simply toss it. I have given up the system, and left matters to chance. Now the machine and I have even chances. The possibility of win and lose, of ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ is the same. It amounts to fifty-fifty. The machine wanted me to treat it seriously, to play rationally with it, using a system, a method. But I do not want to. It is I who have now seen through the machine’s method.

The machine stands for fate, which acts on the principle of the law of averages. In order to have even chances with fate I must become fate myself; I must chance my luck; act with a fifty-fifty chance. A man who, when playing with the machine, gives up his free will and freedom of choice, adopts an attitude to fate similar to that which Durrenmatt’s Romulus adopted with regard to historical necessity. Instead of putting the coin with ‘heads’ on top a hundred times in succession, or ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ in turn, or two ‘tails’ after ten ‘heads’, he would just toss the coin. That kind of man most certainly is not a tragic hero. He has adopted a clownish attitude to fate. Romulus is such a man.

In modern tragedy, fate, gods and nature have been replaced by history. History is the only framework of reference, the final authority to accept or reject the validity of human actions. It is unavoidable and realizes its ultimate aims; it is objective ‘reason’, as well as objective ‘progress’. In this scheme of things history is a theatre with actors, but without an audience. No one watches the performance, for everybody is taking part. The script of this grand spectacle has been composed in advance and includes a necessary epilogue, which will explain everything. But, as in the commedia dell’ arte, the text has not been written down. The actors improvise and only some of them foresee correctly what will happen in the following acts. In this particular theatre the scene changes with the actors; they are constantly setting it up and pulling it down again.

Actors are often wrong, but their mistakes have been foreseen by the scenario. One might even say that mistakes are the basis of the script, and that it is thanks to them that the action unfolds. History contains both the past and the future. Actors from previous scenes keep coming back, repeating old conflicts, and want to play parts that are long since over. They needlessly prolong the performance and have to be removed from the stage. They arrived too late. Other actors have arrived too early and start performing a scene from the next act, without noticing that the stage is not yet ready for them. They want to speed up the performance, but this cannot be done: every act has to be performed in its proper order. Those who arrive too early are also removed from the stage.

It is these parts that nineteenth-century philosophy and literature considered tragic. For Hegel the tragic heroes of history were those who came too late. Their reasons were noble but one-sided. They had been correct in the previous era, in..!he preceding act. If they continue to insist on them, they must be crushed by history. The Vendee was for Hegel an example of historical tragedy. Count Henry in Krasinski’s Undivine Comedy is a Hegelian tragic hero.

Those who came too early, striving in vain to speed up the course of history, are also history’s tragic heroes. Their reasons, too, are one-sided; they will become valid only at the next historical phase, in the succeeding act. They failed to understand that freedom is only the conscious recognition of necessity. Consequently they were annihilated by historical necessity, which solves only those problems that are capable of solution. The Paris Commune is an example of this kind of historical tragedy. Pancrace in the Undivine Comedy is a tragic hero of history thus conceived.

King_Lear9_webThe grotesque mocks the historical absolute, as it has mocked the absolutes of gods, nature and destiny. It does so by means of the so-called ‘barrel of laughs’, a popular feature of any funfair: a score of people or more try to keep their balance while the upturned barrel revolves round its axis. One can only keep one’s balance by moving on the bottom in the opposite direction to, and with the same speed as, the barrel’s movement. This is not at all easy. Those who move too fast or too slow in relation to the barrel’s movement are bound to fall. The barrel brings them up, then they roll downwards trying desperately to cling to the moving floor. The more violent their gestures and their grip on the walls, the more difficult it is for them to get up, and the more funny they look.

The barrel is put in motion by a motor, which is transcendental in relation to it. However, one may easily imagine a barrel that is set in motion by the people inside it: by those who manage to preserve their balance and by those who fall over. A barrel like this would be immanent. Its movements would, of course, be variable: sometimes it would revolve in one direction, sometimes in the other. It would be even more difficult to preserve one’s balance in a barrel like this: one would have to change step all the time, move forwards and backwards, faster or slower. In such an immanent barrel many more people would fall over. But neither those who fall because they move too fast, nor those who fall because they move too slow, are tragic heroes. They are just grotesque. They will be grotesque even if there is no way out of this immanent barrel. The social mechanism shown in most of Adamov’s plays is very much like the barrel of laughs.

The world of tragedy and the world of grotesque have a similar structure. Grotesque takes over the themes of tragedy and poses the same fundamental questions. Only its answers are different. This dispute about the tragic and grotesque interpretation of human fate reflects the everlasting conflict of two philosophies and two ways of thinking; of two opposing attitudes defined by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski as the irreconcilable antagonism between the priest and the clown. Between tragedy and grotesque there is the same conflict for or against such notions as eschatology, belief in the absolute, hope for the ultimate solution of the contradiction between moral order and everyday practice. Tragedy is the theatre of priests, grotesque is the theatre of clowns.

This conflict between two philosophies and two types of theatre becomes particularly acute in times of great upheaval.  When established values have been overthrown, and there is no appeal to God, Nature, or History from the tortures inflicted by the cruel world, the clown becomes the central figure in the theatre. He accompanies the exiled trio – the King, the nobleman and his son – on their cruel wanderings through the cold endless night which has fallen on the world; through the ‘cold night’ which, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘will turn us all to fools and madmen’.


Our next reading:  King Lear, Act Three

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning

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2 Responses to “I have full cause of weeping, but this heart/Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws/Or e’er I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.”

  1. Lesley says:

    Much to ponder in this post, Dennis. Thanks for the historical context.

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