A NOTE ON THE WORLD OF KING LEAR
I WAS once asked, and by an undergraduate of this University, how one should approach the tragedy of King Lear, and I was at a loss for an answer. What should I have said? How does one approach a convulsion of Nature? From what angle? With what stratagems? Under what safeguards? I did suggest, I remember, recovering myself, that this concern about the manner of approach was not, on the whole, the frame of mind in which masterpieces, and, above all, such rending masterpieces as this, are best encountered; that it does not much matter how one approaches a great natural upheaval like the tragedy of Lear, but preferably not with one's school prizes under one's arm. My answer, as you may suppose, gave little satisfaction, and yet it was not wholly amiss--being, indeed, only a trifling paraphrase of Lear himself, as he strips to the storm: 'Off, Off, you lendings!' It is the cry of all great tragedy, but nowhere in the literature of the world is the cry so piercing, so practical and imperative as in the drama of Lear.
The command is not easily obeyed, and no reader or spectator is often equal to it. Here's more than three on's are sophisticated! The little arts of life, so painfully evolved, which make us tolerable to one another and even to ourselves, are in a league to resist such tragic denudation: this call of the old king to strip and face the hurricane--to measure oneself with the outcasts under the roof of heaven--to look upon 'the thing itself', that 'poor, bare, forked animal, unaccommodated man'. We are all apt to behave like those sinister callers at Gloucester's castle in the play, as darkness fell, and the bleak winds began their howling:
Shut up your doors, my lord; 'tis a wild night:
My Regan counsels well; come out o' the storm.