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The Oldest Have Borne Most

King Lear and the Nihilism of Being Old

It's Oktoberfest, and I'm surrounded by King Lears.

Portrait of my dad sitting in a chair with me on one side and my brother, John, on the other.
My father and two of his "Cordelias": John, right, and myself. Photo by Dawn Surratt.

I'm visiting my 84-year-old father at his retirement center home. Since Dad had a serious stroke in February 2010, I've spent about three days out of every month at “the 'minster,” handling his medical, financial, and residential needs. During this visit I just happened to be writing my review of the Laurence Olivier King Lear (Granada, 1984). King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play, oft read and seen. But this being the first time my interaction with Lear came in an assistive-living setting, I now realize how Shakespeare's tragedy of Britain's ancient king is playing out daily today with more than 10 percent of our own population.

The adjectives that critics and actors most often apply to King Lear are petulant, petty, arrogant, selfish, egotistical, tyrannical, ill-tempered, foolish, and, ironically, immature. However, the adjective Shakespeare uses most often for Lear is old; sometimes foolish, too, but in conjunction with being old. Old is the chief descriptor among those who love him: Kent, Gloucester, and most especially the Fool. Old is also the word Lear uses to describe himself. Tellingly, it is the only trait his two elder daughters remark on, as well. "You see how full of changes his age is," Goneril says to Regan, going on to point out his "poor judgment" in casting off Cordelia. "'Tis the infirmity of his age," Regan replies.

Old becomes Lear's identity, a common course for the elderly. Dad and his fellow Lears each in their way ruled an entity of some sort during their lives. Some were kings of capitalism, some queens of academia, some reigned over government dukedoms, some were merely the monarchs of their homes. Get through their wrinkled exteriors, get over their walkers, scooters, and oxygen tubes and tanks, and and get past their behavioral traits that have evolved through various physiological breakdowns, and you will come to know a rich tapestry of personalities. These individuals are not merely a bunch of “old farts,” as the then 78-year-old Olivier described King Lear and “all of us” like him in his memoir On Acting (Simon and Schuster, 1986). Even for the elderly themselves, their identities become entwined in their own elderliness, for no matter how delightedly they approach their interests and activities, they daily have to deal with their physical and mental deterioration while being ever aware of an end that's more palpably drawing nearer. “Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man,” Lear says in his reunion scene with Cordelia.

Backstories are tricky things in Shakespeare, but it's worth peering into the past of this king, whom critics and actors meet as "four score and upwards" and, by Lear's own admission, grappling with mental slipping and cardio-pulmonary issues. Lear describes how he was an effective fighter in his younger days, but that could be just bragging. Shakespeare, though, in the opening scene gives us an objective glimpse of Lear's former effectiveness as a king even as he shows us his future folly. It's notable that this ancient Briton king would be hosting in his court the King of France and Duke of Burgundy. Obviously, this is an anachronism on Shakespeare's part, as these two nations didn't exist in Lear's time. While Shakespeare didn't seem too much concerned with anachronisms, even in his history plays, his choice here is interesting because he could have used any other kingdoms of his time, let alone Lear's time. Instead, he selected the two monarchs who would never be chumming around an English court in the times Shakespeare knew or wrote about. By having France and Burgundy as the on-site rivals of Cordelia's love, Shakespeare is providing evidence of this particular English monarch's effective and absolute rule. As's 80-year-old copy editor, Carol Kelly, says, "Growing old is not for sissies."

But now, King Lear wants to retire. With his acuity already showing signs of decline, is it not wise for him "to shake all cares and business off our state, confirming them on younger years"? Don't we advocate getting old people off the roads when they start displaying poor judgment and slow reactions and letting somebody younger drive them where they want to go? Don't we advocate letting someone younger manage their finances lest they fall victim to scams? Don't we advocate putting them in assisted living lest they cause harm to themselves? Lear is not giving up his title, only his responsibilities, his cares, and he wishes to enjoy an idle life pursuing his personal interests with the services of a hundred knights. By the way, my father is served by some hundred staff members, from waiters and cooks to housekeepers and nurses, not all focused solely on him, but you get my analogy. If not “rioting” as Lear's knights do, some of my Dad's "followers" are riotously funny, bringing smiles and laughter to the residents.

For Dad and his fellow residents and almost all elderly people I've known, the one thing they seem to treasure most is family. So does Lear. Question the wisdom of dividing his kingdom, condemn his rashness in banishing Cordelia and his most loyal servant, Kent. But do not doubt the hope Lear was hanging onto that his daughters loved him enough to care for him in his dwindling days, and the hurt he endures upon wrongly believing Cordelia does not love him and later learning that Goneril and Regan don't either. “Who will take care of me?” is a universal—and valid—concern among the elderly: such a concern has even begun to creep into my consciousness, and I'm only 54. However much Lear warps reality in that opening scene, the reality of his own deterioration is foremost in his mind.

Shakespeare as a dramatist must heighten the action of his plots. Thus, this story is about an ancient king dividing his kingdom rather than a dry-cleaning entrepreneur turning his business over to his children. Likewise, the love contest of the opening scene—including Cordelia's rather stringent ethical stance—is a dramatic version of a psychosis that has played out way too often from Lear's day to the present: parents wondering which child loves them most as they not only reassess their legacy but hedge their bets in the “will I be cared for” paranoia; children (or nieces, nephews, and grandchildren) angling for a last-minute edge to get a bit more of that legacy while other family members simply do their duty out of a sense of doing their duty.

My father has three sons. All three, fortunately, are like Cordelia (just not as young or pretty). The closest of us geographically is a seven-hour drive distant, but we each visit Dad at least four times a year, we all pitch in on chores and errands, and rather than vying for a share of inheritance, we're all allied to the desire that he live long enough and happily so to leave us little if any inheritance. In my world, this is normal (in the weeks after his stroke, my dad often asked me "How did I deserve such great sons?" to which I replied with what seemed to me such obvious logic, "Because you and Mom raised us"). Yet, too often on my visits to the 'minster, I hear what "good sons" we are and how fortunate dad is to have "such a devoted family," praise indicating that we are not the norm. Even though I see and have come to know many other visiting families, I also hear other residents complain of children too busy to visit.

Their normal is Edmund. "This policy of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times, keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways not as it hath power but as it is suffered." This is from the letter Edmund penned and pegged on Edgar in his plot to have his elder brother disinherited. Though the letter is a sham, its sentiments are clearly Edmund's as he then moves to have his father removed. “The younger rises when the old doth fall,” he says when he decides to betray his father to the Duke of Cornwall.

Not many children maneuver to have their parent's eyes gouged out, I grant; that behavior is not the norm in our times, maybe. But the way Goneril and Regan abuse their father is standard practice today. Upon Cordelia's banishment, responsibility for their father falls to the two elder sisters, and they are none too pleased. “If our father carry authority with such disposition as he bears, this last surrender of his will but offend us,” Goneril says at the end of the opening scene. “We shall further think of it,” Regan replies, but Goneril presses further: “We must do something, and i'th'heat.” Notably, what they do in the heat is avoidance. Goneril, after instructing her servants to ignore her father's demands, tries to hide from him; Regan flees her house when she hears her dad is on the way. They claim, legitimately, that hosting his 100 knights creates an untenable situation for their own households, but their actions reveal that while they say they would willingly take in their father without a single servant, they'd just as soon have nothing to do with him. They have no qualms closing the gates on Lear during the storm. Their attitude is that if he dies, it's not on their conscience, and how much easier will life be in that event?

King Lear is Shakespeare's most nihilistic play. Its landscape contributes to its nihilism, an ancient civilization on the edge of a wilderness still trying to sort out its societal conventions. Natural destiny vs. individual choice is a constant theme, but neither lead to a good end, whether it's the gods who, like flies to wanton boys, kill us for sport or Edmund whose sporty greed destroys three individuals directly, two individuals indirectly, and one pair of eyes. Either way, the precarious social order crumbles and chaos rushes into the vacuum. Even after Edgar defeats Edmund, “the promised end” of the play is denied as Lear carries the lifeless Cordelia onto the stage.

And yet, that other more prevalent and pervasive thematic arc is still in play as Lear frets over her body. “I am old now,” he says, blaming his age for his inability to save Cordelia's life. When Lear's heart cracks, Kent's last act of service is to keep Edgar from trying to revive the king: “He hates him that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer.” Shakespeare is so intent on establishing being old as a theme that even the “Old Man” who leads the blind Gloucester to the disguised Edgar makes a point of identifying himself as an 80-year-old and asserts that fact as his value.

The play ends on this final couplet, spoken by Edgar: "The oldest have borne most. We that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long." Given the nihilism we've just experienced, I always felt this coda was saying, “none of us youngsters will ever endure what these old people have,” and I've even seen a production where Edgar makes this the first proclamation of his rule. But now, writing this in the land of Lears, where “the oldest” are still bearing so much, I detect a grammatical ruse in this couplet. Edgar is using the present perfect tense in the first sentence; the second sentence likewise might be present tense instead of future. This would gloss the couplet as saying “those who are old now have borne most; those who are young cannot fathom being old because they have not (yet) lived so long.”

King Lear's tragic flaw is, quite simply, that he is old. In a famous speech of another play, Shakespeare identifies this age of man as “mere oblivion.” There is nothing more nihilistic than that. Even in our modern civilization.

Eric Minton
October 26, 2012

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