Shakespeare's "King Lear" may be the greatest work of art in the English language, and it is surely among a handful of the most important dramas ever written. With amazing acuity, this play plumbs the depths of suffering, explores the labyrinth of human identity, and maps the modern moral landscape. But when I first read "Lear," I knew little about its stature. Instead, the play's spare but riveting story drew me into a strange yet somehow familiar world. Though it has an epic subject of a ruler and the loss of his kingdom, Lear is also a most personal story about a family being torn apart by death and deception. This was a story that I knew all too well.

At the age of 18, I had been prepared for King Lear by events in my family's life. Three years earlier, my only brother, Gordon, had died suddenly in the middle of the night. The next morning, for some reason, I decided to go to school and keep the news to myself. I remember little about that day, except for my disappointed wonder that the world went on its way, regardless of Gordie's death. I watched janitors sweep the floor, cafeteria workers scoop vegetables, and classmates joke and jostle in the halls, and I asked, "How can you carry on this way, when the person who matters most to me in the world has died? Why should you be alive, when my brother is dead?"

My astonishment that day gave way to a more general sadness in the weeks that followed. In different ways, each of us who remained in the family--my mother, my father, and I--retreated into separate regions of isolated grief. We lived beneath the same roof but rarely spoke of our private anguish, and over time our self-deception and quiet anger tore at the already tattered fabric of our life together. Unchurched and not widely read, I had neither scriptural nor fictional points of reference to make sense of my life's confusion.

When I came to "King Lear," the play seemed like a gift that mysteriously explained my life. Shakespeare's treatment of the corrosive power of self- deception and sorrow in a family's life seemed more truthful than anything I had learned from the television shows I had consumed, in the high school classrooms where I had been taught, or on the streets of the city in which I lived. As I read, for example, of Lear staggering under the weight of his daughter Cordelia's body, I recognized his grief and remembered my own resentful amazement on the day my brother had died. Lear howled in protest, and I felt for the first time that someone understood my own hidden sorrow: "And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life? / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou 'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never."

But it was not only my grief that Shakespeare expressed, for his play also gave me a hint of that Christian hope which I would shortly claim as my own. As the tragic events of the drama draw to a climax, Lear and Cordelia are captured and are about to be led away. Cordelia resists, but Lear quiets her with a miraculous vision of reconciliation and glory: "Come, let's away to prison, / We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage; / When thou dost ask me blessing I'll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness.."

Feeling myself both cursed and guilty, I took solace in this image of endless blessing and forgiveness. And within a year of reading that play for the first time, I came to believe that because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I could trust God to forgive my sins and raise me from the dead.

Over the years, I have reread and taught "Lear" more than 15 times, have seen it performed on stage several times, and have watched every available filmed version of it. The play's language has burrowed its way deep into my consciousness, and its depictions of love and suffering have shaped my spiritual experience, family life, and professional career in incalculable ways. Like other great works of literature, it has taken the homeless grief within me and provided it with a name, relations, and a place to abide.

However vast becomes the intellectual and cultural terrain occupied by "Lear," I will always think of it as a work that is, in the end, no larger than a father's arms or a daughter's heart. Such an understanding of King Lear seems consistent with the Christian faith and its doctrine of the Incarnation. The Gospels speak of the God of the universe coming into the world as an infant, and in Shakespeare's play, universal themes are embodied in mundane deeds and family relationships. Though a pagan sense hovers over the world of "King Lear," there is at the heart of this play a sublime representation of that greatest of all stories about a child's death and a father's love. In different ways, King Lear and the Gospels have done more than change my life. They have saved it.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad