Thursday, September 9, 2010

King Lear is Very Old, Not Very Wise

Some people say that they have no regrets. That if they could go back they would do it all the same. Live the same life over again, make the same decisions, see the same sights and love the same people.

You have to be the smuggest, most self-deluding jackass in the universe if you think that your life is so amazing that it couldn’t be improved upon.

Take the movie Groundhog Day. Only after repeating that single day over and over for about ten years does Bill Murray achieve a level of fulfillment and satisfaction that makes him truly happy… And that’s just to perfect a single DAY!

All I know is that when I get to my deathbed, if someone is stupid enough to ask me: “Any regrets?” I’m going to say: “Hell yeah, I’ve got regrets. I’ve got boatloads of 'em. Regrets of Titanic proportions, things I should have said, people I should have fought for and years when I should have worked harder. And I’ve got minuscule raindrop regrets, days I should have turned left instead of right, nights I should have gone out, mornings I should have slept in, restaurants at which I never should have eaten. If I could do it all over again... I'd do it differently.”

But for all the things I regret, mine is a raindrop life, and my mistakes don’t nearly approach the scale and horror of King Lear’s disastrous regret.

I think we all know the story of Lear, he was ready to divide his kingdom between his three daughters as long as they satisfied him by professing their love for him. Goneril and Regan, the wicked older sisters, spew a bunch of bombast at him about the totality of their love, and Cordelia, the youngest sister can only be sincere and says she loves her father no more or no less than a daughter should love her father. Lear disinherits her and she marries the King of France. Lear’s wicked daughters kick him out in a storm, and Cordelia comes to find Lear when he’s broken and sad. Then they all die.

There is also the amazing subplot in the play about the Earl of Gloucester, whose bastard son, Edmund, conspires against his brother Edgar to take all the lands and title from their father. Edmund is a villain of Iago-like cunning, with a twinge more humanity than Iago because he desired pieces of a noble life: property, respect and possibly even love. Not to mention that before dying he attempted to stop his last act of villainy, which was to have Cordelia murdered.

Edmund forges a letter from his brother, Edgar, inviting him to conspire to murder their father and share in the inheritance:

“This policy and reverence of age

makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps

our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. (1:2)

The letter claims that Edgar doesn’t want to wait for his father, Gloucester to die before getting his inheritance, because you need to be young to enjoy it. This is an echo of the Duke’s speech in Measure For Measure, and clearly must have been a thought on Shakespeare’s mind. He came into money and prominence late in his life, when he was probably suffering from an STD and -- as he feared -- he did not live to enjoy a long retirement.

Gloucester’s reaction is to blame the stars for the treachery he perceives, both here and in Lear’s actions:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon

Portend no good to us. (1:2)

And after he exits, Edmund reflects on the foolishness of this subscription to prescribed destiny:

This is the excellent foppery of the world,

That when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeits of

Our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters

The sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were

Villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion,

knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance;

drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d

obedience of planetary influence; and that we

are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. (1:2)

Lear partakes of this submission to the natural elements when he is out in the storm with his fool:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!

Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.

I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;

I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children;

You owe me no subscription. Then let fall

Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave. (3:2)

Lear created this storm for himself. His foolish stepping-down and division of his kingdom cause all of the turmoil. He has the power to come in from the storm, but he does not.

Lear and Gloucester represent an old and foolish way of thinking that certain things are meant to be. Whereas the younger characters in the play are willing to own their free will and go after the things they want. Cordelia’s unwillingness to play her father’s game in the first scene is a perfect example of youthful defiance of the laws of nature and the rule of the old. Whippersnappers.

I may have quoted the following quote before. It’s been important in my life, and I find it appropriate to bring up again here:

Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. (Walden, Henry David Thoreau, p. 9)

It was on a walk along the Mississippi River with the first girl I fell in love with that she referred to this line, and I recognized it and completed it. It's no coincidence that the two of us had read Walden. Millions of people have read it, and we were nerds. It's maybe not that incredible that we both remembered the quote. It has some notoriety. But in the moment, it seemed like perfectly accomplished destiny.

What's amazing is that I think back on this walk and this particular love. And even though I feel so strongly that I would do things differently in my life if I could. It's possible that this culmination of youth and literacy would not be recreated nor have an equivalent in other, imaginary iterations of my life.

Would it be worth giving up a few minutes of near perfection to take that chance?

Or is reconciliation the preferable medicine for our regrets?

Lear: ... If you have poison for me, I will drink it.

I know you do not love me; for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.

You have some cause, they have not.

Cordelia: No cause, no cause.


Lear: You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget

and forgive. I am old and foolish. (4:7)

Lear screws up and is forgiven before the whole thing falls apart forever. It could be that admitting he was wrong -- the beauty of mercy from the most important person in his life -- could so eclipse his errors that this became the perfect moment of his life.

In Breaking Bad last season, in the episode called "The Fly," Walt laments that he lived past the perfect moment. The moment when his criminal endeavors could have provided for his family enough and the positive perception the people he cared about had of him was still intact. Lear, like Walt, lives too long. Maybe by moments, maybe living past his first line of dialogue was too long. The problem is that if you don't live long enough to screw up, you don't live long enough to enjoy forgiveness. Reconciliation. The mercy of others who have seen our flaws and still find us worthy of affection.

I am 32. I talk about regrets as if those I now possess will be insurmountable in the decades of life that remain. I am young yet, and foolish. I will only grow less young than I am. Hopefully I will grow less foolish too, but I'm not banking on it. It's okay to lament past choices, but the key to mastering regret lies not in time travel and not in parallel universes, but in future action.

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