Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shakespeare Students Reflect on King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream

Below is another essay from this semester's Shakespeare course, which is taught by Dr. Creighton Lindsay.  The Shakespeare students saw both of the plays discussed by Paul Grandi at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in September.

Paul, a college seminarian for the Diocese of Tucson, also published an essay from the course Theoretical Issues in Literary Studies.

The Foolish Necessity of Hope
by Paul Grandi

Dreams have always been a fascination for humanity.  Despite being uniquely personal to each individual, they always seem to elude any efforts of explanation. Oftentimes we say that, when trying to remember dreams the next morning, they slip away from our memory, like water escaping through cupped fingers. Nightmares, on the other hand, can stubbornly stay with us long after we have awakened. The strangeness of the half-remembered dream is nothing compared to the terror that remains after a nightmare, especially when the nightmare preys on existing fears and anxieties of which we might not even have been aware.  

This dichotomy between dream and nightmare is similar to the contrasting portrayal of the supernatural in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear. One is the comedic dream of supernatural interference – the other is the tragic nightmare of supernatural silence. It is possible to conclude that Shakespeare, through his opposing portraits of the supernatural in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear, seeks to show his audience the folly, and yet the necessity, of man’s belief in something other and higher than himself, challenging playgoers to  examine their view of the heavens.

In Dream, the supernatural world of the fairies and sprites feels ethereal and light – comedic, even – in such a way that makes it hard to take them seriously, showing that it is perhaps folly to rely on any supernatural help.  The very first contact that the audience has with the supernatural in Dream is Robin Goodfellow – “a shrewd and knavish sprite” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.34) who engages in mischief and trickery.  As the play goes on, Robin is indeed the source of much of the comedy, as he “mistakenly” anoints the wrong pair of lovers. Oberon, the king of the fairies, tells him “Of thy misprision must perforce ensue / some true-love turned, and not a false turned true” (3.2.92-3). This “mistake” leads to the famous conflict in the forest between the four youth. Oberon’s noble intentions –to turn the love of Demetrius from Hermia to Helena and thereby solve the problems of the mortals –turn into quite the entertainment for Robin Goodfellow and the audience yet cause much emotional turmoil in the mortal characters, showing the potential folly of trusting in supernatural powers. 

Knowing that the play is set in Greece, it harkens, in a way, to the Greek religions where the gods would affect mankind through their internal conflicts, like the way Titania and Oberon’s fight affects Bottom and the players, and their occasional “incompetence,” like Robin anointing the wrong youth. In Dream, the “supernaturals” do indeed have power, and they do interfere with the lives of mortals, but their interference, though clumsy and apt to do more harm than good,  is comical, and they themselves are not intimidating. Mankind would be foolish to trust in such creatures for salvation or help, but they are entertaining. The fairies make the audience smile and laugh, rather than cause unsettlement. Their antics feel like a pleasant dream, albeit a strange one.

In Lear, on the other hand, the supernatural is absent except in the prayers, curses and imaginations of the play’s characters. As the tragedy unfolds, the supernatural entities remain silent and mysterious, and a terror akin to that felt in a nightmare grows in the audience. At the beginning of the play, Edmund, frustrated at the limits of his birth and customs of society, laments “Thou, nature, art my goddess. To thy law / My services are bound” (King Lear 1.2.1-2). In another scene, Lear cries “You heavens, give me that patience…I need! / You see me here, you gods, a poor old man / …If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts against their father, fool me not so much / to bear it tamely” (2.4.313-18). These are two of many references in the play to a higher power, whether it is the “gods” or “nature.” The characters constantly cry out to them, either cursing them as Edmund does or petitioning for patience and pity like Lear. Never is there any kind of clear, definite answer. 

This is a world without direct miracles and interventions, more similar to our own than the world of Dream, and thus more present and terrifying to the audience. Even in the famous storm that Lear imagines is of supernatural origin (“Let the great gods,” he says, “That keep this dreadful pudder o’er our heads / Find out their enemies now” (3.2.53-54), there is no way of knowing that the storm is from the gods. If, however, it is – and there are in fact supernatural powers at work in King Lear – one has to question their benevolence as they witness the play’s descent into the bloodbath of tragedy. The innocent Cordelia, the repentant Lear “more sinned against than sinning,” (3.2.63-64), both die. Edmund, try as he might to scheme himself out of “nature’s law” ends up beaten and killed by his “legal” brother. Shakespeare leaves his audience purposefully in doubt as to the reality of the supernatural. If the gods exist, then the play seems to cry “shame on them!” for their refusal to stop the present tragedy. What hope has mankind if the great beings in the heavens have no pity or care for the mortals below? How terrifying, how nightmarish it is to think that man suffers at the whims of fickle deities who allow tragedies like King Lear, or hurricanes like Katrina, or attacks like September 11 to happen – or, perhaps even worse, that man suffers at the hands of no one but himself.

When compared side by side, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear present two very different views of the supernatural. In one play, the supernatural is overwhelmingly, and in a sense ridiculously, present, but hardly believed in, and rarely invoked. In the other, supernatural help is constantly sought and never received. However, despite overall opposition, the plays each contain a reference to the other. There is a scene in the middle of Dream where Hermia wakes up screaming from a nightmare where she “[thought] a serpent ate [her] heart away” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.2.156). As wonderful as it perhaps might be to think that there is a world of fairies and elves and supernatural deities, there is a slight allusion by Shakespeare to the fact that belief in the supernatural can sometimes feel like more of a nightmare than a dream, as is the case in King Lear. At the end of the tumultuous events of that tragedy, the audience might feel as Hermia does. They might feel like screaming. Perhaps they are “quaking” with fear because they are terrified at the prospect that Lear is a mirror of humanity, and that they are just like the characters in the play, crying out to a silent heaven, while the gods above chuckle at the folly of man. 

Shakespeare does not leave us there, however. One of the famous scenes of King Lear is when blind Gloucester is led to what he believes to be the edge of a cliff where he throws himself off (though there is in fact no cliff from which to fall), unable to bear the torments of the world any longer, crying out to the gods, believing that it is part of their “opposeless wills” that he die (King Lear 4.6.44-51). In a sense, he is living a nightmare – specifically, the nightmare of the play, where the gods have lost all desire for those who have been good and righteous to succeed – and he wants to end it. When Edgar tricks him into thinking that he has fallen and survived, he tells him to “think that the clearest gods…have preserved thee” (4.6.90-1) and Gloucester, believing thus, is restored to hope. His nightmare has become a dream.

The most terrible thought here is the belief that the gods are silent and cruel. The power of nightmares to frighten lies in the fact that they are not real – they can thus play with the world and create beliefs in us to which we might never subscribe in reality. If, however, a nightmare succeeds in placing within us fear that stays with us long after we wake, then every waking moment becomes frightening and incapacitating. Regardless of the reality, if mankind believes that they are without hope - that there is no benevolence in the heavens – then we are like Gloucester, and will inevitably fall off the cliff in despair.  Edgar’s simple gift to Gloucester – the gift of hope – changes the color of the final hours of his life, and it can change the color of our lives too. Shakespeare seems to say hope is essential. It would be better, in his view, to live in the strange world of Dream, with its ridiculous fairies, or to live in the dark world of Lear, endlessly crying out in hope to a silent heaven, than to choose despair and fall, fall, fall to our deaths.

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