That’s why King Lear, after repeated readings, remains as harrowing as the first time almost half a century ago – more so, because now I have three sons . There’s nothing cheaply manipulative or sentimental when Lear enters carrying Cordelia’s lifeless body: “This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt.” He refuses to accept the undeniable, and speaks to his dead daughter:
“Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.”
And then Lear’s final words before he dies: “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!” It’s the physical immediacy of Lear’s desperate longing for any sign of life in Cordelia that makes the scene so powerful, coupled with its reversal of all that the king has done earlier in the play. Lear finally realizes he is responsible for Cordelia’s death and so many others. The observation quoted at the top is from an interview Anthony Hecht gave less than a year before his own death. For this most learned and elegant of poets, the sheer human desolation of the final scene spurs his admiration. No doubt he would have echoed Dr. Johnson, who writes: “. . . I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.” Hecht goes on to say:
“It’s a very, very grim play. Nevertheless, it’s a play that is full of extraordinary, touching scenes of real love and real devotion of Cordelia to him and him to Cordelia that don’t redeem the action on the stage, but do something to elevate the spectator or the reader in a way that I find very moving.
“That’s what good literature can do. It doesn’t evade any of the terrible things in life. It faces them and faces them squarely, but puts them in a context in which they have a richer meaning than they would as simply raw, descriptive facts.”
I thought of Hecht’s observations while reading Orwell’s “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool.” With tact and obvious respect for the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Orwell efficiently deals with a great novelist who was a foolish critic.