Monday, April 13, 2015

`He Learned from Lear'

The books a man reads in extremis are always of interest. Normalcy and abundance tend to breed complacency, and so we lower our standards and read undemanding and even admittedly trashy books. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was falsely arrested for treason, and three months later sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, the smallest of the Îles du Salut in French Guiana. He remained there for four and a half years. Dreyfus was the only inmate on the island. His only human company were the six guards who watched over him. Thanks in part to Emile Zola’s open letter, J'accuse!, and the dedication of his family, Dreyfus was returned to France in 1899 and, in 1906, exonerated of all charges and reinstated in the French army. 

Dreyfus’ wife, Lucie, was permitted to send him books. The author he wanted most was Shakespeare. In Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 1789-1945 (1991), Michael Burns writes: “Not the playwright dissected by Taine in his study of English literature (and stripped, according to Dreyfus, of all grandeur), but the humorous, passionate, sympathetic Shakespeare, the prisoner `never understood better than during this tragic epoch [that is, during his imprisonment], and who, like Dreyfus, may also have turned to Montaigne as a source of inspiration.” Burns reports Dreyfus enjoyed the comedies but found in King Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III “poetic variations on the themes he had been attempting to describe in letters to his wife and family.” Burns writes: 

“…he learned from Lear—that most `heart-rending play’ that exposes all the `steps of human misery’—the `bitter irony of Shakespeare’s moral philosophy.’ For Dreyfus Lear was the definitive treatise on the `weakness of the human condition,’ a confirmation  of how `the wicked rarely profit from their  crimes, while the good are rarely rewarded for their Virtue.’ All of Shakespeare’s works become a compendium of allegories of all of Dreyfus’s dilemmas.” 

Burns’ book is excellent. A reader wrote to me on Sunday: 

“I think Lear Shakespeare’s finest play. I have always been fascinated with an exchange between Edgar and his father. Most people, anyone familiar with the play, recall Edgar’s words to his father when Gloucester says he will go no farther: `No farther, sir;  a man may rot even here.’ 

“Now, everybody knows Edgar’s famous response: `What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither: / Ripeness is all.’ 

“Few remember, however, Gloucester’s response: `And that’s true too.’”

1 comment:

Brian said...

Yes, keep on with King Lear, that inexhaustible treasure house of the relevant and timely. Each year I knew the news would be full of Lear when it came time to teach the play. In this play it is not so much the grand soliloquies as the pithy parts that last. So many seem like titles of books waiting to be written:

Striving to do better, oft we mar what’s well

Nothing almost sees miracles/ but misery

Take physic, pomp

Ay, and no too was no good divinity

Thou art the thing itself

Our means secure us, and our mere defects/ Prove our commodities

The worst is not/ So long as we can say “This is the worst”

I am not ague proof

A moral fool

Thy life’s a miracle

I see it feelingly

A dog's obeyed in office

Where I could not be honest I never yet was valiant

And take upon’s the mystery of things

Reason in madness

Know thou this, that men are as the time

I imagine Dreyfus rattling off Shakespeare to the heavens and his six guards. Another novel.