Sunday, October 20, 2019

'The Most Unconsoling'

“It occurs to me that of all Shakespeare’s plays King Lear is the one I have been and continue to be most moved by. It is probably the bleakest of the plays, the most unconsoling.”

Many of us would agree. It’s the play I read most often and from which I remember the most lines. Just the other day I made a joke about “vile jelly,” and at least one person in the room got it.

Several of Shakespeare’s most moving scenes involve fathers and daughters (Shakespeare had two daughters). Think of The Tempest, when Miranda says, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” and Prospero replies, “Tis new to thee.” But nothing compares with Lear’s reunion late in the play with Cordelia. The king says:

“Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
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.”

And Cordelia, bless her heart, replies, “No cause, no cause.” Her subsequent death scene is almost unbearable. As Dr. Johnson writes in his Preface to Shakespeare: “. . . 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.”

The observation at the top comes from a 2002 letter Anthony Hecht wrote to John Van Doren (Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, 2012). Hecht was drenched in Shakespeare. He was the rare recent American poet whose own work occasionally achieved Shakespearean sublimity. Here is a poem, “Death the Painter” from Flight Among the Tombs (1998), into which Hecht weaves some of the best-known lines from Lear:

“Snub-nosed, bone-fingered, deft with engraving tools,
I alone have been given
The powers of Joshua, who stayed the sun
In its traverse of heaven.
Here in this Gotham of unnumbered fools
I have sought out and arrested everyone.

“Under my watchful eye all human creatures
Convert to a still life,
As with unique precision I apply
White lead and palette knife.
A model student of remodelled features,
The final barber, the last beautician, I.

“You lordlings, what is Man, his blood and vitals,
When all is said and done?
A poor forked animal, a nest of flies.
Tell us, what is this one
Once shorn of all his dignities and titles,
Divested of his testicles and eyes?”

Hecht died on this date, October 20, in 2004, at age eighty-one.

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