Tuesday, January 18, 2022

'Vitious Habits, Customs, Feral Diseases'

Poor Cordelia defending herself in the first act of King Lear: 

“It is no vitious blot, murther, or foulness,

No unchaste action or dishonoured step,

That hath depriv’d me of your grace and favour.”


Her dignified pleading get her nowhere with the old man. If we already know the play, our foreknowledge brings a shiver. The most touching moment in all of literary criticism – not a field renowned for naked emotion -- comes when Dr. Johnson edits Lear: “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.”


I paused this time over vitious and checked Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary first. He gives us “corrupt; wicked; opposite to virtuous. It is rather applied to habitual faults, than criminal actions.” A distinction without much of a difference, which is confirmed by the OED: vitious is an obsolete spelling of vicious. It means “of the nature of vice; contrary to moral principles; depraved, immoral, bad.” I see the earlier spelling was also favored by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy:


“[T]hence come all these headstrong passions, violent perturbations of the mind; and many times vitious habits, customs, feral diseases; because we give so much way to our appetite, and follow our inclination, like so many beasts.”


“Feral” and “beasts” give it away. Viciousness is bestial, an expression of our primal nature. This chimes with Lear, which is dense with animal imagery. In Act II, Scene IV, Lear says of Goneril that “she hath tied / sharp-tooth’d unkindness, like a vulture, here,” and points to his heart. That birds are toothless should be disregarded. And then, in Act V, Scene 3, with dead Cordelia in his arms, Lear utters his most pitiable lines: “Why should a dog, horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”


In his edition of Shakespeare, Johnson articulates the convoluted moral dilemma posed by actions so vitious:


“A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.”


Hai Di Nguyen said...

I don't know.
Several years ago, when I first read the play, I didn't quite get it and didn't like it. But now I love King Lear and a happy ending just feels wrong to me.
A Ran with a happy ending doesn't feel right either.

Wurmbrand said...

King Lear, I suggest, is a thought experiment. Shakespeare undertakes to present a tragic story set very specifically in the farthest-back times of Britain, before the light of Christian truth arrived. One must take seriously what the Fool tells the audience directly, that he lives before Merlin's time. You, the audience, are to keep in mind that what you are seeing is a story of very long ago indeed.

We have then the story of an innocent who dies by hanging. Cordelia is NOT a "Christ-symbol." She is a *type* of Christ. Types are persons, things, and events that prefigure greater persons, things, and events that come later. The New Testament interprets the Old typologically. (This is something distinct from prophecy and fulfillment.) The original person, thing, or event (the antitype) has its own historical integrity, which is not infringed by its typologically significance. Thus the First Epistle of Peter interprets the Flood and the Ark typologically. These were real events, but they also pointed towards Baptism and the Church. Likewise Christ refers to the Israelites, stricken by venomous snakes, looking to the bronze snake that was lifted up and being healed, and this is a type of His own being lifted up for the healing of the sinner.

So Cordelia is a type of Christ. The people in the play do not realize that what happens has a typological significance. Typology is recognized and contemplated after the time of the original person, place, event.

Thus Lear is indeed, pathetically and grievously, deluded when he thinks (for a moment at least) that Cordelia lives. No, she is dead; and living when and where he does, Lear has no Christian consolation. But, note well, the audience does. Though they are cut to the heart by the old man's loss, they are not left in some dismal state, because they (unlike Lear) have the Christian hope.

I think the way the play would actually have looked, on stage, would bear this out. Lear walks onto the stage carrying the lifeless Cordelia. There are basically three ways he can do this. I think we can rule out the image immediately of him dragging her body after him by the hands or the heels. So, then, he can bear her onto the stage slung over his shoulder, in which case the "optics" aren't conducive to evoking pity, because her rear end will be prominent; or, what he will do, he carries her in his arms, supporting her head and shoulders, with his other arm under her knees. And thus he settles down on the stage, continuing to hold her thus.

Now what the audience sees is basically a Pieta pose. I think we may assume that Shakespeare's audience was likely to be familiar with the image of the dead Christ in his mother's arms after the Deposition from the Cross. The image of the grieving mother, however, connects with the record of the body's being placed in the tomb, and Christ rising from the dead the third day.

Thus Shakespeare simultaneously tells a story of the ancient British past and plays fair. He does not make these ancient people Christians. BUT his Christian audience can contemplate not only the darkness of that ancient time, but also see in this story a type of the light and hope to come.

This, by the way, is the kind of thing Tolkien was up to in his Lord of the Rings, I believe. Frodo is not a Christ-symbol when he toils up the mountain bearing the heavy burden; he's a type. There are other types too. Tolkien sets his story many thousands of years before the time of Christ. He would have been completely familiar with typology, such an important part of the patristic and medieval Church's art, liturgy, and poetry.

Thus people who object to overly Christian readings of The Lord of the Rings have a point. But then people who detect in it a Christian consciousness are also right.

Dale Nelson