“Oh, yeah, now I remember what that feels like.”
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, for a lot of people it felt like turning a corner. Racism was over, we thought, and with it other forms of bigotry, discrimination, misogyny, and downright backward thinking of all kinds. But we were fooling ourselves.
I’ve always been weird. Lots of people disagree with me, and always have. Once upon a time I didn’t have to be in the majority to believe that I was still right. I think in 2008 I forgot that. Now I’m remembering again.
In 1986, our esteemed Supreme Court ruled that states had every right to outlaw homosexuality. Anyone could see that this was the wrong decision, yet there it was. You don’t like what two consenting adults do in private? Outlaw it! The Supreme Court was wrong.
In 1989, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, making it a crime to go to the store, buy an American Flag, and burn it in protest. Anyone can see that burning a flag is a form of speech and should be protected, yet both Republicans and Democrats voted for this clearly unconstitutional law. The lawmakers were wrong.
In 1998, Democrat Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and hardly anybody blinked. Again, anyone could see that DOMA was discriminatory on its face. Yet how many people thought it was just fine at the time? Clinton and everyone involved with this act were wrong.
In 2001, George W. Bush promoted faith-based initiatives, which funneled federal money to religious organizations. Anyone can see that this is a clear violation of the First Amendment. Even President Obama failed to completely end this unconstitutional practice, and the current White House monstrosity has brought it roaring back. In time, history will judge this program harshly, because it is wrong.
And now, it appears very likely that in the near future (sooner than you might imagine), women in several states of our country will be compelled by law to carry every pregnancy to term. Anyone can see that this is not the society we want, yet an American public that allowed both the executive and the legislative branches to fall into the hands of right-wing extremists either didn’t believe it could happen or didn’t care. I don’t have to be in the majority to be right about this. History will judge us harshly, as it should.
I forgot while Barack Obama was president that politics isn’t about right and wrong. It’s about who has the votes. Fortunately I’m not a politician. So yeah, a certain segment of society just got what they wanted, because they had the votes. They’re still wrong.

I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh. I have no idea if he is guilty or innocent of the charges levied against him. What I do know is that powerful men have been taking advantage of their privileged position over women for centuries. I know this because over 400 years ago William Shakespeare showed us the depths of male depravity in a little-known but powerful play called Measure for Measure.

Given the recent events surrounding Kavanaugh, #metoo, and what seems like an endless stream of men behaving badly, Measure for Measure takes its place as the most modern and relevant of all the works of the canon.

No one in this play is a hero. All the characters Shakespeare breathes to life in his fictional Vienna come replete with faults. There’s the pimp Pompey, who comments about his employer Mistress Overdone that she has had nine husbands, “Overdone by the last.” There’s Lucio, described in the cast list as “a fantastic.” In reality he’s among the most misogynistic of Shakespeare’s creations. His comments about women in Act Five seem to him witty; our modern ears recognize the seeds of our society’s disdain for any woman who doesn’t toe the line – and a good deal of disdain even for those who do.

Then there’s the meddling and ridiculous “old fantastical duke of dark corners,” as he’s called by the afore-mentioned Lucio. Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, abandons his rancid and sex-crazed city to Angelo, a prude who goes about enforcing old and neglected laws calling for the death of anyone engaging in sex outside of marriage. Into Angelo’s trap falls Claudio, who has impregnated his fiance Juliet.

The Duke, whose plan is to disguise himself as a friar so as to keep his eye on Angelo (why? it’s not really clear), reveals his own misogyny when addressing Juliet about Claudio’s impending execution.

  • VincentioLove you the man that wrong’d you?
  • JulietYes, as I love the woman that wrong’d him.
  • VincentioSo then it seems your most offenceful act
    Was mutually committed?
  • VincentioThen was your sin of heavier kind than his.

And there it is. To men the message is, “don’t get caught.” To women, it’s “you should know better.”

The action of the play, though, centers around the novice nun Isabella. I’ll not criticize her here. Her choices are not mine, but – unable to escape my essential maleness – I can’t know how Isabella sees a world as described by the Duke to Juliet in the passage cited above. Perhaps Isabel does know better.

When Lucio is sent to implore Isabella to beg for her brother’s life, at first she is appalled by the earthiness of it all. But she finally comes around, and is so passionate in her defense that she turns the otherwise icy Angelo to thoughts of – well, of something other than ice.

And then comes the moment. Angelo tells Isabel she must surrender her body to his desire, or else her brother will not only die but be tortured. Isabel threatens to reveal Angelo for what he really is:

  • IsabellaHa! little honour to be much believed,
    And most pernicious purpose! Seeming, seeming!
    I will proclaim thee, Angelo; look for’t:
    Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
    Or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud
    What man thou art.
  • AngeloWho will believe thee, Isabel?
    My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
    My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
    Will so your accusation overweigh,
    That you shall stifle in your own report
    And smell of calumny. I have begun,
    And now I give my sensual race the rein:
    Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
    Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
    That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
    By yielding up thy body to my will;
    Or else he must not only die the death,
    But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
    To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
    Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
    I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
    Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.


  • IsabellaTo whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
    Who would believe me?

Who can’t hear the voices of all the men who’ve been caught abusing their power here? Who can’t feel the hopelessness of all the women who’ve feared not being believed?

And yet Angelo is only the second worst misogynist in this play full of misogynists. The Duke tricks Isabel into believing her brother is dead. When he reveals, voila! Claudio is still alive, he apparently expects Isabel to fall down and kiss his feet. Then, in the play’s final, horrible action, the Duke ever so magnanimously announces that he will accept Isabella (the nun-in-training Isabella) for his own wife. What the what?

It is often said of Hamlet that Shakespeare created a real person and somehow plopped him in the middle of a play. After reading Measure for Measure again, I now believe this is true of Isabella, as well. Her final action, of simply refusing to speak, refusing to acknowledge this ridiculous proposal by the Duke (of course, the Duke being the chief law-giver in the city, it’s more than a proposal, isn’t it?) is the moment when Isabella becomes a real person, a human woman who refuses to answer to Shakespeare, to the Duke, to any of us. She is stunned into silence, unable to imagine that, after the trauma of Angelo’s indecency, after the heartbreak of thinking she’s lost her brother, somehow the Duke could believe that what she really wants is a husband. I picture Isabel alone on the stage, silent, staring out at the audience in astonished disbelief.

Bottom line, everyone needs to read this, Shakespeare’s most modern, immediate, and timely masterpiece.



I renamed this blog “Symphony” to reflect my desire to experience more of the world. I’d been focused on science and all the wonders that it can bring to us that I’d neglected so much else of the world – painting, sculpture, dance, literature, and music.

I chose the word because I believe the creation of a symphony has to be one of the premier achievements of the human mind. All those instruments, all those different parts, all somehow blending into a satisfying whole. How do they do it? It’s entirely possible I feel that way because I know next to nothing about the subject. The ironic thing is that when I chose the word I’d never been to an actual symphony performance.

Now that’s changed. For our anniversary, Julie and I went to see the Columbus Symphony Orchestra perform four amazing pieces. They were Bach/Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Wagner: “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre; Dukas: L’apprenti sorcier (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), and Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra. The conductor was Rossen Milanov.

The first three pieces, all performed before intermission, were fun and exciting. When “Ride of the Valkyries” started, Julie and I, both raised in the era of Saturday morning cartoons, turned to each other at the same moment and mouthed, “kill the wabbit!” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was especially thrilling. I’d expected my first symphony experience to be mostly relaxing, maybe a sit back with my eyes closed kind of time. Instead, I was on the edge of my seat. Who knew that a composer, a conductor, and an orchestra could create such a sense of drama and tension?

The second half, following intermission, simply blew me away. I was in tears again (admittedly, no great feat) as the music just carried me away. I found out later that the Strauss “tone poem” (I don’t know what that means, but that’s what Wikipedia calls it) was based on a book of the same name by Nietzsche. What little I know of Nietzsche leads me to believe that his nihilist philosophy is not for me, but Strauss’s interpretation is heart-stoppingly beautiful, deeply dramatic, and incredibly fulfilling. I’ve requested both the book and a recording of the music from Julie’s library (God, I love libraries!)

Beyond the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey beginning (the part that everyone’s heard), the contrasts between the barely audible whispers and the crashing crescendos in Strauss’s creation, and the beautiful sound of the solo violinist rising above the rest of the instruments, moved me in a way I didn’t know music could.

Julie and I were talking afterward as we walked back to the car. The thing about this piece, and really all the pieces we heard, is that the drama somehow builds to this very satisfying conclusion, a conclusion that leaves you breathless, cheerful, and dizzy with wonder. It’s an amazing testament to the accomplishments of this upright ape from the plains of Africa, not only coming to know its world but to create from its own mind a new one, never before seen or imagined in this universe.

I need to learn more about this world of beautiful, classical music, and everything that goes into it. I’m hooked!

A question someone asked me recently got me thinking about science museums. Funny that I’ve hardly written about them here, despite the fact that I spent over 20 years working in museums, and fully expected to spend even more time working there until they showed me the door.

When it comes to museums, I often come off as arrogant, as if I think I know everything. If that happens here, I apologize. In reality, there’s so very, very much I don’t know about museums. I don’t know a thing about business models, bottom lines, making payroll, or keeping the doors open. I don’t know about liability, public-private partnerships, measurable outcomes, or marketing. I don’t know how they decide what to charge for a bag of stale popcorn or a watery diet Pepsi, or where they get all those crappy toys they sell in the gift shop.

What I do know is how to get kids excited about science. I know because for well over a decade in my 23-plus science museum career, that’s what I tried to do every day. I didn’t always succeed, but I succeeded more often than not. And in the process I learned what works and what doesn’t.

So here’s what generally happens in a science museum, and why it generally doesn’t do much to get kids to love science the way I and other museum people love it.

In a typical science museum, kids come pouring in like marines taking a beach. They see something shiny and scurry over. They push buttons; maybe something happens and maybe it doesn’t. If it makes noise or lights flash, they pay attention. If it doesn’t, they go on to something else. If they can get wet or (even better) get someone else wet, they love that. If they can build something or (better yet) knock it down, they love that, too. What they learn of science from all these things, I have no idea, and don’t really care. One thing I’m pretty certain of is that they don’t learn what the designers intended. Mostly they just get wet.

Every once in a while, the kids see someone at a cart, or walking in the halls with an interesting-looking prop. If the person seems friendly, if the prop is interesting enough, the kids might go over and see what’s going on. Too often, the person at the cart or holding the prop is another kid, a teenage volunteer or maybe a college student trying to make a little money. Usually these museum staff are not much better than the exhibits with the flashing lights or the splashing water. They might have memorized a script they drone out again and again, hoping no one asks a question. The kids eventually slip away, looking for another button to push.

But occasionally the person at the cart or holding the prop is someone who actually cares about the interaction. This person might be a dedicated museum professional, or at least someone being mentored by one. These are the “museum people.” Now the interaction takes on a different flavor. There’s no rote script; rather, questions and answers fly back and forth between the museum person and the kid. The kid is invited to touch, to try, to hold, to hear, to feel. There are terrible jokes that make the kid laugh because they’re so terrible. The kid asks a great question, and the museum person says, “That’s a great question. Let’s see if we can find out!” The kid gets so excited she starts jumping up and down in anticipation. She wants to know what’s next. She wants to try it again. Sometimes, she even wants to teach someone else how it works. And the museum person has to hold back tears, the interaction is that powerful. And all is right with the world.

The museum people who catalyze these reactions have a few common traits. Museum people have “it”, an infectious enthusiasm that makes everyone feel comfortable and not intimidated. You understand you’re in the presence of someone who is not lording over you with superior knowledge, but instead is genuinely excited about seeing how you will react to discovering something new. Museum people love to laugh, especially at really bad jokes. Museum people love questions, especially questions they don’t know the answers to. Museum people love to help others explore. They have no sense of time – an interaction can be brief or extended, it can cut into the published schedule, their own lunch time, even closing time for the museum, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the exploration.

First, last, and always, museum people aren’t selling anything – nothing but their own joy and love of the cool things they know will make kids go “woah!” For a museum person, that “woah” is the greatest sound in the world. And we know how to get it.

Liquid nitrogen can get it. So can dry ice. Invisible electromagnetic fields are great at inducing that sound. Bones, especially skulls, can do the job. Fire is a sure-fire woah inducer. Flying things are great, too. So are explosions.

There are other, more subtle, ways of getting the woah. Things that feel funny, or that change color, or that light up at just the right moment get a woah, even if the effect itself isn’t the most exciting thing ever. It’s all in the set-up and the delivery. Every kid has one shot at getting that woah moment for every effect, and a museum person understands that every experience, every time, every kid is vital. They are all our starfish, in our hands for just a short time before we return them to the ocean. We have to make that moment count. Every. Single. Time.

Sadly, science museums aren’t built for the woah. They aren’t built with dedicated museum professionals in mind. Why? Lots of reasons. All of them bad.

Here’s how things often happen at science museums. A big business with an important message comes to the museum. “Hey,” they say, “we’d like to give you a wad of money. Can  you get kids excited about making healthy food choices?”

The science museum sees the wad of cash, thinks about how that wad of cash can help keep the doors open, pay the light bill, and make payroll. And so the science museum lies.

“Yeah, we can get kids excited about making healthy food choices.”

They know it’s a lie. They’ve tried before. Everyone’s tried before, and they’ve failed. Why? Because kids don’t want to learn about healthy food choices. They want the “woah!” Now maybe someone out there, a museum person who understands the woah even better than I do, has a great idea that involves healthy food choices. I doubt it, but then as I said before there’s lot I don’t know. But this I do know. You don’t get the woah by trying to sell healthy food choices. You get the woah by going for the woah – by finding that golden moment that makes kids go “woah!” and building your interaction around that. If the moment the museum people find happens to involve healthy food choices, well, they’re better than me. But it has to start with the woah. It’s not the outcome that matters. It’s how you get there. Wonder is a journey.

So the science museum lies. They take the wad of cash, and they build an exhibit about healthy food choices. It sucks. They might even have a cart activity or a traveling prop about healthy food choices. It sucks, too, and what makes it suck worse is that almost always the person behind the cart isn’t a museum person. It’s someone reciting a script, a script approved by the company with the wad of cash that wanted their name on something to do with healthy food choices.

There’s no woah. There’s no joy in discovery and no opportunity to fall in love. The journey is just a means to an end. Be sure to drink your Ovaltine. The kids walk away, uninspired.

Meanwhile, the museum people – despite being notoriously underpaid because they are doing what they love, and you can bet the museum takes full advantage (we used to say we keep the salaries low to keep out the riffraff) – are seen as a drain on the institution. As a result, they slowly disappear. Many move into “behind the scenes” jobs, jobs that pay better, get them home on weekends, and get them a lot more respect in the museum field. Having myself worked many, many museum jobs, I can tell you no one works harder than the museum people on the floor, looking every day for those starfish. It’s not even close.

Most museum people that don’t move into behind the scenes jobs eventually move on to something else. If you can’t get on full-time, you really can’t stay forever, and why would a museum make a full-time job out of something that (from the museum’s point of view) a part-timer or better yet an unpaid volunteer can do just as well?

A few museum people try to hang on, but eventually that budget will be cut and changes will be made. Because these museum people have no voice in management (they are notoriously rotten at politics, and avoid meetings like the plague because of course they’d rather be out there inspiring the woah), one by one they get cut from the staff. And because most visitors to the museum never encountered one of these museum people, never experienced the woah themselves, the museum people are hardly missed.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s what should happen.

The museum, instead of selling itself as the place with flashing lights and splashing, should sell itself as the home of dedicated museum people who know how to get the woah. Then, when the company with the wad of cash comes, the museum can say, “No, we can’t get kids excited about healthy food choices. What we can do is keep paying our dedicated museum people to inspire a new generation of kids to fall in love with science. These kids who love science, who love learning, who are excited about discovering the world all around them, will have the tools they need to make good choices about themselves and their world. How’s that?”

And then the museum professionals, who know more about the woah than anyone else, can go to work.

That would be a museum worth going to.

This will not be my typical post. I generally post for two reasons. Either the Orange One has done something ridiculous again, and I’m mad as hell, or (more often, I hope) something has inspired me. Right now I’m not inspired, and I am trying to discover why.

This weekend I read Toni Morrison’s book, Song of Solomon. I’d never read anything by the woman many consider our greatest living author, so I thought it was about time.

Song of Solomon tells the story of Macon (Milkman) Dead III, an African American (he would say negro) born in 1931 in an unnamed town in Michigan. The story traces Milkman’s life through his childhood and into his adult years. Milkman is forever trying to find out who he is, where he came from, the circumstances that led he and his eccentric family to their current situation. In the end he travels deep into the South and deep into his family’s past to find himself.

The book is well-written and it kept my interest throughout. Unlike The Sound and the Fury or Heart of Darkness, this book was anything but unreadable. It just didn’t speak to me. And I’m sorry about that. This entire post will be an extended apology for not loving a book I probably should love.

I think the problem is this, and it’s a terrible admission. I’m not really interested in where I come from. I don’t believe where I come from makes me who I am. I think I decide that myself.

There’s a great line in Joe Vs. the Volcano that sums it up. I know, I know. How dare I insert a goofy Tom Hanks movie into a discussion of our greatest living writer! Like I said, I apologize.

Near the end of the movie, when the Chief (played by a wonderfully bored Abe Vigoda) looks for a hero to jump into the Volcano and save his people, Joe says, “I don’t have any people of my own, Chief. I’m my only hope for a hero.” Joe is on a journey to find himself. This is his discovery. He is his only hope for a hero. By contrast, Milkman discovers that his identity, his very being, is tied up in where he comes from, who his “people” are. For Milkman, discovering who he is means finding out who his people are.

It was a good feeling to come into a strange town and find a stranger who knew your people. All his life he’d heard the tremor in the word: “I live here, but my people . . .” or “She acts like she ain’t got no people,” or: “Do any of your people live there?” But he hadn’t known what it meant: links.

Now it’s important to understand: I’m not saying Toni Morrison is wrong here. She’s probably right. For most people (and, I suspect, for African Americans, who’ve had their history purposely and viciously erased, even more than for most whites) who their people are is probably a critical part of their identity. I’m saying that I’m missing that piece. I’m missing the need for those links. I’m not entirely sure why.

Huck Finn has a moment similar to Joe’s (and in contrast to Milkman’s).

COL. GRANGERFORD was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and Pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself.

Now Pap is Huck’s father, so here Huck is admitting that he himself is far from “well born.” Of course, we know better. We love Huck, with his self-effacing goodness and his true heart that will lead him to (as he believes) throw away his own immortal soul rather than betray his friend Jim. “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” We don’t believe that Huck’s past condemns him. We believe that Huck himself, finding his own way in the world, is wonderful.

By contrast, Morrison presents characters I really can’t like very much, characters whose flaws don’t make me long for redemption but rather just push them away from me. I don’t think it’s Morrison’s fault, I really don’t, and Song of Solomon may very well be the great book Barack Obama and others believe it to be. I suspect there’s something missing in me that keeps me from loving Song of Solomon. In my heart of hearts, I just don’t believe that I am shaped by where I come from. I shape myself by the choices I make. I’m probably wrong. But I think this flaw is what caused Song of Solomon to not speak to me. I don’t have any people of my own. I’m my only hope for a hero.

Art is the “unmistakable evidence of the best things our species is capable of creating, things made by the liberated thought, the acute vision, and the unquenchable creative fire of our shared humanity.” – Simon Shama, Civilizations

Those are the final words spoken in Civilizations, a nine-part history of art that aired on PBS this spring and summer. In this my next-to-last week of summer vacation, I binge watched the series – thanks to my wonderful wife Julie who got it for me from the also wonderful Upper Arlington Public Library.

Such a great series! I highly, highly recommend it even if (or especially if), like me, you don’t know beans about art. I learned so much – why Ramses II is the best-known of the Pharaohs (answer: he often appropriated old statues of former Pharaohs and changed their names to his), why domes became all the rage in Renaissance Italy (answer: Islam envy), even why so many Dutch paintings have dogs in their corners (answer: the Dutch artists valued scenes of everyday life, and Holland had lots of dogs). I was especially moved by the end of episode six, which compared landscape painting of the mid-19th century to the amazing Hubble Space Telescope photographs of our own time.

My favorite episode, though, was episode 7, “Color and Light.” I’ve always thought light and color to be among the most fascinating topics in physics, and I love the close connections between the science of light and the art created to study light.

The idea that color has to come from somewhere, that paint with vibrant colors wasn’t always available at every corner store, had a surprising effect on the history of art. I love the story of ultramarine, how this beautiful blue was so expensive it was once reserved for only the holiest of subjects, and how when the artist Titian broke that tradition by putting ultramarine on the pagan Ariadne it was a scandal.

I didn’t know that impressionists like Monet (my favorite) were so inspired by Japanese art. It really shows how interconnected and multicultural our world has always been. While studying Monet’s paintings of The Gare Saint-Lazare, a train station in Paris, one of the commentators made the observation that the impressionists were painting not only light, but time. I was struck by the idea that a painting can convey the feeling of change and movement. The final scenes of this episode, in which we plunge into a deep black circle painted on the ground (a work by Anish Kapoor called “Descent Into Limbo”) is something you need to experience.

Episode 8, “The Cult of Progress,” was a little bit heavy. As an optimist, I know that the desire to return to an idyllic past is mostly the result of a bad memory. Yes, the past century was full of horror and bloodshed, and we owe a great debt to the artists who captured that horror so vividly, lest we ever are tempted to forget. But every century has witnessed horrors, many of them far worse than those of the 20th. What strikes me about 20th century art is that the artists saw the inequity and the stupidity and weren’t afraid to show it to us. Instead of generals, they gave us soldiers slaughtered in the field. Instead of kings and queens, they gave us prostitutes in brothels. Instead of glories to God, they gave us rail lines that vanished into death camps. The difference, it seems to me, is that 20th century artists felt the freedom to show us what they saw.

And that brings us to the last episode and the modern world. I still don’t understand Jackson Pollock. But Episode 9, “What is Art Good For?” featured many other modern artists who amaze me with their ability to see beauty and expose injustice. I was blown away by the work of Kara Walker, using black silhouettes to expose the injustices of slavery and racism. At first I scoffed at Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist who uses gunpowder explosions to create art. But what comes from those explosions is incredibly beautiful – you have to see it to believe it.

Finally, the program highlighted artists who are speaking to the refugee crisis of today. These works, including a massive, all-black raft full of inflated figures by Ai Weiwei, will touch you in a way the nightly news just can’t.

I have so much to learn about art, just as I have so much to learn about music, and literature, and history, and science and math, too. The world is an amazing place!

There are many, many things I don’t understand.

One thing I’ve never gotten a good grip on is what makes something pedantic or patronizing. I honestly have no filter, alarm, or other detection device for the pedantic or the patronizing.

Dictionary.com defines pedantic as ostentatious. OK, that’s a big help. Ostentatious, they say, is: characterized by or given to pretentious or conspicuous show in an attempt to impress others. OK then.

Patronizing, they say, is displaying or indicative of an offensively condescending manner. 

Condescending, just for good measure, is showing or implying a usually patronizing descent from dignity or superiority.

OK, none of that helps me a bit.

All of this musing comes from a recent episode of The West Wing. Well, recent for me. I never watched the show in its original run, but with the current monstrosity occupying the White House (was that pedantic or patronizing?), my wife Julie and I have decided, on the suggestion of a friend, to watch The West Wing and pretend it is real life.

Last night we reached the first episode of Season Three, titled “Isaac and Ishmael.” It was written and filmed in three weeks, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The program was a little rough, the dialog could have used some polish, and it completely stepped out of the show’s story line. Even so, I found it to be so important, and to speak directly to what’s going on in our country right now.

Yet when I read reviews of that episode, written immediately after it aired and even many years later, I saw the words “pedantic” and “patronizing,” even “preachy” come up again and again. I don’t get it.

The episode made incredibly important points, including the fact that terrorism never works, that Islamic extremism is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity, and that our pluralistic society – our commitment to live with people we disagree with – is itself our greatest accomplishment. For a television program to make these points in the aftermath of September 11 – eschewing the far easier points about patriotism and public service – seems to me incredibly brave. To call it pedantic is to ignore that fact that these conclusions are still anathema to far too many people.*

Oops, was that last sentence pedantic? I really need to find that filter.

*For instance, in the August 2017 poll linked above, 30% of Democrats and a whopping 65% of Republicans believe there is a “natural conflict between Islam and democracy.” This despite the fact that 92% of US Muslims agree with the statement, “I am proud to be an American.”

Not an original thought. Millions have experienced the same thing before me. Somehow, though, I was unprepared.
I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC with my family on Monday. I wound through the exhibits, reading of Hitler’s rise to power, of the complicity of Germany, of Europe, of the whole world, toward this growing evil.
I read of whole communities murdered, looked at pictures of young people who would never grow up, never have families of their own. I looked over the maps and the models and read the awful statistics.
And then I came to the shoes.
Thousands of shoes – a tiny fraction of the whole, but each shoe a token. A woman’s shoe, curling back with age. A man’s shoe, dark and crinkled. A child’s shoe, carelessly tossed into the pile. A child’s shoe. Someone loved that child once, someone tried to protect that child. That child held a hand once, gave one last squeeze, one final questioning look. And then rough hands took hold.
And I stood in a room, surrounded by shoes, and I cried.

King Lear is pain. King Lear is familial infighting, parental humiliation, deadly lies, physical torture, mental anguish, suicide (both failed and successful), and the most unjust ending in all Shakespeare, maybe in all literature. Be very, very wary of anyone who claims King Lear as their favorite Shakespeare play.

King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play.

It took me a while to get here. I first loved Macbeth (another bundle of joy), and on happier days I still revel in As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing. I have a deep admiration for Measure for Measure, and I count Henry IV Part One and Othello as two of the most remarkable accomplishments in art.

Hamlet and King Lear always felt, I don’t know, just too great to be someone’s favorite, like saying God was your favorite deity or something. But since I don’t believe in God, these two plays are as close as I get to the divine.

While Hamlet is amazing, mostly because of the singular character of the prince himself who seems like nothing so much as a real person who lives in the pages of a play, I believe King Lear is the greater of Shakespeare’s two greatest tragedies. And I now, after spending several weeks with it, count it not only as the greatest but also my favorite Shakespeare play.

What follows is an extended paen to this powerful play, and an explanation of how, why, and where it shapes my ever-evolving view of the world. I hope this essay adds something to your own understanding.

Act One

Ian McKellan as King Lear

As the play begins, we are faced with Lear, a character who is difficult – no, make that impossible – to like. He craves approval, is narcissistic, authoritarian, and (as we are about to discover) prone to irrational rage. His treatment of his youngest daughter Cordelia, after she tells him exactly what she thinks of his love test, is as cruel as it is nonsensical. As the terrible (but for now justified) Regan says, Lear “hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Lear is about to go on a journey of self-discovery that will reap him more knowledge in a few short days than he has gathered in his previous four score years combined.

Scene Two shows us the bastard Edmund – not the servile and humiliated Edmund of the first scene, but a villain who will thrill us with his daring strategy to usurp his legitimate brother and replace his elderly father Gloucester. His relationship to Iago is clear, yet unlike Iago – whose sense of revenge is hardly rational – Edmund knows not only exactly what he is doing, but why. His aims are clear – those who stand in his way must be eliminated, precisely because they stand in his way. We will see how well Edmund can manipulate his father, convincing him of Edgar’s guilt by arguing against it – because he knows that Gloucester is a fool who values his own powers of deduction much too highly. In an echo of Richard II, where Aumerle has a letter he really must hide from his father Edmund of Langley, our villain Edmund piques Gloucester’s interest by quickly hiding a letter he will attribute to his brother Edgar. We then see how Edmund manipulates that same brother by pretending to believe in astrology – exactly the foolishness Edmund mocks in the scene before – convincing his older brother that this susceptibility in their father spells doom for Edgar. Like Iago before him, Edmund knows exactly what to say to push those already predisposed to foolishness into their own foolish acts.

Next we meet the actual Fool, though unlike others in the play he is anything but foolish in his words. I find a deep connection between the Fool and Cordelia. No, I don’t believe the Fool is actually Cordelia in disguise, despite the “hint” Lear gives at the end of the play (more on that later). I see the Fool as a somewhat grungy and dirty-minded old man – not as old as Lear, certainly (and not as dirty), but old enough to be someone a young girl could not easily imitate. I think both Cordelia and the Fool play the same role in Lear’s life, grounding him, making him live in the now and not in a glorious past or an unrealistic future.

We learn that the Fool has pined away since Cordelia left. This makes sense, because both Cordelia and the Fool can see clearly what Lear’s disastrous choices will lead to. Despite their difference in age, Cordelia and the Fool are kindred spirits, truth speakers, and – along with Edgar, Gloucester, and Kent – examples of the “good” people who for some reason love and honor the foolish and erratic character that is the Lear we’ve seen so far.

So what are we to make of the Fool? He is focused, obsessed really, with Lear’s awful decision to give his kingdom to his other two daughters. I love this line:

Fool: Why, this fellow has banished two on ’s
daughters and did the third a blessing against his will.

This is of course exactly the opposite of what Lear literally did. He banished one daughter (Cordelia) and did the other two a blessing by giving them the kingdom. So what is the Fool up to? I think he’s saying that Cordelia is better off being out of this crazy place, and that the other two are banished from Britain because by Lear’s actions Britain no longer exists.

Lear and his Fool

When Lear says, “I did her wrong,” the Fool redirects Lear. His “wrong” was not his treatment of Cordeila, which the Fool avoids. Rather, it was his initial plan to give his “house” to his daughters. By implication, it was the love test itself that was wrong, not Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s answer.

It’s not that simple, though. There’s more going on under the surface. The key word in the conflict between Lear and Cordelia is “nothing.”

Lear: Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interest; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.


Cordelia: Nothing.

Lear: Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.

And then later, to the Duke of Burgundy when he asked for Cordelia’s offered dowry:

Lear: Nothing! I have sworn; I am firm.

By the way, I must add this note. When Burgundy abandons Cordelia for want of a dowry, Cordelia lets him have it right between the eyes with one of her very best lines.

Cordelia: Peace be with Burgundy!
Since that respects of fortune are his love,
I shall not be his wife.

If you didn’t already, you just have to love her after that.

The Fool brings this all back to Lear, and to us. After one of the Fool’s nonsense songs, we get this exchange:

Kent (in disguise): This is nothing, fool.

Fool: Then ’tis like the breath of an unfeed lawyer- you gave me
nothing for’t. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

Lear: Why, no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.

And instantly we’re thinking of what was made of Cordelia’s “nothing” in Scene One.

Not long after that, Lear begins to suffer from self-realization: “I did her wrong.”

Yes, Lear did Cordelia wrong. But Lear never should have put Cordelia, or her sisters (or indeed himself), in such a position in the first place.

The other big event of Scene Four is Goneril’s first betrayal of Lear. But I’ll discuss that more when Goneril and Regan have their dual betrayal scene in the next act.

Act Two

Scene One gives us more insight into Edmund’s cunning. He convinces Edgar to flee without Edgar ever confronting his father Gloucester. If those two ever got together, even for a moment, it would destroy all of Edmund’s plans, so he must be very careful here. Edmund must have known both his father and his brother well to pull off this deception.

Edgar is about to make the transformation from his own identity to that of Tom o’ Bedlam. In this remarkable play, this transformation is perhaps the most remarkable event. I think there is much more to understand in Edgar’s descent into Tom. Why does he go so far and stay with it so long? It seems all out of proportion with what is necessary – consider Kent’s more ordinary transformation, for instance. Edgar’s last line here, “Edgar I nothing am” again brings us back to this idea of nothing that is so central in this drama.

Going back to Lear, we soon find him faced with two daughters allied against him.

The impotent fury Lear is feeling builds and builds as, after Goneril arrives, she and Regan take turns belittling Lear, reducing his army bit by bit until it is gone. And then Lear lets loose as best he can:

Lear: you unnatural hags!
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall- I will do such things-
What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!

You almost want to laugh at his inability even to devise a revenge. It’s sinking in now. He has no power – no army, no followers, no home, no kingdom. He is at his daughters’ mercy. And, as he is about to discover, their mercy is sorely lacking.

Goneril is the leader of the action here. She and Lear must have some history for him to curse her as he did:

Lear: Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her!

While the nastiness between Lear and Goneril is palpable, I continue to be amazed by Regan’s character. As Lear leaves, she is trying to talk herself into believing what she is doing is right and just.

Regan: This house is little; the old man and ‘s people
Cannot be well bestow’d.

Who are you trying to convince, Regan? And then,

Regan: For his particular, I’ll receive him gladly,
But not one follower.

And finally, in words she speaks to Gloucester,

Regan: O, sir, to wilful men
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors.
He is attended with a desperate train,
And what they may incense him to, being apt
To have his ear abus’d, wisdom bids fear.

“I did what I had to do. I’d take him in if he wasn’t so damned stubborn. Who knows what he and his crazy followers might do?” Quite the self-convincing.

Shakespeare didn’t have to do this. He could have just written two daughters, both equally evil, essentially indistinguisable from one another. But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, created two distinct personalities even here. Goneril is scheming, conniving, and cold. Regan wants everything both ways – she wants to be the good girl who loves her father, but also to be even more clever than her older sister and come out on top. Regan is a fascinating, deep, an ultimately sad character who deserves further study. But on to the critical act . . .

Act Three

lear in the storm

Lear and the Fool have been thrust out into the storm. Is this where the old man loses all faith in the gods? The comparison with Ahab’s great lightning scene in Moby Dick is quite apt, I think. That scene is about as anti-theist as it gets. Here Lear rails against the gods, with the Fool providing comic relief, taking the blasphemous edge off Lear’s words.

Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!

Fool: O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this
rain water out o’ door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters
blessing! Here’s a night pities nether wise men nor fools.

Lear: Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this! O! O! ’tis foul!

If this is, in fact, where Lear loses his faith, it is striking that right afterwards he realizes what a horrible king he has been, how he has not taken care of those subjects who have been every day and night exposed to the same foul weather he now decries.

In a short interlude between storm scenes, we next see Gloucester make his fateful mistake. He tells Edmund of the plot by Cordelia and the French army to return Lear to power. Edmund of course takes this information straight to Cornwall, and we know what happens next.

But first we return to Lear on the heath, and the encounter between Lear, the Fool, Kent (in disguise), and Edgar as Tom o’ Bedlam. The text flies thick, as each of the four speaks with an utterly different voice. Kent, trying in vain to hold it all together; the Fool, turning to hopeless lament as his time in this play draws to a close; Lear, now losing his mind and so impressed by the disguised Edgar’s essential freedom that he tries to undress himself. What Edgar is up to in this scene is deep and mysterious. His language is evocative – he almost sounds like the riddling witches of Macbeth. Again, we see Edgar going far beyond what is necessary for his disguise – perhaps just to keep the others off-balance so as not to guess at his true identity.

Gloucester joins the troop, and now Edgar is in real danger. Over the edge he goes in a listing of demons and their designs. On the surface, Edgar’s words are nonsense, but they are so strange and evocative that I think it’s clear Shakespeare is up to something else. In a play so full of the gods not responding to human concerns, the idea that a motivated human can so easily move back and forth between completely lucid strategy, deeply-felt human emotion, and this demonic banter suggests that Shakespeare knew it was all a human invention. The only fiends are those we create ourselves. And those, as King Lear shows us, are plenty scary enough.

In the next scene, we see the brilliant Edmund cashiering his own soul to the much less brilliant Cornwall. Cornwall pathetically tries to buy Edmund by promising to be a father to him – a rather stupid ploy considering how the child/parent relationship has gone so far in this play. Does anyone have any doubt that, had Cornwall not finally succombed to his own toxicity, Edmund would have taken him down, too?

The most interesting line of this scene is the one Edmund says to himself (and to us):

Edmund: I will persever in my course of loyalty,
though the conflict be sore between that and my blood.

This is a shocking admission for our arch-villain Edmund to make. Is it to prepare us for his death wound conversion later? Is it to humanize him above the horrible Cornwall? I think this line serves many purposes. It humanizes Edmund, yes, but that very humanization in a sense makes his actions that much worse. In the same way that Macbeth is a more devastating tragedy than Richard III (well, for many people) because we are closer to the former protagonist than we can ever get to the latter, giving Edmund a bit of humanity here makes his actions more affecting than those of Cornwall.

Once out of the storm, Lear puts Goneril and Regan on mock trial. The same dynamic continues, with Lear out of his mind, Kent trying to talk sense, the Fool becoming more and more morose, and Edgar alternating between playing along as the judge and breaking out of his lunatic character, as here:

Edgar [aside]: My tears begin to take his part so much
They’ll mar my counterfeiting.

After a bit about dogs (I wish I knew what Lear meant by “Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart – Sweetheart is clearly Cordelia, while Blanch is Regan, whose approach to Lear is both cold and milky white. But why Tray for Goneril? Was Goneril the third child, with two others already dead?), Kent finally gets Lear to rest, and then the Fool utters his last line in the play:

Lear: Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains.
So, so, so. We’ll go to supper i’ th’ morning. So, so, so.

Fool: And I’ll go to bed at noon.

It sounds like the Fool is planning on dying. There’s not another mention of him, though Lear – holding the dead Cordelia’s body – says “and my poor Fool is hanged.” More on that critical line when I get to it.

Edgar now comes out of his Poor Tom character for an extended soliloquy that closes the scene. Edgar feels that the king’s true madness is far worse than what he, Edgar, has experienced. However, what Edgar can’t know is that things are about to get much worse for Edgar and his father.

In Scene Seven, Cornwall calls for Gloucester’s capture. Regan wants Gloucester hanged. Goneril, however, is the first to voice the actual, horrible torture that Gloucester will endure:

Goneril: Pluck out his eyes.

But Cornwall takes control of the scene, first sending Edmund off with Goneril – believing that even someone as apparently cold as Edmund will not be able to bear the torture Cornwall is about to inflict upon his father. I’m not so sure.

Gloucester is brought in, and Cornwall and Regan begin the interrogation that is, of course, wholly unnecessary. Regan even says it, “we know the truth.” Gloucester names the very evil to which he is about to be subjected:

Regan: Wherefore to Dover, sir?

Gloucester: Because I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes;

And then Cornwall goes about inflicting just this horror on the old Earl. In one of the almost forgotten gems of this drama, an unnamed character stands up for the audience and says what we’re all thinking.

Servant 1: Hold your hand, my lord!
I have serv’d you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.

Regan: How now, you dog?

Servant 1: If you did wear a beard upon your chin,
I’ld shake it on this quarrel.

Regan: What do you mean?

Cornwall: My villain! Draw and fight.

Servant 1: Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.

Regan: Give me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus?
[She takes a sword and runs at him behind.]

Servant 1: O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O!

[He dies.]

I don’t think the shock or the import of this encounter can be over-stated. In its statement about the world, this short segment represents the entire play. Consider: this man has served Cornwall since childhood; he must know what sort of dispicable characters he and his wife are. Cornwall is now essentially King of half of Britain. Certainly kings have done far worse than pluck the eyes from defenseless old men. And yet here (with King James watching, we must assume), a commoner rises up and says “this far and no further.” Yes, the servant is killed from behind by Regan, but in the struggle he fatally wounds Cornwall. This isn’t divine retribution, this is a single human, knowing he will lose, standing up for something bigger than himself. This man is a hero. If there is one role I’d love to play in a Shakespeare production, this is it.

And what is our hero’s reward? The dying Cornwall shouts it out:

Cornwall: Throw this slave
Upon the dunghill.

And the now-blinded Gloucester receives the cruelest line from Regan:

Regan: Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.”

Act Four

Edgar, miserable for the King, is on the heath. The blinded Gloucester comes in, led by an old man. Edgar now realizes the hurt that’s been done to his own father, and he nearly breaks down.

Edgar [aside]: O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?
I am worse than e’er I was.

Old Man: ‘Tis poor mad Tom.

Edgar[aside]: And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

You will think I’m crazy, but to me this is an optimistic line, one of the most optimistic in the play. Edgar is saying that as long as we have breath, as long as we can speak, things are not as bad as they could be. Where there is life, there is hope. We must endure all, we must keep fighting for the good, keep fighting for life, no matter the odds. Anticipating Winston Churchill some three centuries hence, Edgar never, never, never gives up. So long as we can say “this is the worst,” we still have something to fight for.

Markus Potter as Edgar and Mike Hartmann as the Earl of Gloucester

After these asides from Edgar, Gloucester speaks a critical line that shows just how little he has learned:

Gloucester: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.

No, Gloucester, you don’t get it. The gods aren’t malicious. They are absent. It wasn’t the gods who blinded you, it was Cornwall. You were betrayed by your son Edmund. Remember him, the man you humiliated in the play’s first lines? The son you completely misread? Yes, him. We don’t need the gods to rip our wings off and squash us with their thumbs. We’re perfectly capable of creating evil all by our vicious little selves. The Beast is real; it is within us.

And now Edgar, who now anticipates Samuel Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” leads Gloucester toward Dover, where the old blind Earl plans to throw himself from the cliff.

My dear Cordelia is back in England. She is described by a gentleman:

Gentleman: Patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like, a better way. Those happy smilets
That play’d on her ripe lip seem’d not to know
What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence
As pearls from diamonds dropp’d. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most belov’d,
If all could so become it.

If this doesn’t make you hunger to know a character better, nothing will. We soon see Cordelia herself. Lear’s youngest daughter has very few lines in this play, but they are drenched with meaning. Whole productions can be made or broken by the casting of Cordelia. Just as in the opening scene of the play, we see Cordelia as both loving and fierce, someone who will speak her mind and take action. If there is hope to be found in this play (and I think there is), it must be centered around Cordelia.

Edgar and Gloucester reach Dover. After Edgar has used some more trickery to convince his father that suicide is not the answer, in comes Lear, completely out of his mind and therefore (as so often in Shakespeare) speaking at his most profound.

I feel totally unqualified to write about this amazing scene. But I’ll do it, anyway.

Lear describes himself as “Every inch a king” and then goes into a description of his duty as king to dispense justice. How as king can he condemn men for adultery when adultery is all around us? Adultery is only a crime because of the stories we humans make up. The deep question Lear is asking is what makes a king, indeed what makes man, so special that there should be laws and lawgivers, enforcers and criminals? Who are we to so order the world with our fictions? The job of a king, just like the job of every human, is an essentially impossible task. How do we find order, meaning, or justice in a world that is essentially disordered, devoid of meaning, and fundamentally unjust? Gloucester, realizing the voice he hears is that of the king, says:

Gloucester: O, let me kiss that hand!

Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.

After all, Lear is saying, we’re all just dirt, and we smell like it.

Even so, we try to rise above. And that, of course, is the point.

And then:

Lear: When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

Again we feel this deep connection to Macbeth, and that protagonist’s powerful words about the meaninglessness of life.

Macbeth: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We know that Macbeth got to this bleak place by way of his own terrible choices. Lear is headed there, too, but unlike Macbeth, Lear is not quite as alone as he believes himself to be.

And now in this, my favorite play, we reach my favorite scene. Lear is in Cordelia’s kind custody. When Cordelia tries to talk to her estranged father, he is at first still out of his mind. But then a remarkable transition occurs, followed by the most tender and emotional moment I’ve ever encountered in literature:

Cordelia: O, look upon me, sir,
And hold your hands in benediction o’er me.
No, sir, you must not kneel.

Lear: Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For (as I am a man) I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

Cordelia: And so I am! I am!

Lear: 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.

Cordelia: No cause, no cause.

Simple. Beautiful. In this play, full of such anger, such ugliness, such betrayal, and so many questions about whether life has a point at all, this one scene shows that we humans are capable of the most beautiful, sublime, lovely forgiveness. And maybe that is point enough.


Act Five

All this time, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Albany have been in a fierce struggle for love and country. Goneril, lusting after Edmund and his cool power, wants to replace her husband with the bastard. Regan knows it, but she (newly widowed) wants Edmund, too, and feels entitled. In her roundabout way Regan tries to find out if Edmund has “found my brother’s way to the forfended place.” What a lovely phrase for doin’ it! Edmund of course denies this conjugal wayfinding, and of course is probably lying, which is what he does, which is what Regan knows, which is why she lusts after him. Oh, complications!

But Edgar has obtained the letter that will doom all their plans. In yet another disguise, he brings to Albany Goneril’s letter to Edmund describing their plot. And now Albany has not just suspicions, but proof that there is a conspiracy against his life. Edmund is running out of time.

But gloriously we still have time for one more soliloquy from our unexpurgated villain. Edmund demonstrates here that he has no intention of letting anyone but himself triumph. Lear, Cordelia, Albany, and both the older sisters are all expendable, their lives subservient to Edmund’s needs. In Edmund’s world, everyone else is a temporary employee.

Edmund: To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d,
If both remain alive. To take the widow
Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril;
And hardly shall I carry out my side,
Her husband being alive. Now then, we’ll use
His countenance for the battle, which being done,
Let her who would be rid of him devise
His speedy taking off. As for the mercy
Which he intends to Lear and to Cordelia-
The battle done, and they within our power,
Shall never see his pardon; for my state
Stands on me to defend, not to debate.

And on to the battle. Shakespeare’s stage didn’t really lend itself to enormous battles. (“Oh, for a muse of fire!”) And here the battle, begun and ended in just a few lines from Edgar, is not really the point. This short scene gives us one of the great lines of the play, a line that, because it comes from the character we’ve seen Edgar become, sets this play in direct opposition to Shakespeare’s other great tragic masterpiece.

Edgar: Away, old man! give me thy hand! away!
King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en.
Give me thy hand! come on.

Gloucester: No further, sir. A man may rot even here.

Edgar: What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on.

In Hamlet, of course, the Prince says, “the readiness is all.” Here, Edgar says, “ripeness is all.” Big deal, what’s the difference?

All the difference in the world. Where Hamlet has become defeatist, nihilist, resigned to fate, “Let be,” Edgar is exactly the opposite. We must not give up. We must not surrender to the whims of history. If this play shows us anything, it shows us that there is no fate. We make our own destiny. We create our own world. We must rage against the dying of the light. Ripeness is a process. We grow, we change, we ripen, and what happens – well, we don’t know. We can do our best to make good things happen, but whatever comes we must endure it, we must struggle to the bitter end. Do not go gentle into that good night.

Cordelia knows this well. After her capture, she demands to see “these daughters and these sisters.” She’s won’t go gentle. But Lear, now transformed into the fond, foolish old man, says no.

Lear: No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too-
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out-
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies

Cordelia knows they’ll do no such thing, but she remains silent. We will not hear her voice again.

That phrase, though, “As if we were God’s spies . . .” You may have noticed (if you can remember that far back) that I titled this ramble with that phrase. In this play, again and again, we see no evidence of gods, or God. Characters are capricious, savage, idiotic, kind, valiant, and honorable, but there’s no pattern, not one, that shows God on the side of the angels or the devils. And yet Lear can use this phrase here. Why? Because he wishes to be like us! We are God’s spies. We in the audience, or reading along, or watching on DVD, are outside this drama (thanks to goodness!) We are watching, reading, being affected by this tragic tale playing out before us, and yet when it is over we will get up, walk out, and go on with our lives. And what will this play have shown us? Well, that’s for each of us to decide. More on that to come.

Lear believes he and Cordelia can become, like us, spectators, mere watchers of the play as it unfolds. Cordelia knows better, and her silence here is perhaps the saddest moment in the play. Or perhaps not. Things are about to go very, very wrong.

Edmund knows Lear and Cordelia stand in his way. They must be eliminated, or he can never claim the kingdom. And so he orders their deaths. “To be tender-minded,” Edmund tells the captain, “Does not become a sword.”

But Edmund’s double dealings are about to catch up with him. While Goneril and Regan vie for his attention, Albany reveals the letter, delivered by the disguised Edgar, that shows Edmund and Goneril in a conspiracy to kill Albany. Meanwhile Goneril has poisoned Regan. She is led away, and will soon be dead.

Edgar enters in yet another disguise, this time as an avenging knight. After an epic battle Edgar wounds Edmund, and then reveals himself, with a particularly nasty dig at both Edmund and Gloucester:

Edgar: My name is Edgar and thy father’s son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to scourge us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.”

Well, nobody’s perfect. Edgar really screws up here, as we’re about to find out. The gods, whoever and whatever they are, are anything but just. Gloucester lost his eyes not because he was an adulterer, but because he was an ass afterward. Edmund acted not from the “dark and vicious place” where he was conceived, but from the dark and vicious place Gloucester and society put him in. Yes, we make our own monsters, but not because the gods are just. We create them from ourselves.

We learn that Gloucester, on finding out that Edgar is alive and has been guiding him through the countryside, died of joy and grief at once. Next we learn that Goneril has taken her own life, and that before dying she admitted to poisoning Regan. Both are gone, and the dying Edmund says:

Edmund: I was contracted to them both. All three
Now marry in an instant.

And somehow, this realization that these two women so loved him, changes his character in one of the most dramatic reversals in all of Shakespeare:

Edmund: Yet Edmund was belov’d.
The one the other poisoned for my sake,
And after slew herself.

This whole thing seems odd – the arch-villain, so adept at tricking others to do his bidding, suddenly becomes all sunshine and light because two terrible women lusted after his loins. But then I think of how absolutely horrible Gloucester was to Edmund in the the play’s first scene. That always seemed out of character for Gloucester, but what if it wasn’t? What if Edmund had been subjected, again and again, to this sort of humiliation? Maybe all he wanted was a connection, and maybe the affirmation he got from Goneril and Regan really was enough for someone so hungry for it.

At any rate, Edmund sends everyone running to save Lear and Cordelia. But it is too late. In one of the most famous scenes in the canon, Lear comes in with four supposedly un-actable howls. I thought Sir Ian McKellan did pretty well with them, though I’d sure like for Patrick Stewart to take a shot.

Cordelia is dead. Her rescue came too late. Lear himself killed Cordelia’s executioner, but he is so distraught by Cordelia’s death that he has not much life remaining.

King Lear – On-The-Run 2014

Lear: And my poor fool is hang’d!

And here we have that famous confusion with the Fool and Cordelia. I think it’s Lear struggling once more to comprehend his reality. Cordelia was his dear one – this is the sense of “fool” at work here. And nothing is about to make one more appearance.

Lear: No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! look! her lips!
Look there, look there!

[He dies.]

And now Edgar speaks the final words of the play. Here I believe he is finally abused of the notion that the gods are in any sense just. But does he really understand what has just transpired?

Edgar: The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

And that’s it; the most depressing and morose of all Shakespeare’s plays. Right?


What do you mean? Cordelia’s dead. Lear’s dead. Edmund, almost in a footnote, dies off stage just when it looked like maybe he’d try to reform. Add to these deaths Goneril, Regan (that’s all the Lear clan, in case you’ve lost track), Gloucester, Cornwall, Cornwall’s servant, Oswald, and maybe Lear’s fool (his death was made explicit in the Trevor Nunn/Sir Ian McKellan version). Even Kent sounds like he’s about to end his life. Quite the body count, rivalling Hamlet for dead-to-alive ratio.

All true, and yet I argue that this play is finally deeply, profoundly optimistic. Not optimistic in the conventional idea of a religious path to salvation, but in a completely different sense. It is optimistic because it recognizes that we humans have the power to make choices. Some of those choices are awful, and will often lead to awful outcomes. Others are good, and can still lead to awful outcomes. But they are our choices. No gods, no witches, no fairies or fates are choosing for us. We are choosing for ourselves. And we must live with the consequences of our choices. Ripeness is all.

But here’s the thing (there’s that phrase again!) Someone does survive King Lear. We do. We in the audience. God’s spies. Why does that matter? Because we can shape our lives. We can decide we don’t want the world Lear made for himself. We can look on that stage of dead bodies, destroyed dreams, fractured families, and we can make other choices. Maybe they won’t always be the right choices, but it’s only by learning about ourselves and our world that we can take these imperfect, fallible, uncertain steps toward a better future. We can create moments of sublime beauty, give birth to works of art that touch the soul, make scientific discoveries that cause our spirits to soar, and, most of all, love each other, forgive each other, touch each other, with simple, powerful, unconditional love. In the meantime, on the journey, we endure. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Thanks for reading.


I am optimistic again. Let me tell you why.

When I was very young, the world was an uncertain place. 1968 was a turbulent time, with an unpopular war, multiple political assassinations, and a steeply rising crime rate.

That fall would see the election of a president who would soon face legal pressure to resign. Protesters were shot by our own military. Domestic terrorism would plague the country for a decade.

Around the world, starvation was rampant, poverty seemed intractable, and an out-of-control population bomb promised to make these problems ever worse.

More than all this, though, we lived in the shadow of imminent destruction as two superpowers aimed nuclear death at one another. No one knew if democracy could survive the challenge of totalitarian communism, and at times it seemed that every country’s government faced the threat of violent overthrow, fueled by either our own Western governments or those of the Soviet bloc.

This is the world I grew up in. Now let’s look at today.

(By the way, I know many of you, of all political persuasions, will not believe what I’m about to write. You are convinced that things are terrible, maybe worse than ever. I urge you to look at the data. In particular, read books by Steven Pinker, David Deutsch, Matt Ridley, Max Roser, and Hans Rosling.)

The threat of totalitarian communism has disappeared. There were many reasons for its decline, but chief among them is this: liberal democracy is a better system. Democracy is ascending all over the world, because people want it.

The world is more peaceful than at any time in history. Yes, there are still wars, but nowhere do we have the level of violence and bloodshed that characterized the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century and the world wars of the early 20th century. The level of violence compared to these events barely registers.

In addition to international peace, we have domestic peace. Crime rates started falling in the 1990s and are still on the way down. I know it doesn’t feel that way. Again, I urge you, look at the statistics. We are far more peaceful today than we were only a few decades ago.

Poverty is plummeting. Not just decreasing – plummeting. Two hundred years ago 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. That left only 10% not in this condition. Today the numbers are exactly reversed. Only 10% of the population lives in extreme poverty. Certainly 10% is still too high, but surely this is monumental progress – particularly considering that in the 10,000 years of civilization that proceeded it no discernible progress was made at all!

And one feared result of all this peace, freedom, and prosperity – the fabled population bomb – has fizzled. It turns out that when people are healthier, freer, less fearful, and (maybe most important) better educated they have smaller families. They put more resources into the children they have. They invest in the future.

And that brings me to the point of this post. As Pinker writes, “The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”

After World War II, the world in a sense said enough of this. We made warfare illegal. Yes, wars still happen, just as people still rob banks. But international norms and institutions prize peace and work hard to defend borders and pressure all nations into being good actors. By and large, it has worked. Again, if you don’t believe me look at the data.

We set up international trade networks. My leftist friends will hate this, but the fact is that trade works. It creates relationships that prevent violence. Gentle commerce has made the world not only more prosperous, but far more peaceful.

We committed ourselves to eradicating disease, ending hunger, curing poverty and teaching the world to read and write. We’re not there yet, but the trajectory is clear. It’s working.

And this is my point. When I was born in 1968, we didn’t know. The great experiment that followed the horror of World War II was still too new. We couldn’t be sure any of it would work.

Now, fifty years later, we know. The world is getting better. It isn’t an accident. It isn’t luck. It’s because the tenets of liberal democracy – free trade, gentle commerce, democratic institutions that protect not states’ rights nor national rights, but individual human rights – and so many others, are working.

There are still monumental problems – not least of which is how do we keep all this prosperity from destroying the environment. But as David Deutsch tells us, problems are soluble. Everything we try from here on out is an experiment – it’s never worked before. But we are in so much a better place than we were in 1968, because we have a record of what has worked to get us here.

I believe we need to stop making decisions based on ideology. Instead we need to become pragmatic. We need to base decisions on data, on hard numbers and facts. We have the ability to do so. We have the required knowledge to use as our starting point. We have the mathematical tools to analyze data and make decisions based on that analysis. We have the resources to check spurious claims and call them out for what they are.

When someone makes a claim, instead of reacting with a counter-claim that just feels right to you, I urge you instead to ask for data. What evidence do you have that supports your claim? You claim that illegal immigrants are overrunning the country. What is your data? You claim that crime is rampant. Data, please. You claim that free trade is destroying the economy. Let’s look at the numbers.

Beware of those claims you want to believe. Remember the easiest person for you to fool is yourself. Look at the data, question your own beliefs, and remember that, as journalist Sylvia Strumm Bremer wrote in 1950, “A lot of the nostalgia for the “good old days” is just the result of a poor memory.”

We are getting better. Let’s keep it up!

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
January 2019
« Oct    
A blog by Stephen Whitt

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 90 other followers