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This weekend I watched and read along with Sir Ian McKellan’s version of King Lear.

This is a big play. Not just a long play (it is listed here as the seventh longest of Shakespeare’s plays – Macbeth, by contrast, is seventh shortest), but a big play. I feel overwhelmed by all that happens.

As usual, Asimov gives me context and Harold Bloom gives me direction in gathering my thoughts on this play, and they both have much to say. And yet after reading them, and many other thoughts and reviews, I still feel that I don’t know this play. Is it just too big?

Love. Love is a central theme of this play, which seems a crazy statement for a play containing so much misery, so much betrayal, and in the end so much, and so “untimely”, as one character says , death. But it is love that makes the betrayal and the misery so painful to watch.

In the famous opening scene (“nothing will come of nothing” which would have made a good subtitle for this play – more on that later), Lear demands public pronouncements of love from his three daughters. Cordelia, the youngest and up until now Lear’s clear favorite, loves her father too much to lie to him as her older sisters have done. In telling the truth, that she loves Lear as a daughter should love a father, “nor more nor less,” she draws Lear’s wrath – and indirectly causes all the disaster that is about to befall the characters of the play.

lear and cordelia

Love also pervades the other plot in this big play. Edmund is the bastard son of Gloucester. In the McKellan play, the pain Edmund feels when his father talks quite inappropriately about Edmund’s origin (“there was good sport in his making”) is almost physical. It’s clear that what Edmund really wants is love, the sort of love his older and legitimate brother Edgar has always received from their father. In fact, the pain and humiliation that Edmund unfairly experiences in this first scene makes it difficult to view Edmund as a true villain, even after Edmund’s betrayal of his father leads to the horrible blinding Gloucester is given by the truly evil Cornwall. In fact, Cornwall pointedly removes Edmund from this scene, and one wonders whether Edmund, supposedly so cold-blooded and cruel, could have stood by and watched this torture.

king lear edmund

After Cornwall is killed by a servant – I think this is Shakespeare giving voice to every audience member who wants to destroy this eye-gouging monster the way you want to smash a bug with your boot – his wife Regan tries tempting Edmund with her love. At the same time Regan’s older sister Goneril (could Shakespeare have chosen a less attractive name?), wife of the “milk-livered” Albany, decides that she, too, loves Edmund. This, and not any dispute over land or power, sets the two sisters against one another, eventually leading to both their deaths.

When Edmund, mortally wounded by his brother, sees how powerful love can be, he has an amazing, and yet convincing, change of heart and tries to save Lear and Cordelia from the death that he has ordered for them. He dies without knowing that this reversal has failed; Cordelia is killed and Lear dies soon after.

In some ways one feels that Edgar, essentially the only survivor in the play, is the unluckiest character of all – left to clean up the mess of all this death and destruction. What good is all this love if all it leads to is death after death and misery upon misery? My only answer is the beautiful scene from Act Four, the scene where Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. Both Bloom and Asimov wrote that it is the most beautiful scene in all Shakespeare, and therefore in all the English language. With the possible exception of Huck Finn choosing to go to Hell, so far I agree. Though  I knew it was coming, the scene brought tears to my eyes. It was played marvelously by McKellan and Romola Garai, and the original words that Shakespeare chose are so incredibly understated that it almost doesn’t feel like Shakespeare. Yet it so, so works:

lear cordelia reconciled



as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

And so I am, I am.

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.

No cause, no cause.

It still makes me cry to read it now. All the death and misery of this play is worth this one moment. And maybe that’s the point.

But back to Edmund, and to nothing. Nothing will come of nothing. I can’t help but think, when I hear and read Lear’s line to Cordelia as she refuses to give him the false love he demands, of Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing. And that makes me think about atheism and the moment many years ago when I first read these lines from Edmund:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

And of course I was hooked. And then Edmund turned out to be the villain of the play. Pretty strong indictment of atheism there, right? Maybe, but maybe not. What I’m struck by in the play is the failure of any sort of real justice. Yes, Cornwall is killed by the “everyman”, but that everyman is then easily dispatched by Regan, and Cornwall’s death actually seems to fit in just fine to Regan’s plans. Gloucester was “blind” to his mistreatment of Edmund, but surely his own blinding was anything but justified by this, and of course neither Edgar nor Cordelia deserved any of the misery they received. Lear, it’s true, gets his comeuppance for his foolish treatment of his daughters, but it doesn’t ever feel like justice so much as the natural and predictable result of a foolish old man’s foolish choices. Is it justice to be burned by a fire when you stick your own hand in? Nothing would have come of nothing, but disaster comes of foolishness.

Lear realizes this in the storm. I looked hard in the storm scene for parallels to my favorite scene in Moby-Dick, but didn’t really find them. Here I see Lear not so much defying the gods as begging them to do him in, to end the pain and humiliation. But as usual the gods aren’t listening. Lear will have to make his own path. And, unlike Ahab, who fails to live up to the promise he shows in the storm, in the end Lear does find his way. And it truly is his way, his and Cordelia’s.

After he is blinded, Gloucester delivers as strong a renunciation of the gods as one is likely to find anywhere in Shakespeare:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

I suspect that Shakespeare saved this line for a play that is pointedly pre-Christian, feeling he could get away with it in that context but perhaps no other. But notice how well this sentiment fits with Macbeth, with Romeo and Juliet, even with Hamlet. There is no supernatural help to be found in Shakespeare – nothing will come of nothing. The only redemption that is ever found is that built, created, invented between thinking, feeling, wise and foolish humans. Nothing will come of nothing, but something – something real, something valuable, something that, for at least a little while, can hold back the howling storm – can come from us.

This weekend I read and watched the St. Louis Shakespeare Company production of The Taming of the Shrew.

The play left me feeling much as I felt after reading and watching The Merchant of Venice, and also brought up some of the same troubling thoughts as did Prospero’s treatment of Caliban in The Tempest.

In this play, a rich nobleman named Baptista is trying to sell off his two daughters, Katherine or Kate and Bianca. While Bianca is sweet and demure, Kate (the “shrew” of the title) is loud, obnoxious, and apparently in need of correction. While several suitors vie for Bianca, only Petruchio, a poor man looking for money, agrees to take on Kate the shrew (and the considerable fortune that comes with marrying into Baptista’s family, of course).

The rest of the play consists of slapstick humor bookended by cruel mental and physical humiliation of Kate by our “hero” Petruchio. In the end, Petruchio wins a bet by demonstrating that of the three new wives at a gathering (his own Kate, her sister Bianca, and a rich widow introduced late in the play), Kate proves to be the most obedient and subservient. Kate’s closing speech shows that her will has been entirely crushed – she offers to place her own, soft hand below her husband’s boot. Lovely.

Immediately I sought some sort of explanation. Both Isaac Asimov, in his Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, and Yale professor Harold Bloom, in his Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, made rather unconvincing excuses for this mess of a play. Bloom in particular seems to utterly disbelieve Kate’s own words. When Petruchio shows up late to the hasty marriage he himself arranged, Kate says,

I must forsooth be forc’d

To give my hand, oppos’d against my heart

Immediately after this passage, Bloom says,”(T)his is not the anxiety of an unwilling bride. Kate (is) authentically in love”

In other words, no means yes.

I don’t think any of this works. I think this play is exactly what it seems to be. It tells the story of a shrewish woman who is abused out of her shrewishness. It is about how a man should rule his wife and force her into the mold he desires. It is a symptom of a society that sees women as property, without a proper will of their own.

I think that later in his career Shakespeare will get better. He’ll learn more about people and he’ll become a more insightful critic of his own, often immoral, society. But here I think Shakespeare is just wrong.

More important, though, is our reaction to Shakespeare. We love Shakespeare for so many good reasons that it’s hard for us to deal with his moral failures, such as those in The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and here in The Taming of the Shrew. How do we deal with those failures? Either we do what Asimov and Bloom do – Shakespeare’s not really saying what you think he’s saying, he’s actually being ironic, he’s showing how Kate is really controlling the relationship, etc. – or we admit that Shakespeare was just wrong. Crucially, never do we say that Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s culture were actually right about women, about Jews, about slaves and servants. Why? Because we’re better now. Again in this play we see that compared to us, Shakespeare in some ways was a moral ignoramus. Compared to us. In other words, we’re getting better. And a moral disaster of a play like The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the progress we’ve made. It’s something to be proud of.



Father: “Now you can explain to your class how prime factorization works.”

Daughter: “No, they already got it. I’m the only one who didn’t understand.”

Father: “I don’t believe that for a second.”

Daughter: “I believe it for a million seconds.”

Father: “Really? How long is a million seconds?”

Daughter: “I don’t know.”

Father: “Let’s find out.”

Daughter: (looking at calculator) “How do you even write a million?”

Father: “One, zero zero zero, zero zero zero. Now how many seconds in a minute?”

Daughter: “Sixty.”

Father: “So divide a million by sixty. Now how many minutes in an hour?”

Daughter: “Sixty again. Now what?”

Father: “How many hours in a day?”

Daughter: “Twenty-four.”

Father: “So divide by twenty-four. What did you get.”

Daughter: “Woah. Eleven point five seven.”

Father: “So eleven and a half days.”

Daughter: “Wow, it seems like it’d be so much more than that. What about a billion? How do you write that?”

Father: “One, zero zero zero, zero zero zero, zero zero zero. So divide that by 60. 60, and 24, just like before.”

Daughter: “Woah.”

Father: “Wait, we’re not done yet. How many days in a year?”

Daughter: “Um . . . 365?”

Father: “Right, so divide that number by 365. What did you get?

Daughter: “Thirty-one?”

Father: “Thirty-one what?”

Daughter: “Days? No, years!”

Father: “Right!”

Daughter: “Wow. A billion seconds is 31 years, but a million seconds is only 11 days! Mind – pssssh – blown!”

Is there anything better than watching a child get excited about an idea?

OK, this is supposed to be a blog about science and wonder. I find myself more and more interested in other subjects, and so I write about them, too. But this time I do have a connection, of sorts.

What an amazing time we live in! I decided to take up another Shakespeare play, The Tempest. I was able to download not just The Tempest but the entire collected works of Shakespeare to my e-reader in a matter of seconds for the great sum of 99 cents. After reading through the play once (and, frankly, missing a lot of the intended action), I found a performance of The Tempest on YouTube by the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. While following along with the text on my Nook, I watched the entire 2+ hour performance on my laptop, pausing, rewinding, and replaying at my leisure. Has their ever been a better time than this?



So on to the play. The Tempest is a  troublesome play for a modern reader, mostly due to the play’s most interesting character, the man-monster Caliban. It is so tempting, as a modern reader, to see Caliban with modern eyes – as the misunderstood, abused slave who can and will be redeemed. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the character just won’t allow it. The Tempest is filled with bewitching magic, lovely poetry, burning sexual desire, and some truly funny scenes. But it is not, and cannot be transformed into, a treatise on the evils of slavery. Shakespeare portrays Caliban as an ungrateful slave who turns on his master with an ill-conceived and immediately doomed plan, then has Caliban beg for forgiveness and gratefully re-enter the master-slave relationship. One simply cannot escape the plain meaning of the text.



Shakespeare’s problem is that he’s just too good. Just as with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, just as with Iago and Macbeth and Edmund and probably other villains that I’ve yet to encounter, in Caliban Shakespeare has created a character who at times elicits our sympathy. Here is Caliban’s most memorable quote (from Act 3, Scene 2)

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.




If the man-monster can have thoughts like these, then are we really meant to dispise him? Why does Prospero hate Caliban so? Well, Shakespeare gives the reason – Caliban’s attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and his boasting of it later:

“O ho, O ho! Would’st had been done!/Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/This isle of Calibans.”

I’m beginning to believe more and more that Shakespeare is interesting not so much in what he gives us from the 1600s but in how we interpret Shakespeare today. I’ve written already about the wholly modern, and un-Shakespearean, twist that Patrick Steward gives Macbeth in delivering the Scot’s last line. I love that ending, because it twists Shakespeare’s meaning in a way that is, somehow, still true to the struggle about which Shakespeare was writing, the struggle between the old world of revenge and violence and the new world of ideas and justice. This is the very struggle that Steven Pinker writes about in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and both here and in The Tempest I think we see a glimpse into the very struggle about which Pinker writes.

According to Harold Bloom in Invention of the Human, Caliban has become the politically-driven focus of many modern versions of The Tempest, and it is unfortunate.

“(Caliban) has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at this view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.”

I understand what Bloom is saying here, but I take a different meaning from this need to actually follow Shakespeare’s words. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare creates a deeply interesting character in Shylock, but any reading that papers over the blatant antisemitism of the play misses something crucial.  In the same way, the interesting character of Caliban cannot cover up the fact that Shakespeare, a man of his time, had an unfortunate view of race, station, class, and slavery. To try to cover that up that error in Shakespeare’s morality misses something crucial.

Shakespeare was an amazing writer, but his morals were in many ways the morals of late 16th-early 17th century England. Just as we have made scientific and technological progress since those times, as Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we’ve made moral progress. as well. Just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants to see further into the natural world, we stand on the shoulders of those who made slavery, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia the moral wrongs we recognize them as today.

We know the forced conversion of Shylock is a great evil; we know that the continued enslavement of Caliban is a great evil. We can look back now and see that even a writer as talented and sophisticated as Shakespeare didn’t know, yet we do. We’re getting better, one small step at a time. And that, maybe more than anything else, is the positive message to take from the troublesome play The Tempest.

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.
September 2014
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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