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We are all going to die one day. One day we will awaken, not knowing, not realizing, that today we will experience an event like no other, an event from which we will not recover. A ceasing. An end. The rest is silence.

Teaching takes up nearly all my time these days, but I found a little space to read both Hamlet and King Lear. They remain, in my mind, Shakespeare’s two greatest plays. Both ask deep questions about death. Both have a high body count. Beyond that, these plays could not be more different. For me, King Lear remains the greater of the two.

“Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear tells Cordelia in the play’s first scene. Later, Lear tells his Fool (the unresolved connection between Cordelia and the Fool remains one of the endless fascinations of this play), “nothing can be made out of nothing.” At the close of the play, a murdered Cordelia in his arms, Lear gives his final pronouncement on nothing:

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!

In between, Lear comes to know something about himself, and about nothing, his greatest foe (indeed, the foe we all must face). Again and again in King Lear, when characters call on the gods, they are met with – nothing. No help. No harm. Merely silence. Nothing. The universe is not kind, nor is it malevolent. It is merely indifferent. This is the most frightening truth available to us.

So frightening is this truth that we have invented mythologies, institutions, entire cultures dedicated to the idea that we may (if we play our cards right) survive the nothingness of death. I find no evidence to indicate that this is even possible, let alone likely. Such an opinion isn’t pretty. It doesn’t earn friends or praise. (As Lear says to Cordelia, “thy truth then be thy dower!”) But if you look at the way we all fear death, how we go to such lengths to avoid it, it seems clear that we humans see death not as Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” but rather as Lear’s “never, never, never, never, never.”

As he struggles with madness, Lear delivers one of his most poignant lines,

“When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.”

We enter crying. We end in nothing. So what’s the point? Lear finds his point; in disowning the one daughter who dares to tell him the truth, in losing everything to the treachery and greed of his other two daughters, in finally stumbling to Dover to meet Cordelia once again, he finds forgiveness and unconditional love.

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.

In all the words in all the plays, I still feel this may be the most beautiful passage of all.

Joseph Campbell said,

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

We enter crying, we leave dying. In between, we do our very best to feel the rapture of being alive. Not a bad way to spend fourscore and upward on this distracted globe. If we are lucky. King Lear reminds me, each time I rediscover it, that we create our own meaning, our own experience, our own rapture. And it’s all the sweeter for that.




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 2017
A blog by Stephen Whitt

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