King Lear and Paschal Triduum 2020


In the third act of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, the protagonist loses his mind almost completely. But he retains his exquisite sense of justice.

Lear speaks to the storm clouds and winds, and he pardons them for buffeting him. Then his friends hide him in a little room in a barn. Lear proceeds to set up an imaginary courtroom. He arraigns his back-stabbing daughters for their crimes. He speaks with pure justice–to a wooden stool and a farm dog.

…I took a walk in the woods the other day. Like many of us, I found myself in a Lear-like frame of mind. I came upon an adversary. Coronavirus Holy Week, 2020, personified.

Looked like this…

rock face in the woods

I began my accusations:

How dare you? Prohibit the annual Holy-Week gathering of us priests, for the renewal of our ordination promises?

I went on:

What gives you the right to keep the faithful people at home, with no one’s foot to wash in front of the altar at church, on Holy Thursday night?

And more:

Wait. We will have no Easter fire?! No procession with candles? What maim’d rites!

Then I grew most-grave, for the final accusation:

Iniquitous monster, Coronavirus Holy Week 2020, you will thwart the catechumens and candidates from receiving the Sacraments of Christian Initiation at the Easter Vigil?

He offered no defense. Did not even deny the charges. So I began to stone the offender. But then I recognized the cold fact that I was stoning a rock. Let’s face it: we all must resign ourselves to the mystery of Providence.

Lear put it like this, to the storm that rained down upon him:

Let fall your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave.

Beautiful Reasonable Unreasonableness

King Lear—the character in the play of the same name—does not make a good first impression. He demands grandiloquent love-speeches from his daughters. When the one honest girl among them refuses to depart from moderation in her address, the rash king disowns her and banishes her from the realm. Then the tragedy that will claim his life—not to mention pretty much every other character’s life, too—begins.

But, although we hardly like the king after this first scene (he banishes his most stalwart knight, too, for telling him the truth, in the same scene), the violently flawed hero winds up making more sense than anyone else by the time the play is over. This fact explains why I adore “King Lear” and would worship it as my god—if it were not for the fact that I worship the actual God.

King Lear demands love, the sweet affection of his daughters—to whom he gave life and (we gather) a lavishly kind upbringing. Now his powers weaken with age. He has loved without measure, giving away all, even foolishly giving away the very governance of his kingdom. He asks—he demands—that he be loved in return, loved without measure: without a calculus of usefulness, without an analysis of whether or not his demands really “ought” to be accommodated. I’m your father. I say I travel with a train of 100 knights. Ergo, you will accommodate 100 knights when I come to visit you, and you will smile and kiss me when I walk in.

Continue reading “Beautiful Reasonable Unreasonableness”

Who Stocked My Man?!

Before Darth Vader was Darth Vader, he enacted King Lear in Central Park.

…In both of our recent parables, emissaries of the master come to grief at the hands of recalcitrant subjects–and the master flies into rage at such ungrateful defiance.

If you are like me, this reminds you of the fourth scene of Act II of the great masterpiece.

Lear, arriving at Gloucester’s castle, finds his messenger confined in the stocks. Gloucester had warned that the king would not take it well that his man would be treated like a common criminal.

Drama of the most sublime intensity ensues… (You may recognize a prayer or two of Lear’s, or the famous “Reason not the need” speech.)

And guess what? Paul Scofield, sometimes known as Sir Thomas More,* also played King Lear! (And, no, it is not Judi Dench playing Goneril; it’s Irene Worth.)

NB. “A Man for All Seasons:” Greatest movie ever

2. Stay calm while watching clip #2. In the early seventies, they experimented with strange close-ups in a number of Shakespeare-movie productions.

Shakespeare’s Deaths and Easter

In the final scene of “Romeo & Juliet,” three corpses litter the stage. In “Othello,” four. “Hamlet?” Four. “King Lear?” Five.

Wags have been known to mock the body count at curtain-fall in Shakespearian tragedies. Does this evoke reality, they ask, or is it just ridiculous?

Does such art imitate life? Most people go to bed at the end of the day–perhaps mildly dissatisfied with things, but with the coffeepot set up for the morning nonetheless.

Let’s admit that, viewed from one perspective, the wags have a point. But Shakespeare rings true in this: He telescopes the timing, but the fact of the matter is that, in real life, everyone does wind up dead, eventually.

The stage at the end of a Shakespearian tragedy resembles a family cemetery at the end of a century: All the dramatis personae lie lifeless, the epic struggle over.

Now, before you think that I am sinking into morbidity again…I actually just want to explain an idea about the surprising emotional effect of Shakespeare’s tragedies. They do not produce feelings of nostalgia or regret. Quite the contrary, they leave one feeling purified and renewed.

How, why is this? A simple answer: Easter.

Shakespeare did not write ‘Christian’ stories. He did something more ingenious. He wrote human stories that make sense only from a Christian point-of-view. He does not ‘teach’ Christian doctrine. But his tragedies force the audience to greet the play’s action with Christian faith.

When we do–and Shakespeare simply assumed that we would–the dark endings actually glisten with light and hope. The curtain may fall on a stage full of dead bodies. But the life of the characters actually makes the lasting impression.

Hamlet’s relentlessly intelligent words resound, not his death at Laertes’ hands. Lear’s ultimate humility, sweetness, and Job-like conquest resound at curtain-fall, not his death from grief. Somehow Othello lives on as a lover even after his suicide.

The vigor of Shakespeare’s tragic characters overcomes their demise. Yes, the dramatic logic of the action forces them to die. But their deaths feel more like a beginning than an end. The cemeteries of Shakespeare’s closing scenes presage a resurrection.

Prayers of King Lear

Rainer Maria Rilke quote of the day:

I know that God did not put us among the various things in order that we should make a selection, but so that we should undertake to receive so completely and utterly that in the end we are able to receive nothing but what is beautiful, in our love, in our watchful attention, in our unappeasable wondering.

…I ran into some old Ent friends at the public library. They reminded me that before Bilbo was Bilbo, he enacted a satisfyingly tedious Polonius in Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, and a distressingly short King Lear (among many other roles).

The thing about King Lear is: he prays.

He does not pray in a Christian manner; after all, the play takes place in the murky heathen past. Some of his prayers imprecate venemously.

But never has a character burst into prayer, mid-scene, with such panache. King Lear ministers like a High Priest of Aggrieved Fathers.

When Lear’s daughter Goneril refuses to house his train of knights (Act I, Scene 4):

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! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!

…He adds in a subsequent scene (Act II, Scene 4):

All the stored vengeances of heaven fall
On her ingrateful top! Strike her young bones,
You taking airs, with lameness!

…You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames
Into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty,
You fen-suck’d fogs, drawn by the powerful sun,
To fall and blast her pride!

…O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
Make it your cause; send down, and take my part!

…You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks!

In Act III, Scene 4, Lear deludedly prays for vengeance upon Poor Tom’s supposed daughters:

…Now, all the plagues that in the pendulous air
Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!

Act III, Scene 2 presents Lear’s famous prayer on the heath:

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 sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

…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 despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

… Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace.

When Lear acknowledges of the raging elements that they “owe him no subscription”–in my book, that makes the grandest line in the history of literature.

The King does not pray in Act V. But when he and his honest daughter Cordelia are apprehended and threatened with execution, he comforts her by saying:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.

It does not rank with that of Melchizedek, surely. But the priesthood of King Lear nonetheless shakes the heavens.

Perhaps my previous analyses of “King Lear” will interest you: 1. King Lear is King 2. Reason Not the Need

Miscellaneous Fantasias

Did you know that Mily Balakirev composed brief fantasias to precede each of the five acts of King Lear?

Never heard of Mily Balakirev? Me neither, until yesterday. He was a mentor to Tchaichovsky, a partisan of the Russian nation, a hard-working nineteenth-century musician.

A music lover can download the King Lear suite on iTunes. (They refer to him as “Balakirew.” These pieces are on the same CD as some works of a 20th-century Armenian composer, but iTunes amazingly allows you to download just the Balakirew material for $4.95.) The music was performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, I believe in the 1990’s.

Listening provokes many reflections…

Was Balakirev just mailing this in, or does the largely sanguine aura of the music express a profound insight into the play? Yes, King Lear is a bitter tragedy, an enormously ugly exploration of the worst that “whoremaster man” can display of his “goatish disposition.”

But beauty emerges: the divine loveliness of pity. The King and Gloucester teach us how to look at human weakness without judgment or contempt. Maybe Balakirev intended his music to bring this aspect of the play to the fore.

The first fantasia, to precede the play’s opening scene, reminded me of just how stupendous that scene is. Don’t quote me, but I believe it is the Bard’s longest. As I think I once mentioned before, more happens in the opening scene of King Lear than has happened in many of the centuries of human history.

…Anyway, I am boring the living daylights out of you. Interested in what will happen next week on Wall Street? Click here. You will never see a more dashing or well-informed New York journalist. The man has a familiar-sounding voice…

…Speaking of all things Shakespeare: I am sure you know that the obscure Henry VI trilogy recounts the “War of the Roses.” These plays are rarely performed; the intricate history is even more rarely grasped.

If you were a Shakespeare troupe undertaking to perform Henry VI, Part 3, would you open the action by slowly unfurling a long banner which is emblazoned with a summary of the first two plays, while playing the Darth Vader theme in the background? Would you title the summary “Rose Wars, Episode III”?

If so, you would have done what the American Shakespeare Center did last night at the opening performance of their short-running rendition of this obscure play. It was the beginning of an enchanting two hours. These players do better with a shoestring budget than the so-called big boys in downtown Washington do with their wasted millions. Long live the American Shakespeare Center!


I enjoyed reading this little essay about New York City doormen.

–Not just because I would have been perfectly happy to live out my earthly life as a doorman, if God willed.

–Not just because the essay’s line of argument recalls King Lear’s ‘reason not the need’ speech, my favorite speech of all time.

But also because my humble little lot as parish priest at 11th and K Streets, N.E., is not too far removed from the social niche the doormen of New York occupy. I am proud to be their confrere.

Seeing Eye

learSelf-knowledge eludes us.

In “King Lear,” Regan remarked about her father:

He hath ever but slenderly known himself. (Act I, Scene 1)

Regan said this after Lear disowned Cordelia, the daughter who loved him the most, in a fit of rage.

Cordelia had refused to pay Lear lavish compliments like her sisters. “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”

“He hath ever but slenderly known himself.”

st basilOur eyes cannot see themselves.

In commenting on Luke 6:41, Saint Basil pointed this out.

In truth, self-knowledge seems the most important of all.

For the eye, looking at outward things, fails to exercise the sight upon itself.

Our understanding also, though very quick in apprehending the the sin of another, is slow to perceive its own defects.

Accusing oneself of sin is painful and difficult. It is also the most liberating thing we can do.

Once we have accused ourselves of sin, we can cry out to God for mercy. He will forgive.

Emperor Has No Clothes

John Daly's pants just get better and better
John Daly's pants just get better and better
Today I announced that a new parochial vicar will arrive at our parish on August 8. After Mass, I received the greatest compliment I have ever gotten:

“Father, we will miss your homilies and your cufflinks.”

…The Emperor who has no clothes is the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Such emperors are always surrounded by toadies. In this case, the Washington Post, the City Paper, and the Washingtonian‘s one-time critic are among the cheer-leading toadies.

I was able to see King Lear at the Harman Center through the gracious generosity of a friend, and I am grateful for his kindness.

wstc king learWe have been down this road before. The Shakespeare-Theatre-Company production of Twelfth Night turned out to be painfully “gimmick-ridden,” and utterly unsatisfying for this “Shakespeare fundamentalist.”

The problem is: Their production of King Lear is laden with more gimmicks than twelve Twelfth Nights. And all of the gimmicks in this production of King Lear are gross with a capital G.

Gross beyond the point of gratuity. Gross beyond the point of abysmal taste. Gross to the point of embarrassment.

Continue reading “Emperor Has No Clothes”

Reason Not the Need

learKing Lear divided his kingdom between his two daughters and decided to retire.

He retained only his faithful knights and the title of king.

His daughters Regan and Goneril conspired against him. Lear traveled between his two daughters’ castles to live a month at a time. The daughters decided not to accommodate the King’s full retinue of knights.

GONERIL Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?

REGAN What need one?

KING LEAR O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,–
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!

Here is James Earl Jones doing this scene. It is worth watching all ten minutes. Your spine will tingle at the end.

Anyway, I thought of “Reason not the need!” when I read section IIB of the Draft NIH Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research, which reads:

Human embryonic stem cells may be used in research using NIH funds, if the cells were derived from human embryos that were created for reproductive purposes, were no longer needed for this purpose…

Needed? Like you need some ball-bearings to fix your dishwasher?

When you and I were embryos, who debated about whether we were ‘needed’?

Elena Dementieva

The most inhuman slavemasters have talked about ‘needing’ their human chattel. But civilized people do not reason the need for human beings.

None of us are needed. Our Creator does not need us human beings any more than He needs a pedicure.

He wants us. He freely wills us into existence–every last one of us, no matter how small.

Click here for a thorough commentary on the Draft NIH Guidelines.

…Serena almost lost her Wimbledon semifinal. Elena Dementieva played with so much heart, I almost started rooting for her. (Please do not tell my beloved Serena.)

The Russian had a match point after two hours and fifteen minutes. She did not capitalize. Serena finally dispatched her at 2:49. Unforgettable match.

Meanwhile, Venus won in 51 minutes. So the Williams sisters will meet again in the Final.