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.

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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.

Deus ex Machina for Measure

I know that everyone has been waiting with bated breath for the final word from Vienna about Isabela, Claudio, Angelo, and the disguised Duke of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

We left them all embroiled in the vice-grip of a riveting plot. The stern Angelo was succumbing to temptation and evil hypocrisy. The Duke, disguised as a friar, was trying to get the condemned Claudio to heaven. Claudio was afraid to die. The pure Isabel was heartbroken and confused.

Gulp. Yes, things are tense. But I am not gulping because things are tense. I enjoy tension. I make people tense all the time, without even trying. (Roman collars can have this effect.)

I am gulping because I dread what I must do. A letdown awaits you, dear reader, and I am afraid you are going to cancel your subscription, and I am going to have to send you your money back.

Before we continue, let us try to keep four things in mind. First: In Shakespeare’s day, there were only two kinds of plays, tragedies and comedies. At the end of a tragedy, multiple people died. At the end of a comedy, multiple people got married. Those were the options.

Second, Shakespeare was not paid to be consistent. He was paid to write exciting plays.

Third, Shakespeare never made up his stories out of whole cloth. He always used old tales, legends, or history, and then personalized the story. In all the earlier versions of the Measure for Measure story, Isabela gave in to Angelo in order to save her brother’s life.

Fourth, we need to recall the definition of “Deus ex machina.” This is when the plot of a drama is resolved by something coming out of the woodwork to resolve everything at the very moment when it seems impossible to make everything work out.

In Measure for Measure, Deus comes out of the machina right after we left off. As you recall, Claudio was begging Isabela to give in to Angelo’s villainous ultimatum, and Isabela was mortified.

At that moment the Duke (still dressed as a Franciscan) barges into the cell. He gets Claudio to sober up and face death manfully. Claudio begs his sister’s pardon for suggesting that she compromise her chastity. Then the Duke comes up with one of the most cockamamie plans of all time.

It turns out that the Lord Angelo had previously been engaged to marry a certain Marianna. But the young man heartlessly broke off the engagement when Marianna’s brother (and her dowry) were lost at sea.

The Duke proposes to Isabela that she trick Angelo into consummating marriage with Marianna. All she has to do is go to Angelo and pretend to accede to his conditions for Claudio’s pardon. The Duke will arrange a dark meeting place, and Marianna will appear in Isabela’s place. Then Claudio will be freed, Angelo will have to marry Marianna, and Isabel will be saved from impurity.

The plan unravels when Angelo orders Claudio’s death the following morning anyway. The Duke has to convince the jailer to send the head of a prisoner who died of a fever, but who looked like Claudio.

The Duke then re-enters the city, out of his disguise. Angelo is exposed as a hypocritical villain. Marianna marries him anyway. Claudio is saved and marries his beloved Julietta. Then the Duke proposes to Isabela!

In my humble opinion, this is a lame, totally unbelievable ending. Measure for Measure was the last comedy Shakespeare wrote. He seems to have been sick and tired of writing them.

There is one very beautiful image near the end of the play, however. At one point during the half-hour-long final scene, the Duke condemns Angelo to death for fornication (just as Angelo had condemned Claudio to death for the same crime.) Marianna begs for mercy for her husband, and she asks Isabela to join her.

At this point, Isabela does yet not know that Claudio has been spared by the Duke’s stratagem. She thinks that her brother has been executed. But she kneels down and begs for mercy for Angelo anyway.

After this, it is no wonder the Duke wants to marry her. But hopefully she will go to back to the convent and continue begging for mercy for all of us sinners.