Lear helps me see, feel, and measure life differently. For more than 40 years, I have found in Lear the vulnerable pulse and impulse of being human. The play condenses and dramatizes a tale of unraveling. The story is at once intimate and public—about the forms of self-destruction lurking inside a king’s power, and about the distorted pettiness that can undo life.
It’s about leadership exercised through the barrenness of lies, conniving, secrets, and charades. It’s a story of power and its impotence. The king cannot save himself, nor can the people around him. No one needs to strain to feel the heartbeat and the heartache of this drama. It may not be our tale, but it is our story.
Lear certainly makes for a different kind of Christmas reading. As the play unfolds, I can be choked by its jarring tragedy, the needless anguish of the tumbling, destructive descent toward death.
At the same time, I can see and feel it with some measure of dispassion because I know that this is precisely not my king, not my family, not my nation. And yet it is. My soul trembles as King Lear names and exposes the human greediness for love, combustibly combined with the treacherousness of our self-interest. It all hits rather too close to home, speaking not just to Shakespeare’s time but to ours, speaking not just to Lear’s struggles but to our own.
But why read Lear for this? Why not just walk out in the street, or read the newspaper, or scan the internet? Our human story can be viewed through many different lenses and angles. The distinct punch of Lear is the shocking immediacy of a play written more than 400 years ago, which intensifies rather than dilutes the force of its impact. Since it was finished in 1606, it has never not been relevant. Contemporary stories can be urgent and often compelling, but the seasoned crisis of Lear pierces more primitively, at a deeper and more elementary level. That is one reason it rings as it does.
In this year of the plague, we have experienced more isolation than we might have ever imagined. My wife and I live two blocks from my office, now silent, on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary, now empty. I’ve visited it just twice since March, for a total of 10 minutes. Like many, but by no means all, I’ve had the privilege of a withdrawal from the physical presence of normality.
Still, I have especially tried to walk in the world this year with my heart and mind as wide open and engaged as they can be. It has been a year of pain and sorrow, rage and loss. I know and hear and feel much of that, which is why silence has never been a better or more necessary gift. Right in the midst of our collective groaning, the resilient, sacrificing beauties of being human have done more than flicker. They have revealed the gift of human being, a gift at once fragile and durable.