“Upon such sacrifices…”

The final scene of King Lear starts with Lear and Cordelia, defeated in battle, brought in as prisoners. Cordelia asks whether she can see her sisters, whose wickedness has brought her and her father so low. Lear’s response to this is extraordinary:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Magnificent though this is, I am not quite sure how I should take it. It is certainly all too easy simply to revel in the beauty of Shakespeare’s blank verse, in that verbal music he produces that is simultaneously both exquisite and sublime. And certainly, if Shakespeare has chosen – as he obviously has here – to burst into such splendour at this point, then clearly he intended dramatic significance of this splendour to register with the audience. And yet, this dramatic significance is troubling. Does Lear really imagine that he and his daughter could live out the rest of their lives happily in prison? Even if that were possible, would it be desirable? For Lear, possibly: he is an old man, has suffered unimaginable agonies, and would like nothing better than to withdraw from life; but it is hardly desirable for someone like Cordelia, who is still young. And indeed, Shakespeare soon confirms that the heaven Lear imagines for himself and his daughter is illusory: far from living happily in prison with Cordelia for the rest of his life, Lear enters towards the end of this same scene in the utmost despair, with Cordelia dead in his arms.

But if Lear’s glorious lyrical outburst here is simply the deluded imaginings of a man who has lost whatever grasp he had once had of reality, why does Shakespeare make the passage so ethereally beautiful? Is it merely to accentuate the horror when these illusions cruelly shattered? That is certainly one way of looking at it, but that has never seemed very satisfactory to me. The presentation of something so beautiful merely to highlight its pointlessness seems to me a sort of gloating cynicism, a scoffing nastiness, that are quite at odds with the very rich and complex emotions I experience when I see or read this play.

Certainly, immediately after Lear delivers this speech, Edmund brings us down to earth with a very curt “take them away” (these three words completing the line that, in terms of metre, Lear had left unfinished). But then, Lear comes out with the most extraordinary lines of all:

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

It is a remarkable idea. In a play that has shown us the extremes of human brutality, Lear now suggests that the gods themselves praise and worship certain aspects of humanity. The implication of this is that humans can rise to a level even higher than that of the gods; and further, that the gods themselves acknowledge this.

Now, if we consider these lines in their specific dramatic context, they are meaningless. It is not possible, even if it were desirable, to detach oneself from life in the manner Lear envisages, to wear out one’s years in a wall’d prison while packs and sects of great ones ebb and flow by the moon. But the very striking nature of these lines seems to me to demand that we also consider them beyond their immediate dramatic context. If regarded solely in the immediate context, the “sacrifices” Lear refers to relates to withdrawing from life; but if we try to see it in a wider context, if we try to see what these sacrifices may be that even the gods themselves acknowledge and worship, we may glimpse, at least, something that may, in some way, mitigate the horror – the horror both of what had happened before, and the horror of what is yet to come. This is not to say that it is wrong to see King Lear as, essentially, a nihilist work; but it is to say, I think, that, despite appearances, there may just be a possibility of redemption.

And if there is such a possibility, it comes not from the gods, but from humanity itself. Lear, earlier in his speech, speaks of being like “God’s spies”. (The play is set in pagan times, but, unless the existing texts are corrupt at this point, it is certainly God rather than the gods Lear refers to here.) There seem to me at least two ways of interpreting this. One is that we must set ourselves the task of spying on God – the implication here being that God is not trustworthy. The other one is that we should spy on God’s behalf, and the implication here is that God himself does not know all that is happening in his creation. Either way, the picture is presented of a God whose capabilities are limited – who is either not wholly good, or not wholly powerful. But when humanity itself can offer up such sacrifices, then the gods themselves (Shakespeare has, rather curiously, switched back to the pagan “gods” now) feel it worthy of worship.

But what are “such sacrifices”? It is clearly not a withdrawal from life that Lear speaks of. But one needn’t look too far. This play depicts, certainly, the most bestial atrocities of which humans are capable; but, in Edgar, in Kent, in Cordelia, and even in Gloucester, it depicts also a human goodness that is equally extraordinary. Are these the sacrifices upon which the gods themselves throw incense? Perhaps. If the gods exist at all, that is. But sadly, we have no assurance of that. This is a play that suggests everything, even redemption; but ultimately, it confirms nothing.

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