Marks out of 10

No matter how you look at it, no matter what criteria of literary excellence you apply, it has to be conceded that King Lear is a play with severe shortcomings.

Let us consider a few of these criteria. The construction, say. Shakespeare welds together a plot and a subplot that are so similar in nature, that the climactic point of the subplot (Edgar revealing himself to his father) has to take place offstage to avoid repetition. Or what about the characterisation? Once again, it seems lacking. Edgar’s motivation in keeping his identity from his blind father for so long is never explained. (Edgar is given a somewhat clumsy aside at one point to say “Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it”, but it isn’t at all clear how his trifling with his father’s despair will help cure it.) Cordelia’s sullen behaviour in the first scene is also unexplained: clearly, she finds Lear’s game distasteful, but since she has been in court long enough to know of the dire consequences of crossing the king in front of others, and since, further, she has been with her father long enough to know his volatile character, her lack of the most basic tact seems frankly weird. The character development isn’t always too coherent either: in Act 1, we see Goneril expressing entirely legitimate concerns about her father and his retinue; next thing we know, she is a raving monster, with no intermediate step. None of the characters here may be analysed to the depths to which we may analyse Hamlet and Claudius, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra: in comparison to such characters, those in King Lear are rather straight-forward.

And there’s little sense of time or of place. There is a lot of travelling in the play, and yet, we have no idea how far Goneril’s castle is from Gloucester’s (or how long it takes or Lear to make the journey between the two); how far Gloucester’s castle is from the cliffs of Dover (and how long it takes Edgar to lead his father there); and so on. We do not know exactly at which point in the temporal scheme of the drama the French armies invade England, or how much time passes between the invasion and the battle.

Or let us consider the influence the play has had, and how powerfully it has entered our collective consciousness. Even here, I think, King Lear may be lacking. Hamlet is notoriously a play made almost entirely of well-known quotations; everyone has heard of the “green-eyed monster” of Othello; we all know that age cannot wither Cleopatra, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Is there anything in King Lear that has entered the public consciousness to such an extent? Even if there is, we may safely say, I think, that it does not surpass all those elements of those other plays that have also entered the public consciousness. And given that King Lear is sorely lacking in all those other respects discussed above, once we tot up the scores, the conclusion seems inescapable that King Lear is a lesser work of art.

And so on. Take all of these criteria of excellence into consideration, add a few more that I haven’t thought about, and it must be admitted that, compared to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare – Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and CleopatraKing Lear is an inferior work: whatever criterion one applies, it is found wanting. We may even wonder why it is classed among his major plays in the first place.

But here’s the twist: not only is King Lear almost universally acclaimed as a towering masterpiece – one of the greatest manifestations of human genius and worthy to take its place alongside the best – if one were to take a poll of Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare lovers, it is likely to be the Shakespeare play that is most highly regarded. Somehow, all those criteria of excellence, which we may like to think of as objective, go for nothing. So the play has grave shortcomings: who cares?

This seems to me to cast doubt on the validity of what we may consider to be objective criteria, or, indeed, on the very concept of objectivity itself. And yet, if we are to reject objectivity in these matters, what are we left with? I used, many years ago now, to contribute to a public board on books – any book, of any height of brow – and there were many on that board, I remember, who used to insist that, in the words of Hamlet, there is nothing good or bad but thinking that makes it so; that there isn’t, nor could there ever be, any objective standards in these matters, and all that matters is one’s subjective opinion, and that’s it. I used to try to reduce this to absurdity and ask whether my causal doodles could be deemed better art than Rembrandt’s drawings if I thought them so, and the answer I received was “yes, if they seem better to you, then they’re better, and there’s no more to be said”. It was a difficult proposition to argue against, but I found myself dissatisfied with it; for if it were indeed so, then the very concept, not merely of artistic greatness but even of artistic merit, becomes irrelevant. For how is one to judge that merit when there is no objective measure?

So one could, perhaps, analyse a novel or a play, say, in all sorts of ways – in terms of structure, of characterisation, of the use made of language, of the thematic development, and all the rest of it. And maybe, one could give each of these constituent elements marks out of ten. To make it more objective, we could ask several knowledgeable and perceptive readers to give their marks out of ten, and take the mean of these scores for each identified category. And then we could sum these marks up to give us an objective a score as it’s possible to devise.

But these additive utility functions can be very awkward. Even if we try to apply such a model to something so simple as rating a meal, we run into difficulties. For instance, I may enjoy a pizza, and award it 8 out of 10. And when the waiter offers to sprinkle parmesan cheese on it, I agree, for a pizza is even better with parmesan cheese. So I give the parmesan cheese 1 point, and hence, judge pizza with the parmesan (8+1 = 9 points) to be even better than pizza without the parmesan (8 points). But then, for afters, I ask for an ice cream, which too I love (I’ll give that 7 points, since I don’t love it quite as much as the pizza). According to the model of the additive utility function, ice cream with parmesan cheese (7+1=8) should be even better than the ice cream on its own. Which is nonsense, obviously: the whole thing is a crap idea. And if such a model doesn’t work with something so relatively simple as a meal, how can we hope to introduce something like this into literary criticism?

Of course, utility functions do not need to be additive. One could devise all sorts of complications – if X, theN A*log(B); if not X, then exp(A) +B, etc. – but I think we may agree that the sheer level of silliness is quite overpowering by this stage. No, we might as well face it: if we break up a work into its various different aspects (including that of the influence it has exerted on subsequent writing), and either try to combine them into a utility function or place them into a checklist, we’re unlikely to reach any kind of meaningful measure. We’ll certainly not find anything that will rank King Lear alongside the likes of better constructed works such as Hamlet or Othello, even though the overwhelming consensus of critical opinion seems rather to insist on this point.

So I find myself in a bind. I cannot accept that there is no objective criterion whereby Rembrandt’s drawing may be rated higher than my doodles; and yet, at the same time, there seems no means of objectively rating a work of art.

But it’s not, perhaps, one extreme or another. There is a middle ground, I think, between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, but a middle ground so very messy and so full of ifs and buts that it is hard to describe. The purely subjective approach fails because of its inability to distinguish my doodles and Rembrandt’s drawings; and the purely objective approach fails because no objective measure can be devised to measure artistic merit as we feel it. For art has to be felt: it must produce what Nabokov described as a “tingle in the spine”. But every major work of art has at its core a great mystery, which resists measurement; and sometimes, as in the case of King Lear, this mystery can be so profound that all other considerations, all perceived shortcomings, seem irrelevant.

It seems to me that the only realistic measure of artistic merit is what I call the consensus of the cognoscenti. For such a consensus does exist. If all were purely subjective, and if our individual subjective responses were unrelated to each other, then such a consensus would simply not be possible. The very fact that a consensus exists – that King Lear is considered a great play, Middlemarch a great novel, The Waste Land a great poem – indicates that our various individual subjective responses have a curious tendency to converge.

(I add “of the cognoscenti” to my formulation, because, quite clearly, the opinions of someone unused to reading classic literature, but who fancies trying some out for a change, and who reads – and gets bored by – Anna Karenina, and gives it a dismissive two-star “review” on Amazon or on Goodreads, is neither here nor there. I personally know nothing about Ming vases, say, and I appreciate that my opinions on the quality of Ming vases is fairly irrelevant to everyone except me – and even, perhaps, to me.)

Of course, the consensus will never be unanimous: even among the cognoscenti, there will be those who may dislike Anna Karenina, say, and have good reasons to do so. But a consensus is rarely unanimous: it exists all the same.

And neither will the consensus be stable over time. Some things, however, are: Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Shakespeare, have all been admired by a very large consensus for quite a few centuries now, and it’s hard to envisage a time when they won’t. But one may easily point to other writers and works that have drifted in and out of the consensus across the ages. But, at any given time, a consensus – of the cognoscenti: let’s not forget the good old cognoscenti – most certainly does exist, and the very fact of its existence argues strongly against the view that everything is purely subjective.

And such a consensus can apply with comparisons as well, I think. For those who take an interest in the novel as literary form, there is a strong consensus concerning the greatness of Anna Karenina. There is a further consensus that Oblomov, say, by Ivan Goncharov, is also a very fine novel, perhaps even a great one; and a third consensus also exists, I think, that no matter how great Oblomov may be as a novel, Anna Karenina is even greater (although, accompanying that view, there will be entirely reasonable objections that such a comparison is ludicrous, since novel-writing is not a competitive sport). Of course, one may legitimately prefer Oblomov to Anna Karenina – even if one is part of that cognoscenti I spoke of – but that preference will generally be seen as a bit eccentric.

Like it or not, it is in our nature to compare. And most of the time, it is a pretty harmless parlour game. Who is the greater writer – Homer or Shakespeare? Shakespeare or Tolstoy? Tolstoy or Proust? One may protest that such comparisons are meaningless, and that they devalue literature itself: I wouldn’t argue with that. But at the same time, unless one subscribes to pure subjectivism in these matters – that the quality of any work is determined purely by one’s subjective reactions and by nothing else – then comparison becomes important: if we cannot state with some confidence that Henry James was a greater novelist than E. L. James, we might as well forget about the very concept of literary excellence.

So, as I say, it’s all very messy. Just about everything one may say on this matter is beset by ifs and buts, with reservations and objections. We are still torn between, on the one hand, our desire to measure, and, on the other, our awareness that certain things resist measurement; and further, our conviction that the unmeasurable can still be of the greatest importance. I could – and indeed, have done, right here on this blog – write page after tedious page explaining why King Lear means the world to me, and why I would rank it among the very greatest works of literary art, despite all its flaws and shortcomings. But could I demonstrate it beyond doubt to a sceptic? No. There is no way to quantify the great mystery at the heart of it.

13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by The Taieri Blokes Shed on February 4, 2021 at 10:22 pm

    I rate almost all the books I read, based partly on their literary merit, but also on how much I enjoyed them. Most of the rate between 15 and 20, because I tend not to read books I don’t expect to be good or enjoyable, but the occasional one gets down as low as a 6, generally because the proof-reading (of self-published ones) is so bad as to make the whole thing virtually unreadable. These are often books given to me by friends or bookclub members so I try and hope not to see them soon after!
    The last book I rated 20 was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, about the live of 4 daughters of a Bible-bashing missionary in the Congo. I have found books I enjoyed earlier, especially crime novels, have lost a lot of their allure over the years as the recent ones have become more sophisticated and literary and political. Also less snobbish in tone.
    The last book I read was Twelfth Night and I came to the conclusion that Shakespeare for me is better seen than read or at least better if I know the plot and characters. Even though it is not that long since I had read it, I still found it quite difficult to keep the characters clear. My fault of course. I should have read Othello or The Merchant of Venice – I just love the speech of Shylock about “Do I not Bleed…” and can’t understand why the author of such a speech could possibly be considered anti-Semitic. Sorry, have got off the subject.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Caro on February 4, 2021 at 10:25 pm

    Sorry this says posted by the Taieri Bloke Shed but it is actually from Caro. Don’t know how that happened.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Caro on February 4, 2021 at 10:35 pm

    Oh, I am getting so muddled – I had written a long post and didn’t copy it. It was all about rating books which I do with every book. Most of them rate between 15 and 20 because I really only read ones I expect to enjoy or appreciate for their style and content. The most recent one I scored 20 was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, about the 4 daughters of a Bible-bashing missionary in the Congo and their reactions.
    Some score poorly because they are self-published and very badly edited – and often the writing isn’t very good either.

    Crime novels from the 1950s don’t stack up well against modern good ones either. They don’t have the depth of character, place etc. and often have an element of snobbishness to them which I find distasteful.

    The last book I read was Twelfth Night; I should have chosen Othello or The Merchant of Venice. I found it hard to keep the characters in mind except Malvolio. And I just love the Do I Not Bleed by Shylock and wonder how anyone who writes such a speech could possibly be considered anti-Semitic.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, good to hear from you!

      Ad don’t worry about the multiple postings: the comments section isn’t the easiest to negotiate.

      I tend not to give books I read marks out of 10, as that doesn’t work for me. But if it works for other readers as a measure of teh impact the book had made on them, then there’s hardly anything to object to.

      Twelfth Night is possibly my favourite Shakespeare comedy. It is genuinely funny, I find, but is drenched with a profound melancholy, and with certain themes that may be deemed more suited to tragic drama than to comic. And I find a tremendous richness to its lyricism.

      It is generally agreed, I think, that The Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play, but I’d dissent from that somewhat: its source material is certainly antisemitic, but Shakespeare, with his insatiable curiosity into human beings, asked himself what it must feel like to go through one’s entire life being hated, simply for being who one is. And he produced a play that is troubling in all sorts of ways. But I have nattered on about that at some length elsewhere on this blog.

      And as for that famous “Does not a Jew have eyes?” speech – I don’t know if you’ve seen a film from 1942 called To Be Or Not To Be. It was made n Hollywood by Ernest Lubitsch, who was himself an Austrian Jew in exile in USA, and who had a pretty good idea of what was happening in Europe. It is an extraordinary film – simultaneously a comedy, and adventure story, a spy thriller, and also, I think, a lament for the fate of European Jewry. The scene where the Jewish actor, played by Felix Bressart (also a Jewish refugee from central Europe), declaims Shylock’s speech I find quite heartbreaking.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. The coffee I like is essentially hot milk with a little coffee flavour. The tea I like is a Lady Grey or Earl Grey tea bag agitated for 30 seconds or so, then a dash of milk. Delicious.

    People who regard themselves as knowing about coffee and tea will probably tell me I’m ‘wrong’, in the same way that I might tell someone who considers ‘As You Like It’ boring that they’re wrong. If it’s absurd for someone to tell me how I should like my hot drinks, is it equally absurd for me to tell someone what they should like to read? Isn’t it all just a matter of taste? I don’t know.

    Part of the difference is that I have really tried to like, say, espresso coffee and tea brewed for three minutes in a pot, so I know what the alternatives are like, I have truly experienced them, yet I still prefer what I prefer. On the other hand, someone who thinks ‘As You Like It’ boring has very likely not really ‘truly experienced’ it. Simply to have been in a classroom in which it was read, or even to have sat through a performance, is not necessarily enough, because we need a certain amount of cultural capital before we’re in a position to properly appreciate it. Asking my opinion of a play performed in a foreign language I don’t speak would be pointless; my opinion would be worthless.

    I seem to be saying that only an elite should be permitted to express opinions about high culture. Needless to say, I don’t think that’s true. I’m struggling to put my incoherent thoughts into some sort of coherent order.

    Reply

    • Hello David,

      It’s all very complicated, isn’t? One feels that something such as this shouldn’t be complicated. One knows further it’s rude and boorish to tell anyone that they’re wrong to like something, or wrong not to like something. And of course, we acknowledge that everyone is entitled to like or to dislike what they want. But if the corollary of that is that all matters of taste are purely subjective, making the very concepts of “good taste” or “bad taste” superfluous, then that corollary is hard to accept.

      It’s interesting you mention As You Like It, since that particular play is one of Shakespeare’s great masterpieces that I have found difficult to like. It is because, I think, my personal tastes are geared towards the dramatic, and in this play, the drama promised the by the conflicts in the first act all seem to melt away as if they were of no consequence. No point telling me that this was precisely Shakespeare’s intention: it was, and remains to some extent still, I think, somewhat disconcerting for me. Of course, I recognise it is a masterpiece, but given my temperament, it is a masterpiece I need to work at – more than I need to work at other great comedies such as, say, Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night.

      Sometimes, I cannot truly experience a work; or, as in the case of As You Like It, find it difficult truly to experience a work, because of my own limitations: no-one can take in everything with equal facility, and certain things are bound to remain blind spots, or near blind spots. But if it is the case that a play that is for me a blind spot is widely admired by a great many people whose taste and discernment I respect, and has been admired thus for centuries, then for me to say “it is a poor play” rather than “I didn’t quite get it”, or “I will need to work harder at it”, does seem to me rather rude and graceless. As rude and as graceless as telling people they were wrong to like, or not to like, something.

      Since it is hard to accept either a world of pure objectivity, or a world of pure subjectivity, we find ourselves stuck in the messy in-between, with all its contradictions and its uncertainties. Perhaps it’s best just to embrace all that, and not mind that we may end up contradicting ourselves at times!

      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Thanks for your reply, Himadri.

        I’m not sure why I picked on ‘As You Like It’ as my example of a great work of literature; maybe just because I love it and no one else had mentioned it yet.

        I can see why you (and others) have trouble with it. It’s undoubtedly Shakespeare’s frothiest play, almost plotless once the ball is rolling. Indeed, he seems to treats the idea of having a plot with contempt; he hardly attempts to give us a rational explanation as to why Rosalind doesn’t reveal her identity when she first meets Orlando in the forest, which would of course bring the play to an abrupt end. (Normally he makes an attempt to give us some sort of reason when a character makes an implausible decision that’s necessary to the plot, such as Friar Lawrence’s decision to help Romeo and Juliet marry.) At the end we seem to be expected to be happy about four marriages, at least two of which would in ‘real life’ be disasters.

        It is, perhaps, his most autobiographical play, set in Arden and with a character called William. We can see it, in all its artificiality, as a kind of parable of the theatre, with Rosalind as the author – she runs the show once the move to Arden takes place. ‘My way is to conjure you’ she says in the epilogue. While we watch it we’re in a ‘holiday humour’, and at the end go back to our ‘working-day world’.

        It’s marvellously magical, but with its feet on the ground – once Duke Senior and co can go back to the court all the fancy talk about sermons in stones is forgotten and they’re off like a shot. It walks the tightrope between realism and myth so delightfully.

        I’ve loved it ever since my Sixth Form English teacher, Don Stamp, took us to see it in Oxford (we weren’t studying it, we weren’t even studying any of the comedies) c.1975. It must have been a touring production, set in the 1920s, with Frances de la Tour as Rosalind (and Bob Hoskins as Touchstone). I was utterly enchanted, and remain so.

        Best wishes, David

      • Hello David,
        I read As You Like It again just a few weeks ago, and thought it delightful. It is, after the first act, virtually plotless, but there is an earlier play which is similarly plotless: Love’s Labour’s Lost. n both plays, one has to allow oneself to be charmed, to fall under the spell. I was resistant in my younger days, as I was too much under the spell of the darker, more dramatic works, but it’s strange how, now in my 60s, I can finally come to understand a play Shakespeare wrote in his mid 30s!

        I suppose the moral to be drawn is to trust Shakespeare: he knew what he was doing!

        Best wishes,
        Himadri

  5. Posted by Linda on February 5, 2021 at 11:46 am

    Excellent post, thank you.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Bruce Floyd on February 6, 2021 at 6:39 pm

    Allow me, sir, to say a bit about your comment that “the only realistic measure is what I call the ‘consensus of the cognoscenti.'” I fully agree with it. I don’t know of any reason–though some or many may exist–why a tyro, a beginner, in literature cannot be compared to an apprentice in a trade. After all, great artists went to apprentice themselves to a master, who would then teach them a trade or an art. Later, after the apprentice had soaked up all his master had to teach him, he could then give rein to his genius. If one learns from a master carpenter how to become a capable carpenter himself why cannot a beginner in literature learn from an experienced reader and analyzer of literature? I’m not sure at all the analogy is sound; all I can say is that this morning, a gray one where I live, it seems so to me. I sense the comparison makes sense, is plausible.

    When I was in college and had decided to major in English, my intent was to learn all I could from my professors. I was ignorant of a great deal and I knew it. When I, for example, found the truncated and intense poetry of Emily Dickinson beyond my comprehension, I never allowed myself the luxury of raging, “Who needs this stupid woman’s poetry, the damn crazy old spinster.” No, I knew if my professor found great merit in Dickinson’s poetry, then I, in not liking it or understanding it, was missing one of the garlands of life. To fail to appreciate the poetry of Dickinson was to fail somehow at living a full life. And I could say this of many poets. I could say, as perhaps others have said, that having a proclivity for poetry (I don’t know where this propensity came from) allowed me to take to Whitman and Tennyson and others quickly, see their greatness, but other poets such as Eliot and Keats and Wallace Stevens did not come easily to me. I needed mentors to allow me to creep into the circle of the admirers of some poets deemed great.

    One day when I was a college student, by this time besot with literature, I read somewhere that poets Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell thought that Miltons “Lycidas” the greatest short long poem in the language. Frankly, I could make little sense of Milton’s elegy for a friend who had drowned. By then I knew most of the professors in the English department; they saw me often in their offices during their office hours. I asked them endless questions, and somehow I think I avoided being a pest, their seeing me as eager and sincere.

    One cold and damp winter’s day I walked to the English building and knocked on the door of Professor Neuffeur. He welcomed me. I told him of my problem with “Lycidas.” Bless this man’s heart, he said, “Bring your chair over here beside me.” I did, and for the next couple of hours he and I read through the poem line by line, Professor Neuffeur explaining every reference, every illusion. He seemed to know all there was to know about the Bible and mythology. He explained the technical aspects of the poem. He told me, and I knew this, that the poem had many run-on lines, that it was primarily pentameter with some trimester lines, that it had an irregular rhyme scheme, including (I hadn’t noticed this) ten unrhymed lines. It was as if I knew the parts of the poem but I lacked the skill (not the intelligence) to take these parts and make a coherent whole, a finished and complete work of art.

    And of course he tutored me deeply on the three climaxes in the poem. As time passed, I began to see how Milton had organized his poems, and I gradually began to see how he had brought his great knowledge to bear on the problems he wanted answers to. Milton wonders, first of all, does poetry have any reward (would it not be better to “sport with Amaryllis in the shade, / Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair”?). He concludes poetry does have its great merits. Next he excoriates the spiritual shepherds who abandon their flocks (“The hungry sheep look up and are not fed”). Finally he, after working through his poem, concludes that “Lycidas . . . is not dead..” He has “mounted high”; that is, he is gone to heaven, where our copious human tears are wiped forever from our eyes.

    I could go on. I suspect you know the poem well, know how it rewards a close and reasoned reading. The joy the poem gives is hard earned, and anyone who adores poetry, who knows how it works (this is vague I know, but it just seems that a poem works or it doesn’t) is in part attributable not only to Milton’s fertile mind but also to his skill in the making of a poem. So I think I can say that “Lycidas” is a superior poem to, say, Marvell’s “An Horation Ode,” though the ode is a fine poem indeed. It is, to me, the finest elegy ever written, superior to Shelley’s on Keats; to Tennyson’s on Hallam; to Whitman’s on Lincoln, to Gray’s on the simple rustic and to himself–though all are great poems. But as you said, some imp of the perverse demands we compare. “Who is your favorite poet?” or “What is your favorite poem?” we ask others.

    On that cold afternoon long ago when I walked out of Professor Neuffeur’s office–by then it was dark– I, too, like Lowell and the others thought unequivocally that “Lycidas” is the greatest long short poem in the language. I still do. If I had missed the greatness of “Lycidas.” I had missed one of life’s most bountiful bouquets, a bit of something to make life more palatable, a small insight in how one can come to terms with the human condition. But, frankly, what one ultimately obtains from “Lycidas” is aesthetic delight in a work of art.

    So, yes, I agree with you: in the end “Lear” is the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, in spite of the many flaws it comprises. The many flaws cannot erase the holistic majesty and grandeur of the play. And if you should argue for a million years the play’s greatness you could not convince the skeptic. If I need to know how to drive a nail, I will seek out an experienced carpenter. If I need to know whether “Anna Karenina” is a great novel, worth my reading, you’ll find me knocking at your door.

    Reply

    • Hello Bruce, and thank you for your interesting comments.

      I think one point on which your analogy (between a skilful craftsman and someone learned in literature) falls down is that, in the former, there is a finished product that all can see and appreciate. A skilful carpenter makes a dining table and chairs that are pleasing to look at, are strong and sturdy, and which serve their purpose. The table and chairs may be appreciated even by those who do not know about carpentry. But what finished product can someone learned in literature display that can be appreciated even by those who do not know literature? If, say, someone were to maintain that there is nothing in literature worth making the effort to get to know; indeed, if this person were to maintain that there is nothing in literature worth knowing at all, and that it is all an elaborate hoax; then this person is hardly going to be impressed by a display of literary erudition.

      When one starts off, knowing and understanding little, one must, up to a point, take things on trust – just as you had trusted your professor, and had confidence that this professor could help you understand things that are well worth understanding. And of course, your trust was rewarded – to such an extent, I’m sure, that you could begin to see in “Lycidas” wonders that elude even the finest of analysis: there is in works such as “Lycidas” an element that defies any attempt to describe it – that element that I referred to in my post as the “mystery” that is in the heart of such things.

      There was a time when I read Milton avidly. I think the poets I love best are the poets I think I mention most often on this blog – Wordsworth, Hopkins, Yeats, and inevitably (since I am Bengali), Tagore. (And Shakespeare, of course: that always goes without saying!) But Milton’s greatness is certainly beyond dispute, and “Lycidas” is indeed everything you say it is.

      I have not been taught literature formally – at least, not since I left school, some 45 years ago now. (I studied physics, and later, mathematics, at university.) I started this blog some eleven years ago simply because I loved literature, and loved talking about it! But in literary affairs, I have not, to pursue your analogy, done an apprenticeship with a master craftsman, and I certainly do not claim to be a scholar: merely an enthusiastic layman.

      My best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  7. Posted by alan on February 27, 2021 at 7:27 pm

    I’ve seen the play twice and don’t understand it.
    However, I’m willing to accept that I am the one who is lacking, given how some others regard it.
    I’m not sure it is about madness, however, but more about the consequences of not seeing others as human beings and thinking that human affections can be counted and divided like anything else. Lear is not the only one who makes this mistake.
    Lear doesn’t become sane, he becomes human.

    Reply

    • I agree, I don’t think the play is about madness either, unless by “madness” we refer to human behaviour in general. I think the play is constantly throwing up the question “What is it to be human?” And the answers it suggests aren’t always very comforting, and being human seems to embrace just about everything. But I didn’t really intend this to be a post about King Lear – but more about the fatuity of trying to rate literature on some systematic basis.

      Reply

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