We’ve already told you about the time the human cruelty in Light in August made Fr. Murphy throw up. Now I’m going to tell you about the time Fr. Murphy got angry because the human cruelty in King Lear DIDN’T make our class throw up. I can’t believe Jill didn’t tell this story. She said it was a Clockwork Orange story – but it’s not. It’s a King Lear story, and it’s been the first thing that came to mind for me whenever I’ve thought of this play ever since.
Most AP teachers that I’ve known in my teaching career make good use of the time after the AP test. They use it for oral reports or for teaching a short book or for covering topics that the rigidity of the AP curriculum hadn’t allowed them to discuss during the year. For some reason, though, when Jill and I were in high school, AP courses absolutely ground to a halt after the AP tests, and every teacher just showed movies.
I kind of hated watching movies in class in high school. For one thing, the experience was too passive. I functioned on about four hours of sleep at all times back then, and if the level of responsiveness that was required of me was eased, I had to struggle to stay awake. I was good at keeping up the frenetic pace of school, and of course I enjoyed vacations and breaks, but it made me uneasy to combine the two. If I was at school, I didn’t want to be sitting back and staring at a screen. It didn’t help that I went to elementary school during the Golden Age of the Filmstrip; I think on some level I associated the presence of screens in classrooms with that condescending filmstrip narrator voice. Did you ever notice that it was always the same voice narrating those things? And you could just tell that the voice thought that all children were very, very stupid. I hated the filmstrip voice.
I took five AP courses my senior year in high school, and that is how I ended up spending the most impatient weeks of my life – the weeks leading up to my high school graduation – watching five different movies. Some were loosely relevant to the course material – in Government we watched All the President’s Men, I think – and others were just silly (The Princess Bride in AP Physics). Fr. Murphy’s contribution to this little film festival was to show two different movie versions of King Lear, a play that we had not read during his course. He told us that reading the play was optional, which meant that I bought a copy and carted it around with me so it would look as if I was reading it, which is also what I did with books that were mandatory.
I didn’t pay attention to the movie at all. I remember that my mind was somewhere far, far away when all of a sudden Fr. Murphy was turning the VCR off and giving the class a very dirty look and saying something like “We know we must live in terrifying times when the young can look on such depravity with such composed impassivity.” I don’t at all pretend to be quoting him verbatim here, but this is the sort of thing he probably said. There is a line coming up that I do know for sure I can quote word for word, and I’ll tell you when we get there. It turned out that the scene we were watching was the one in which Gloucester gouges Cornwall’s eye out with the toe of his boot. And Fr. Murphy was railing on and on about the callousness of the young and what have you.
At some point, someone – and I have a very strong suspicion that it was me – said, “Fr. Murphy, we are watching movies all day long. They all start to run together after while. Two periods ago, in psychology, we were watching A Clockwork Orange. How can you expect us to – ”
At this point Fr. Murphy crumpled. He brought his hands up to his face and almost looked as if he would curl up in the fetal position. “Oh, that movie!” he said. “That terrible movie!” (These are the lines I remember verbatim.) “They’re showing you that terrible movie. Oh. Well in that case, you’re right. Never mind.”
And then he pressed PLAY on the VCR and we resumed our glassy-eyed acceptance of human cruelty.
As it happens, I don’t remember much about A Clockwork Orange either – just Malcolm McDowell prancing around with a big dildo and saying “Ludwig Van!” a lot, and then being strapped into some contraption that held his eyelids open and forced to watch violent movies, which, come to think of it, was a lot like what was happening to us during the disorienting final weeks of our otherwise-rigorous high school education.
Fr. Murphy was right of course, as he usually was. The eye-gouging scene in King Lear is absolutely terrible. The way I remember it is that Cornwall is on the ground, already defeated, and Gloucester – the winner of the battle – comes along and grinds out his fallen enemy’s eye with his boot as if it were a cigarette butt, taking away the man’s dignity as well as his sight. It’s awful. Thinking about it now, my first question is whether this scene is Shakespeare’s invention or whether it was part of his source material for the play. It is common knowledge that Shakespeare usually recycled the plots of earlier plays or stories; he was an innovator of language and of character, but he was not an innovator of narration. He did sometimes insert his own details into the plots he borrowed, and I am curious to know whether the eye gouging is one of them. It seems as if it should be.
For years, thanks to Fr. Murphy (and, I guess, thanks to The Clockwork Orange too), this scene was the first and only thing that I remembered from this play, with the exception of the fact that there is a character whose name is “Fool.” And the memory was powerful, even if it didn’t affect me much at the time. When I read the play again in graduate school, I was struck by how real it was. This play very much grasps the great horrors of being a member of a family. Shakespeare explores these same horrors elsewhere, of course – in Hamlet and in Henry IV, Parts I and II, to name just a couple – but I think King Lear might be his best depiction of the ways that human beings treat the people to whom they are closest. I remember a phone conversation with my friend Mary during my grad school years. I don’t remember if we were talking about her family or about mine – it could easily have been either – but one way or another one of us was relaying whatever frustrating nastiness was going on among the females in her family, and at some point the one who was listening interrupted to say, “You know what this is? This is King Lear. This is Goneril and Regan all over again.” At which the other one said, “Oh, my God. You’re right. You’re so right. How did I miss it?”
I also remember that conversation as the first time I ever wondered out loud (and, as far as I know, the first time I ever consciously thought) how people who don’t read ever manage to live their lives. I still don’t understand. The world must be a constant barrage of surprises for these people. How do people learn to die without King Lear? How do they understand the behavior of their nasty relatives? I guess they use Hallmark cards and maybe song lyrics, and those stupid cartoons that people are always sharing on Facebook, the ones where women in vintage clothing say snarky things about men and housework and alcohol.
It occurs to me that in reading King Lear I will be breaking a vow I made to myself a couple of years ago. After my mother died of Alzheimer’s in 2010, I promised myself that I would never read a book about dementia. It wasn’t a vow so much as a visceral state, really: I just found that when I browsed in bookstores and picked up a book to read its jacket, the word “Alzheimer’s” just acted on me like the drugs they gave the Malcolm McDowell character in A Clockwork Orange, and I almost retched. And I am aware that this play may affect me this way as well, because I think that among other things King Lear is very much a play about dementia, especially during Lear’s period of wandering with his Fool. There were lots of moments when my mom was dying when I thought that dementia was just another form of sanity – and maybe even an elevated one, a form of sanity that I couldn’t understand because I wasn’t there yet, in which emotion and memory and intuition take over the roles once played by trustworthy senses and by facts and reason and logic. I expect that I’ll see some of this quality in Lear’s wanderings, and I both look forward to this scene and dread it at the same time. To be honest, other than some general impressions, the only specific detail that I remember from this scene is the iambic pentameter line that is begun by the Fool and completed by Lear saying “No, no, no, no, no!”
It seems to me that of all of Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear is the one that most reminds me of the ancient Greek idea that theatre (and specifically tragedy) is intended to be a public means of catharsis and expiation. We bring our private struggles and private griefs to a theatre, where we sit in a densely-packed area with a lot of other people – mostly strangers – and see our own failures and sins and miseries played out by actors – who are themselves just vessels for the words of playwrights – and somehow we move forward in the acting out of our own emotions and struggles in ways that we would not be able to do in our homes, with our own family members. I don’t know – I’m not an expert on this stuff. But I don’t think I’m wrong that there is something magically real about King Lear – something that, yes, should have made me writhe with terror when I was eighteen, but that didn’t, of course.