King Lear's castle in the midst of lightning

King Lear – Looking for a Happier Ending!

 August 8, 2019

Anyone who knows anything about Shakespeare, knows that his comedies end in marriages and his tragedies in death—not just one death but multiple deaths. I’ve studied King Lear in college and seen other productions. I know how it ends, yet, during this year’s production of King Lear at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, I found myself desperately wanting a happy ending for Lear and his daughter, Cordelia. So desperately that the ending haunted my dreams that night and stayed with me throughout the week.

American Pursuit of Happiness

Why, I asked myself? Why was this so important to me? Had I bought into the myth of happily ever after or the American dream of a better life for each generation? After all the pursuit of happiness is part of our Declaration of Independence. Is it something about our American culture that wants the good guys to win? Sure, Lear and Cordelia were both flawed, as are all humans. They were foolishly proud and unbending, unwilling to give even a little. (Much like the character Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, the non-Shakespearean offering at the festival this year.)

This foolish pride led to a disastrous ending. It didn’t bother me to see Lear’s other daughters, Regan and Goneril, die. Nor Edmund, the deceiving son of the Earl of Gloucester. They got what they deserved. But Lear and Cordelia, having learned their lesson, I wanted them to live out the end of his days as “God’s spies” with maybe a few grandchildren to soften those years.

King Lear – Shakespearean Times

I also found myself wondering, why did Shakespeare have so many deaths? Was it something about the times? Were the people of that period so used to death and tragedy that only massive losses could evoke emotion from the crowds? Was this what the people and the times demanded? Just as we demand heroes with white hats or in Jedi outfits toting light sabers to save the day.

We can’t deal with loss of life if we know the people. Star Wars begins with the destruction of the whole planet of Alderaan. And yet we don’t feel that tragedy because they are just so many nameless, faceless individuals. But the death of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, and even Darth Vader, evoke emotion.

And I wonder, what does this say about Shakespeare’s understanding of God? Or his understanding of life? Is his God a merciful, loving God, or a punishing God? Is life a joyful journey or a vale of tears?

Wanting my own Happy Ending

Perhaps the reason why I so desperately wanted that happy ending is because I’m also approaching those later years in life. As we get older, people around us pass from this world to the next leaving us bereft. We can’t escape death but I hope and pray that the end of my days will be sweet, not filled with crushing loss or tragedy brought on by my own foolishness. I hope that life will be kinder to me than it was to King Lear, and that I won’t receive punishment I may deserve, but blessings freely given by a merciful God.

Visit the Michigan Shakespeare Festival

If you haven’t seen this year’s production of King Lear, there’s two weekends left. It’s worth the trip to Canton, Michigan. Not only was the acting superb, the fight scenes were outstanding and realistic. This was one time I was glad I wasn’t in front row seats! Check out their website.

“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.” King Lear Act. 5, Scene 3

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