“The worst is not, so long as we can say, “This is the worst.”
(Act IV, scene 1).
Culture last night – King Lear at the Playhouse, as performed by the Northern Broadsides Company. Every player, it seemed, came from West Yorkshire. I kept expecting Lear and his protagonists any moment to sit down for a brew of Yorkshire Gold.
I don’t find Shakespeare easy to follow, especially in a play I am not familiar with. So on the train to Liverpool I took the precaution of learning the plot from Wikipedia so that I could concentrate on the words. And that worked: I was able to listen.
King Lear is not a family show. Something bad befalls every character and I wouldn’t want to describe what happens to Earl of Gloucester. (“It’s only a play’” I kept saying to myself).
Nevertheless – and this came as a surprise – there are a few jokes, and again to my surprise the company played for laughs, even against the text. Oswald, Goneril’s steward was portrayed, unfairly I thought, in the tradition of Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served?
Apart from the obvious moral – “be careful what you promise your daughters”, what is Shakespeare getting at? The play is unendingly bleak. Not the kind of production you would want to see if you support LFC.
And more, the play kind of peters out. In fact (and I learned this on the train going), there are two alternative endings to the play depending on which folio you use.
I am sure Shakespeare was deliberate in setting the play in pre-Roman Britain before the arrival of the Gospel. This has the effect that there are no references to scripture, no allusions to the Bible. Conversely the bard has seasoned the dialogue with numerous pagan references.
Even so some interpreters see this as Shakespeare’s most Christian play in his exploration of the nature of suffering and especially in the character of Edgar, one of the few characters left standing as the curtain falls. Somehow that missed me.
But that is the genius of Shakespeare – he makes you think, and think at a profound level. You engage.
Jesus too understood the power of story. It was his favoured medium. Mark tells us that on occasions “Jesus did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (4:34). Except that in his case the plots were much shorter but no less carefully worked. His narratives were often laced with humour and sometimes menaced with violence.
These parables were much more than “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” In fact, as with Shakespeare they were subversive, they get past our defences. Jesus threw these fascinating stories alongside folk from their day-to-day lives (para, alongside; bole, thrown), just like a hand grenade.
These stories would just sit there, ticking away, until suddenly the meaning explodes and knocks us off balance.
It is Eugene Peterson (of the Message translation) who writes that the parables don’t do the work – they simply put the listeners imaginations to work. “Parables trust our imaginations, which is to say our faith. They don’t herd us paternalistically into a classroom which we get things explained and diagrammed.”
For that is how the Holy Spirit works. Often the penny drops and we suddenly realize what God is saying in some random place and at an unexpected time. Even today all those years later, I can point to a pavement in Tuebrook or a roundabout in Rochdale and say this is where God spoke to me.
But we need to make ourselves available. To do the equivalent of scrolling through Wikipedia on the Northern Line, taking the information in so to give the Holy Spirit to material to work with. Or to change the metaphor, Selwyn Hughes often spoke about taking our morning scripture reading and sucking it through the day as a lozenge.
And I’m still trying to work out what happened to King Lear, whether he did manage his favourite brew.