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Monday, May 16, 2016

Learning from King Lear: The Cottage

As a lifelong lover of books, I often--no, always--find something to provide not just intellectual satisfaction but emotional comfort. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

As I was teaching King Lear last semester, I was struck by how much in that play--which deals with old age, loss of power, and the love of children for difficult parents--resonates with my own life. I say to my students, whose faces show disbelief, that they won't really GET the play until they have aging parents or ARE the aging parent themselves. It is true.

As I get closer to retirement, I identify with Lear, who gives away his power and property only to discover that two of his children do not love him, and, in fact, "desire his death." The good child, Cordelia, has been banished. Also banished is his serving man Kent, who returns in disguise to serve his master. When Lear asks Kent what he sees in him, Kent replies "authority." That is precisely what I have as a teacher that might be lost in retirement. 

Now, facing my mother's decision to sell the cottage, I find myself learning from the daughters,  TRYING to act like the good daughter, but sometimes veering to the cruel daughters, whose thoughts are matched with actions of shocking cruelty. They, after all, have the power. Still, even though my fleeting thoughts will never be matched with action, it's often hard to work on one's thoughts.

Like my mother, King Lear is miserable in his old age and occasionally flies into fits of anger and tears. Like King Lear, my mother has made her decision to sell the cottage to "prevent future strife" between her children. She says she will "feel better" when the house is gone. This is the opposite of what Lear does, but the root is the same: to try to keep control over things when one doesn't have that much control in other aspects of life. 

I am trying to prepare myself for the sale. I feel tremendous grief in anticipation. Tom says that is understandable: selling the house will be like a death for me. 

When Lear is reunited with Cordelia late in the play, he tells her "I know you do not love me." He says that she has cause not to love him, though her sisters do not.

She replies (in perhaps the most moving lines in all of literature, at least as I know it) "No cause, no cause."

Needless to say, I don't expect my mother to say anything like what Lear says, nor have I been banished and disinherited like Cordelia. The situation is different. People are more important than things. Love, even when it doesn't "work," is the answer. (A famous essay on Lear is by Stanley Cavell: "The Avoidance of Love.")

But--in my anticipation--I expect my mother to ask me if I am angry with her for her decision. She might not. Or she might say something else.

But I am nonetheless practicing: "No cause, no cause." 

PS: The wonderful Ian McKellen Lear is no longer available free on "Great Performances." But if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free.


Miser Mom said...

Yes, it's true that people are more important than things, but it's also true that the spaces we're in deeply influence how we interact with people. So I understand your grief at the sale of the cottage; that has to be hard.

You've made me want to go back and read King Lear. Thank you for this beautiful reflection on the many facets of becoming/watching older parents.

Frugal Scholar said...

@misermom--Thank you for your kind comment. Yes, read the play! Watch the movie! My husband used to listen to an audio version while doing outdoor chores and many of my students listen during their commutes.

Swissy said...

These last posts are so real and true to life, my life, at any rate, and yours. My parents are now gone and what I recall is mostly "No cause, no cause." I read King Lear one summer with a class of young students when I worked at Brown. The play was a catalyst for me in coming to understand my parents, loss of place (physical and emotional), and the grief that time can bring. And beyond that, just dear memories.