“You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both.”
-King Lear, 3.2
The story is one for the ages. Our ages. Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. But it is a story that my wife and I can no longer easily watch or read, for it is a story of much that can go so wrong for the aged. Nevertheless, if there is any play that those of us over 65 should see, or see again, when thinking of our legacies, it is this one.
Since we’ve seen the play several times already, I can summarize the plot. Note that there is no back story for King Lear and how his daughters were raised, nor how he came to power. The role of his wife, the mother of those daughters, is also absent.
In planning his retirement and estate as the play begins, King Lear decides to divide his lands among his three daughters, giving the largest share to whoever flatters him the most. As it turns out, Cordelia, his one loyal daughter, refuses to flatter him, and Lear decides to banish her. Privately leering, the other two publicly pour on the flattery, obtain his lands, but then banish their father. Then, both of these daughters discover they were having an affair with the same man. One of the daughters poisons the other, then commits suicide. Later, the loyal daughter is executed by mistake. Others in the court also vie for inheritances, with similarly disastrous results. King Lear himself ends up blind, impoverished, sick, and psychotic. Society is in shambles.
Isn’t Lear’s fate what the elderly fear most? Don’t we all want security, good health and health care, a family at peace, and a positive legacy by which to be remembered, all of which eluded King Lear? Though my wife and I are currently confident that we will avoid anything reminiscent of King Lear, we have seen bits and pieces of that tragedy in some of our ancestors. I certainly saw some in many of my patients as a psychiatrist.
What can we all do to avoid such tragic aging? The simple answer to Shakespeare’s complexity is to do much that is the opposite of King Lear. For some people, what not to do has as powerful influence as what to do. To learn that, see or read the play when you first have children. See or read it when your children leave home. See or read it even if you do not have children. See or read it at least once as you approach older age. If not, read reviews or commentaries on the play. Then, be as generous as you can, first and fairly to your family, but if you have the resources, also to society and those in need.
Though the lessons of Lear are relevant to all, the ramifications are especially widespread for the rich and powerful. Hopefully, someone like Nelson Mandela has read the play and applied what he learned to his private will and political followers. In the meanwhile, some of his family feud over family grave sites and observers worry that he is still the glue that holds the country together.
Before modern psychiatry and psychology, the humanities and religion seemed to provide the most insight about people and, for many, Shakespeare is the most insightful. As we face Social Security and Medicare challenges in our country, scientific advances are important. Economics are important. Politics is surely important. So is ethics. But the humanities – the dancing of Zorba, the music of Leonard Cohen, and the literature of Shakespeare and others, such as Seamus Heaney, whom Sissela Bok wrote about in a recent post-are surely important too, not only for the pleasures that they provide, but the lessons they leave.