Stage of Fools

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” Lear spoke these words outdoors, and hearing them outdoors recently made me shiver.

The actor playing Lear said these words in gathering darkness on the bank of the Hudson River.  It was so chilly some of the audience wrapped up in their picnic blankets. Yet even though I was in an open-sided tent on the gorgeous grounds of a Hudson River mansion, being exposed to nature helped me remember that Shakespeare was writing about a great and powerful king reduced to helplessness, wandering lost in an unknown universe. 

Take us out of our comfort zones where the little engine of ego can chug along more or less unimpeded, throw us off track with a great shock or two, exposes us to the elements,and we discover we really are all fools (which in Shakespeare’s day meant infants, helpless victims).

Among the audience members who have come to see the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “King Lear” recently were former President Bill Clinton and his wife, the former secretary of state Hilary Rodham Clinton (people who know something about kingly power).  Also there was The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, who noted in his August 18, 2013, review that these annual productions are known mostly for “their directorial wit, clarity and briskness”…not so much for “nuanced psychological portraiture and searing emotional truth.”

Yet Brantley praised the way director Terrence O’Brien drew a “luminous, fable-like clarity” out of the play’s profound darkness.He wrote (and I agree!) that there was something magical about seeing the actors first appear as silhouettes against a setting sun, emerging from the riverbank below the tent.  Yet when darkness fell, and the nobles and soldiers (dressed like a fanciful, pagan version of the Dark Ages) were more starkly illuminated by torch light and electric light, I felt that Shakespeare was illuminating something primal and true.

Shakespeare was showing us the way we humans are.  We don’t have the kingdom and the power and the glory of Lear, but we act out in mysterious, impulsive ways, we destroy in the name of love. 

Ages ago, when I was lumbering miserably through Shakespeare in college, I secretly hoped the day would come when I might read the great plays slowly–and not read it as an intellectual test but to let the meaning unfold, to let it be useful in a deeper way.  Shivering and thrilled on the banks of the Hudson, I realized that day has come.  Finally, I can watch a Shakespeare play unfold the way I sit in meditation, allowing myself to see and be touched, without forcing myself to conclude this or that (usually by aligning myself with some famous critic). 

I let myself be interested in just what presented itself as particularly interesting.  This time, I was haunted by the image of the actor playing the noble Edgar, half naked out there in the cold and dark, an ancient British version of a homeless ascetic.  He has to disguise himself to hide from his enemies.  But why does he go to such a self-punishing extreme? 

That he had a terrible powerful will is clear at the end, when he becomes an avenging knight (and ultimately a king). Have you ever punished yourself to show someone? Isn’t prolonged anger like that sometimes, like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies?

Watching Shakespeare can remind us of bottomlessness of human nature. We can never get to the end of it, never really “fix” ourselves into something less unruly and surprising. But sometimes in the midst of the darkness and chaos, there is light.

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