John Runciman, King Lear in the Storm, 1767
Act III of Shakespeare’s King Lear gets to me every time. Lear, spectacularly blinded by pride and bereft of power in his old age, having foolishly exiled one daughter and exposed himself to betrayal by the other two, retreats into a storm with his Fool and descends into madness, shaking his fist at nature, railing, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”
“That is no country for old men,” Yeats once wrote. Shakespeare knew the same, and Lear’s fall resonates not because we rejoice in his demise or think the old king somehow got what he deserved but because we recognize an uncomfortable truth: that his sin is essentially our own and his fate the same one that awaits us all should we live long enough to outlive our usefulness. We also witness the paradoxical reality of Lear’s madness as the very thing that ultimately shapes and redeems him, the precondition to him losing the trappings of power in order to experience, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,
the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing.
Only in madness is Lear finally able to look outside himself long enough to empathize with the needs of another, leading him to ask the Fool,
How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
that can make vile things precious.
In a technological age where classical literary study might appear as superannuated as Lear himself, Shakespeare’s play reminds us that what’s at stake in reading literature is spiritual as well as aesthetic. The relationship between literary study and spiritual formation is captured in King Lear and in countless other literary texts that explore the depths of human experience, warts and all—texts that challenge us to confront, not the soaring possibilities inherent in humanity, but our tragic limitations, rooting out our pride . . . what Lewis called “the greatest sin.”
Aren’t we all Lear, small and feeble at heart, shaking our fists at the wind when the universe doesn’t conform to our expectations?
But we need not look only at Shakespearean tragedy to find this truth. Even Jane Austen’s domestic novels, and a heroine like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, confront some of the same ontological issues as Lear, even if what’s at stake is marriage and not death. As the title suggests, the novel’s narrative arc traces Elizabeth’s transformation from rash judgment to mature understanding, a change focused not solely on Elizabeth reckoning with Mr. Darcy’s true character but with her own moral failures, for Elizabeth eventually realizes her error and how, “she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, and absurd.” She confesses,
I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I who have valued myself on my abilities! Till this moment…I never knew myself!
Not unlike Lear, Austen’s heroine is corrected through her shortcomings, vulnerability becoming a transformative medium for restoration of self with community. By reading Shakespeare and Austen, we see the universal human drama writ large and, in it, the truth of our frail, human condition. And we ultimately understand our need for the Gospel—a need for God’s strength in the midst of our weakness, his redemptive wisdom in the shadow of our folly. Anything less would be as futile as chasing our own tail.
Holly Ordway calls this endeavor “literary apologetics” in the ways “literature can present truth, how it can present meaning, and how we can engage with that meaning through literature.” She explains:
I really think it’s vitally important for Christians to read, and to read fiction and poetry, because it allows us to imaginatively engage with the world. It allows us to know the world and to know how other human beings relate, to know things about God and his creation, to understand ourselves more deeply.
Ordway emphasizes that literary apologetics does not mean imposing Christian ideas on a story; it takes place even when we engage with texts written by non-Christians or by artists who are not writing intentionally from a position of faith, for this form of imaginative apologetics invites us to see, “all truth as God’s truth.” The good, the bad, and the ugly.
In this way, literary study bears witness to a world shattered by sin. In stark contrast to popular culture wherein human worth is informed by possessive individualism and predicated on a consumeristic myth of personal power and perfection, literature confronts a reality where ambiguity, complexity, tension, and darkness prevail while simultaneously, as Randy Boyagoda argues in his article “Faith in Fiction”, “[testifying] to the ultimate truth of human existence: We are not, in the end, alone.” The imagination, as Michael Card also suggests, then becomes the “unifying bridge” that “seeks to re-integrate and reconnect” what has been fragmented by the Fall.
Perhaps this is what the poet W.H. Auden alludes to in the concluding stanzas of his 1937 poem “As I Walked Out One Evening”, a poem that speaks truth into our epoch as well, living as we are in a post-Christian age of anxiety:
O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.
Auden’s poem, like most good literature, reminds us that life is less about affirmation than surrender and that true flourishing can only happen once we take the fancy-dress off, as Lewis famously said, and face the storm with full knowledge of our crooked hearts.
“Holly Ordway: Literary Apologist.” Interview by Marcia Bosscher. The Well (InterVarsity’s online gathering place for women in graduate school and beyond). http://thewell.intervarsity.org/voices/holly-ordway-literary-apologist
Boyagoda, Randy.”Faith in Fiction.” First Things. August 2013. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/faith-in-fiction
Card, Michael. “Imagination: Biblically Holy, or Evil?” Crosswalk.com. March 10, 2011. http://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/the-biblical-imagination.html
About the author:
Angie Crea O'Neal is an associate professor of English at Shorter University where she also holds the Joan Alden Speidel Chair in English and serves as the chair of English, Modern Languages, and Liberal Arts. Her poems have recently appeared in The Cumberland River Review, Kentucky Review, and San Pedro River Review. She lives in Rome, Georgia with her daughters, Marin and Maeve.