Shakespeare Before the End

Here’s one thing you should know about Shakespeare before the world ends:

William Shakespeare has already been there.

In the final moments of King Lear, after we have just learned that King Lear’s faithful friend the Earl of Gloucester is dead and his loyal servant the Earl of Kent is dying; after we have heard that Lear’s oldest daughter has murdered her sister and then killed herself; after we have seen their two bodies brought onstage, and the body of Gloucester’s villainous son Edmund borne off; Lear enters, howling, the lifeless body of his beloved daughter Cordelia in his arms.

For a few brief and blissful seconds earlier in that scene, we had been led to hope that, like the fairy tale it grew from, Lear and Cordelia’s story might have a happy ending. King Lear’s wits have been restored, he and Cordelia have finally reunited, and Lear has promised her that, even in prison, the two of them will pray, and sing, and tell old tales, that together they can take upon’s the mystery of things,/As if we were God’s spies. But now we must watch in mounting horror as Lear challenges the rest of the court to howl in anguish along with him, as he pleads with Cordelia’s lifeless body, and grasps at mirrors and feathers to try to convince himself that she still lives.

As Kent surveys that wreckage, he asks (or, depending on which edition you’re reading, exclaims), Is this the promis’d end? to which Gloucester’s faithful son, Edgar, can only respond by asking (or, in some editions, stating), Or image of that horror? Those of us who are reading or listening to that agonizing exchange can comfort ourselves that what we are witnessing is indeed only an image of that horror, though at that point in that excruciating play, it’s a distinction that hardly matters. In addition to all the betrayals, insanity, torture, murders, suicide, and civil war we have seen, we’ve just learned that joy too can kill, when Edgar reports that his father died smilingly after he discovered Edgar was still alive.

Although all of Shakespeare’s tragedies read like reports from the abyss, for me King Lear comes closer to portraying the ending of everything than any other work of art I’ve yet encountered. By the time that play is over, every one of the dire astrological predictions the overly-credulous Gloucester has warned of–and his utterly cynical son Edmund has scoffed at–have come true: mutinies…discord…treason…the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father…. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous discords. All that’s missing to round out that list for modern audiences is climate change and a pandemic. And yet, each time I see King Lear, each time I read it, or listen to it, or even–these days–think about it, I find it wiser and more sublime, more aidant and remediate in addressing my life’s own worries, questions, and griefs.

As a novelist, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about ends, both personal and general. In my first novel, I set myself to imagining the end of western civilization and most of humanity. In my most recent novel, I explore the end of one man’s life as he contends with his increasing dementia, clings to his vast knowledge and deep love of Shakespeare, and tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Writing those books reinforced to me what Shakespeare knew so well: endings matter. As John of Gaunt observes when he expresses his hope that his nephew Richard II will heed his warnings because they come from a dying man,

More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before.
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past.

The ends of lines, the ends of plays, the ends of lives–they all hold an extra charge, a lingering power. Ends help us to come to grips with the past and find a new way forward. Contemplating ends reveals what matters most right now.

Here’s another thing you should know about Shakespeare before either you or the world the end: Shakespeare won’t abandon you there.

Like the theatrical trick Edgar plays on his distraught and newly-blinded father when he pretends to let him throw himself off the cliff at Dover, after Shakespeare has led you to the extreme verge, he will convince you it’s a blessing that you’re still alive. In play after play, in scene after scene, in line after line, Shakespeare will remind you, as Edgar reminds his father after he’s persuaded him he has just survived his suicidal fall, Thy life’s a miracle. Like Edgar, Shakespeare will encourage you to, Speak yet again.

In his plays, Shakespeare sometimes scoffs at words. Mere words, he has his characters call them, and foul words, or idle, or ignominious, or abominable words. Shakespeare appears to have had a healthy distrust for the clay he used to form his art. In King Lear it’s clear that Cordelia’s silence is more loving than all of her sisters’ empty words. And yet, Shakespeare also talks of golden words, of holy words, of medicinal, or heart-easing words, of words that make the things more rich, of a rhapsody of words. In addition to his wisdom, tenderness, courage, ferocity, and humor, the sheer power and beauty of Shakespeare’s language will make you want to live.

Every time I meet Lear on the heath, goading the storm to, Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! Blow! and, Strike flat the thick rotundity ‘o the world, I marvel how perfectly his words mimic the sounds and rhythms of rain, wind, and thunder. Each time I encounter Lear’s description of unaccommodated man as a poor, bare, forked animal; or his attempt to comfort Gloucester by reminding him, Thou must be patient. We came crying hither;/ Thou knowest, the first time that we smell the air/We waul and cry; or his expression of the anguish and incomprehension that anyone who has ever contemplated the dead body of a loved one has surely felt, Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/And thou no breath at all? I am awed once again by the double miracle of Shakespeare’s insight and his poetry.

King Lear ends with Edgar encouraging the shaken survivors left onstage–and in the audience–that they should, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Three of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, two of his romances, and more than half of his comedies also conclude with similar invitations to continue talking, to speak to th’ yet unknowing world/How these things came about, or, Go hence to have more talk of these sad things, or, go home,/And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire. All of those invitations serve to keep what we have just read or witnessed alive in our thoughts and hearts and conversations. They lead us beyond the plays’ ends into futures that may be at least a little richer, thanks to what Shakespeare has just enabled us to experience.

Here’s something else you should know: Shakespeare can help you to meet your own end, too.

When my mother arrived home from work to discover my father sitting in his easy chair with his eyes closed, a full cup of coffee on the floor beside him, and his teaching copy of The Riverside Shakespeare open in his lap, it was such a typical scene that it took her a moment to realize her beloved husband was dead. An autopsy revealed he’d bled to death internally when a weak spot in a major artery gave way. It was a dignified and painless death, and if Dad had been ninety instead of sixty, those of us he left behind might have considered it a blessing. But at the time, and for many decades afterwards, the shock of its suddenness eclipsed all our other considerations. It’s only now that I am over sixty myself that I’ve come to appreciate how lucky my father was, to be able to leave this life without even spilling his coffee.

Besides, he died reading Shakespeare.

For nearly forty years, that particular detail held little resonance for me. Since my father was a college professor, the way I saw it was that he’d died at work. But now that I’ve reached the point in my own relationship with William Shakespeare where, no matter how casually or critically I happen to be reading or listening, certain lines will inevitably make me smile or cause my eyes to fill with tears, I’ve changed my mind about my father’s end. When Puck marvels Lord, what fools these mortals be! or Falstaff claims he was a coward on instinct, or Prospero reminds me that We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep, it seems those lines have been fortified with every previous encounter I have ever had with them. I like to imagine that must have also been the case for my father, so that whatever passage he was revisiting in the moment when his eyes closed forever would have surely helped to ease–and maybe even to exalt–his passing.

Few of us will be as lucky as my dad, but perhaps some of us can hope to at least be like my mom, who carried Shakespeare with her to her end, too. When she was in her mid-nineties, her cognition began a precipitous decline. One day, my brother and I both happened be present as the speech therapist who was working with her to try to forestall her rapidly diminishing communication skills proposed that the two of them could play a game: she would suggest a category and then ask Mom to name at least two items that would fit into it.

“Let’s start with flowers,” the therapist chirped. “What kind of flowers can you think of, Virginia?”

But Mom only looked confused.

“I’m thinking of a flower that has long stems and thorns and that smells really good,” the therapist prompted. “Sometimes people buy a dozen of them and give them to their sweethearts on Valentine’s Day. What kind of flower is that?”

After a long pause during which I believe my brother and I and the therapist all held our breaths, my mother whispered, “Petunias?”

The therapist congratulated her effort, but when she asked Mom to name another flower, our mother, whose flowerbeds had once brightened the neighborhood, couldn’t recall a single one. Nor could she name a vegetable…or a movie. Despite her Master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago and her long career as an English teacher and librarian, Mom couldn’t name a single book, either.

“Who’s your favorite author?” my brother asked, nudging me in a hammy way, trying to clue our mother to name me.

“Shakespeare,” Mom answered instantly, and with surprising conviction.

“Yes!” I crowed, punching the air. “Shakespeare’s the bomb! He’s the absolute best. That’s a perfect answer, Mom!”

While Mom beamed, the therapist, who was less interested in our family’s literary tastes than in her client’s measurable progress, prompted, “Name a play that Shakespeare wrote.”

But here again Mom was stumped. Shaking her head sadly, she could only gaze out the window to the bright summer day beyond.

To be…” I suggested, though I was suddenly deeply unhappy with the whole enterprise, which seemed designed not to promote Mom’s cognition as much as to reveal her inadequacies, to remind her how infinitely much she’d lost, to prove to us what a tiny shadow of her was left.

Or…not…to…be…” I offered, stretching out the beginning line of Hamlet’s inquiry into the existential underpinnings of self-slaughter as long as I could.

Suddenly, my mother, who only a moment before could not even call a rose by its own name, began to speak, “—that is the question,” she said. As the therapist, my brother, and I listened in stunned silence, she continued, her voice growing in authority, “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
he heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.”

Hearing Mom speak Hamlet’s words reinforced my faith that, if Shakespeare still resided somewhere inside her, then my mother was still there, too. Perhaps we couldn’t reach her in all the old reliable ways, but her experience of the world still mattered, as did our experience of her as someone whose end had not yet come.

During her final hours, when she was already so far beyond this world that her eyes were as unfocused as a newborn’s and each breath was as laborious as a contraction, I held her hand and whispered through my tears those haunting words I’d first heard as a kid, when I’d dozed between my parents at a performance of Cymbeline at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

Fear no more the heat ‘o the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As Chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

I dedicated Still Time, my novel about the deeply flawed but potentially redeemable Shakespeare scholar, to the memories of John Heminge and Henry Condell, the actors who, seven years after their friend and colleague William Shakespeare’s death, published his plays in what’s come to be known as the First Folio. In their introduction to that priceless collection, they include a letter addressed To the great Variety of Readers. In it, they begin by expressing a plea which I’m sure other editors and writers will certainly appreciate, that readers will actually buy their book before they start to criticize it. They end their letter with an even more heartfelt appeal, entreating us to Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe.

I can think of no better way to end this celebration of Shakespeare than by repeating Heminge’s and Condell’s invitation: Read him, and reread him, and also listen to him, and watch his plays. Don’t defer to the experts. Don’t feel you need to begin by studying him. Don’t worry about appreciating every nuance or understanding every word. Remember that one of the many reasons so many of us can never get enough of Shakespeare is that we know we will never be able to comprehend any of his plays in their entirety. Trust that there will never be an end to the gifts that Shakespeare can give you; there will always be something more for you to discover and delight in, something more to inspire, entertain or haunt you.

For here’s the most important thing you should know about Shakespeare before the world ends: Don’t wait till then.

Forget about endings; instead, dive in:

Two households, both alike in dignity,/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…
If music be the food of love, play on…
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad…
Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York…
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour/draws on apace…
William Shakespeare is waiting for you, right now.

This essay was first published in O que você precisa saber sobre Shakespeare antes que o mundo acabe (What Do You Need to Know About Shakespeare Before the World Ends), edited by Fernanda Medeiros and Liana de Camargo Leão (Editora Nova Fronteira, 2021)

Copyright © 2024 Jean Hegland. All Rights Reserved.