The play begins with an unexpected abdication.
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ‘tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl toward death (I.i.17-41)
King Lear rejects the realm — one might say, reality itself — in favor of mere words. Summoning his three daughters, he asks, "Which of you shall we say doth love us most / That we our largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge?" (I.i.51-53).
The king’s first two daughters rise to his foolish request. If the old man wants the empty flap of words, Regan and Goneril deliver, but, as she listens to them, Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, struggles within herself. "What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent" (I.i.62).
When Lear demands that she declare herself, Cordelia, whose very name means "heart," responds, "Nothing, my Lord."
"Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."
"Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less" (I.i.90-92)
Abrupt as it sounds, pondering the answer, it’s perfect. Cordelia’s love isn’t something that she can heave into her mouth, yet she truly loves her father as any daughter should, "no more nor less." She’s spoken the very truth, should any more be said?
But Lear is guilty of a primal sin, because, like Adam and Eve, he turns from the real, from what God has created and called good, to the unreal, to a reality of his own, one woven only of words. How like him we are. Forsaking the real for so much the less, something fashioned of fantasy.
We live in worlds of words, going no where without a cell phone, struggling to pull ourselves away from the web, texting while the television sounds. And how aptly they’re called tweets, signifying little more than the ephemeral sound of birds. We don’t even sit quietly in waiting rooms or terminals anymore. We can’t be untethered to television Of course modernity hasn’t corrupted us, it’s simply made it easier for us to lose ourselves in the unreal, to seep ourselves in watery words. "Humanity must perforce prey upon itself, like monsters of the deep" (IV.ii.48).
Saint John calls Christ "the Word," because in him word and reality are one. What he says, what we see and experience of him, are one and the same. Like Cordelia, Christ is the one who loves truly, whose word is neither false nor fallow. Just as Cordelia can say, on entering the realm to restore her father’s rule, "O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about" (IV.3.23-24), so Christ says, "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (Jn 18:37).
Having forsaken the real for mere words, King Lear goes mad. He no longer knows whose words to trust, even what words themselves mean. He finds himself raging, hurling imprecations at a storm, as though the reality of nature would give way to the whim of words. "Contending with the fretful elements," Lear "bids the winds blow the earth into the sea, / or swell the curled water ‘bove the main, / that things might change or cease." As though we could remake God’s world with our words, the poor king "strives in his little world of man to outscorn / the to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain" (III.i.5-10).
Only at story’s end, when Lear holds the silent body of Cordelia in his arms — an inverse of our Gospel Pietá — does he realize the depth of her love. On Good Friday, the Word of God, hangs upon a cross. Like a lover, in his flesh, Christ makes good his promises, the vows he spoke at table.
How right, how wise, that the liturgy of this day begins and ends in silence. We kneel as the ministers enter and silently prostrate themselves, tracing the cross’ form upon the ground. Our worship reaches a hushed climax with the adoration of the cross. Words give way to solid touch.
A terrified child cannot be comforted by words alone. No lover knows satiety in words. Both want the press of flesh. Learning over her stricken father, Cordelia prays, "Let this kiss repair those violent harms" (IV.vii.24-25).
On this day, the Word of God, in his wounded flesh, stands exposed for all the world to see. On this day the ancient lover of our souls becomes the King of Martyrs, testifying in blood. "The oldest have borne most. We that our young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long" (V.iii.320).
This day should be suffused with silence. Our words fail, as the Savior speaks from the cross. How should we respond? As Cordelia did. "Love and be silent."
Isaiah 52: 13-53: 12 Hebrews 4: 14-16, 5: 7-9 John 18: 1-19: 42