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King Lear's Sad Time: What Must We Obey?

From Virginia Hoffman, September 14, 2019

I recently watched Amazon's King Lear with Anthony Hopkins and found that your article, “The Oldest Have Borne Most: King Lear and the Nihilism of Being Old,” resonated with both my interpretation of the film and with the aging process. However, I'm totally puzzled by the last four lines because everyone keeps parsing them apart as if each line were a lesson, instead of the whole thing being connected. And the first line is, frankly, the most confusing of all four.

In your opinion, what does this passage refer to, "The weight of this sad time, we must obey"? Is the sad time, King Lear's time? As he is the oldest, most tragic, and most powerful figure, this might make sense. Or is it the weight of time itself, the fact that all people must face age and therefore will become tragic figures themselves? Or is it the most recent sad time, the tragedy of all the deaths that culminated in the last act? But I guess I don't understand why you would "obey" that; you would be changed by that, but not obey.

If you could help me out with linking all four lines together, and whether it's reflective, summative, or if there is a lesson or a universal truth to all of this, it might alleviate this residual feeling of despair and doom—especially since my own yearly aging will happen in a month (happy birthday to tragedy).

From Eric Minton, September 18, 2019

I have not seen the Anthony Hopkins King Lear, so I can’t comment on that production. However, I can converse on the play’s final four lines because I have done so many times on For whatever reason, that quatrain is the only passage I’ve ever memorized in all of William Shakespeare’s canon, and I did so in the months after I first experienced the play 42 years ago.

Do not think I’m ducking your question when I offer that I think all of your interpretations are correct. From the moment I first started reading Shakespeare I've considered his greatest gift as a writer to be his capability to employ a word or phrase to its fullest capacity.

Obey in that first line serves five purposes:

  1. In its definition of “to follow a command or guidance” or, put another way, "heed";

  2. In its use as a synonym for submit;

  3. In its role as part of the line’s iambic pentameter structure, with final emphasis on the second syllable, “-bey”;

  4. In the aural impression of that syllable’s emphasis, the sound “BAY,” which could automatically trigger thoughts of being held at bay or a dog howling, exponentially expanding the word’s meaning in the mind (Shakespeare does the same with “the weight” that leads off the passage: It is an aural pun on “wait” that could be aimed at the audience who futilely waited for “the promised end,” or it could be a stage direction for Edgar to pick up and carry Cordelia or Lear, an idea suggested by G.K. Hunter in his 1972 New Penguin Shakespeare edition of the play);

  5. In its role as part of the couplet’s rhyme scheme. I’m not being glib: Shakespeare is using “oBEY” to project the listener’s/reader’s attention toward the foundational moral of the play in the next line, to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to SAY” (the opening scene expressly violates that moral, directly triggering the ensuing chaos).

While you are focusing on the phrase that comes before obey, “The weight of this sad time,” Shakespeare is also directing his audience to heed what follows, and then provides his reason in the passage’s final two lines:

The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much nor live so long.

The whole becomes one unifying allegory reiterating the key themes running through the plot: free will vs. fate, honesty, generational conflict, vision (figurative and literal), and growing old. It is an allegory with incredible flexibility of application.

In addition to Shakespeare’s wordsmithing skills, he was a great observer of human nature, and human nature being a multilayered thing, I think he structured his plays and verse to reflect that. Which goes right to the heart of why you found three different potential meanings in “this sad time.”

Edgar in only a loin cloth around his waist and hand up, kneels with Lear, in simple burlap-like rope, one hand on the groound,the other around Edgar's shoulder
Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji) "philosophizes" with King Lear (John Lithgow) in the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Below, When Edgar is played with such nuance as Iwuji portrayed the characer, his lines reach the audience at many different levels. Photo by Joan Marcus, Public Theater.

When my Edgar says “this sad time,” he is referring to his current moment, as you suggest in your third interpretation: the bodies lying about, the cruel, selfish behavior of the past two hours’ traffic on the stage that has caused so much tragedy, and the fact that the kingdom is in desolation, ending up in the hands of an earl, who is fourth-tier nobility (it would be like the internal destruction of the U.S. government leaving the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development as our president). That point mattered a lot to Shakespeare’s Jacobean audience as King James’ attempts to unify the kingdom was a hot political topic when Shakespeare wrote this play. “Obeying” this particular sad time would be akin to “heed the consequences of not speaking truth and abusing your elders.” If Edgar speaks these lines in his just-anointed role as the nation’s ruler, an interpretation I’ve seen in a couple of productions, his use of we takes on royal resonance, and obey gets yet another layer of significance.

I most love your thought that “sad time” could mean the aging process; I had never thought of that before. Earlier this year I wrote a commentary on Shakespeare’s depiction of time in the romances and how the fact of aging can seem instantaneous (“Time's Passages: My Love's Labor Now My Winter's Tale”). Shakespeare wrote King Lear shortly before he turned to the romance genre, so he could very well have started his exploration of time’s sad consequences with this play as he moved closer to retirement. We have no choice but to obey time in that sense.

Could “this sad time” be the age of Lear, age referring to either or both his historical timeframe and his being four score? As you point to, that is the underlying theme of my commentary on King Lear. Nevertheless, Shakespeare being Shakespeare was “not of an age but for all time,” as his friend and rival Ben Jonson said, so this line could be applicable to “all time.” That’s the gist of one of my favorite King Lears, Stratford Festival’s 2014 production (“A King Lear in the Looking Glass”). Set in the early 17th century though depicting the prehistoric King Leir, the production yet lands squarely in the social-political context of the early 21st century. I concluded my review with this: "’The weight of this sad time we must obey,’" Edgar says at play's end: Leir's time, Shakespeare's time, our time.”

I further parse this final quatrain in yet another essay focused on Edgar rather than Lear, “The Worst Is Never the Worst until the Worst: Finding Comfort in Edgar in Times of Woes.” In that commentary, I note what’s missing in the passage: Edgar’s own tragedy. “We that are young shall never see so much nor live so long” glosses over the fact that Edgar has experienced much more hardship than anybody else in the play, including Lear and Edgar’s father. Not only has Edgar suffered great abuse, he is the only character who has witnessed everybody else’s tragedy, including Kent’s, the elder sisters’, Edmund’s, and Oswalt’s. Yet, he contends he will never see so much as the old have. That adds a further conundrum to “this sad time.”

Actors and directors find their own way to this passage’s meaning through their interpretations of the character of Edgar and his playlong thematic arc. Readers, too, can find their own way, and audiences watching a truly nuanced production of the play and portrayal of Edgar (see, for instance, “It's Lithgow's Lear, But It's Edgar's Play”) likewise can arrive at their own impression of this final quatrain.

If all of that’s not convoluted enough, Shakespeare throws another wrinkle into this discussion. In the Quarto version, Albany speaks the play’s final lines, not Edgar. I think Shakespeare got it right in the Folio edition, but when you add to the equation the many potential interpretations of Albany I’ve seen over the years, you’ll get myriad more meanings to “the weight of this sad time we must obey.”

Let me conclude with this thought: obey your own time and have a most happy birthday!


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