Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: initial thoughts.

I am interested in trying to engage students in the idea of Shakespeare presenting the Apocalyptic in his later plays and specifically in Lear, being studied in y13.  Eschatology (the study for the end of days in Christian theology) is alive and kicking today, and presumably will be until the horsemen are actually standing in the middle of our cities and the gates of hell are actually thrown open.  Whilst this might never happen, the belief that it will in the 21st century should alert students to the fervour with which. The belief would have been carried in 17th century England.
What could be more significant for those looking for signs than the deteriorating health of their virgin Queen, who was leaving no heir and quite possibly would leave a vacuum for civil war?  Not only this, but plague and disease was continually rampant and there was still no real end to religious persecution  of Catholics, who were facing the destruction of their church.  The excommunication of Henry Viii had already presented him as a figure outside the arms of the church.  His daughter was no better and was also female – anathema.

On her death, the ascension of the elderly James 1/6 did not look like a new beginning.  The average English man now faced up to rule by an enemy obsessed with the study of witchcraft and who had to strive to unite 2 disparate kingdoms.  In 1606 He survived an assassination attempt on a huge scale and saw the country ravaged by the worst plague outbreak to date.  The signs were not good: death by fire and plague seemed to fit the description of the apocalypse – the end of days when God would call all to account and deliver promised salvation for the  worthy and promised destruction in hell for the unworthy.
Conventional rendering of “the Doom” would have been well known to all.  Churches carried paintings of the subject until at least 1559 when Queen Elisabeth repeated an order to whitewash all the church paintings.  Whether or not we believe Shakespeare to be a closet Catholic sympathiser, it is clear that he imagery of a gaping pit of Hell with trumpeting angels and e dead rising naked from their graves to receive God’s justice was a clear part of the consciousness of society in general.  It makes sense that he uses this imagery repeatedly in the four late tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth.  I will be focusing on Lear, and would draw attention to an earlier blog post on equivocation- the practice of half truth telling which would no doubt be part of the practice of avoiding a sticky end.
My intention as ever in my blog is to draw attention to some areas that might be good starting points for further discussion and also to some texts which might warrant deeper and further reading.
Edgar as Poor Tom:  Edgar’s lists of Devils and “crazed” wanderings need not delay a student in terms of quotation gathering, but are relevant and vital to this discussion.  Almost all of the Devils he cites are taken directly from an influential writer: Harsnett.  Harsnett, in his “A declaration of egregious Popish Impostures”, was one of the most prominent writers of the day on the Devils and devilish behaviour amongst the Catholic underground in England.  These Devils and their descriptions also mimic much of the Apocalyptic language of Revelation, in which such creatures are seen pouring from the pit in order to pursue mankind to the deserved end for a sinner.

Students might like to explore the reasons that may lie behind such detailed discussion of these well known “Devils” by a character feigning madness.  In a world in which the Catholic community was facing ever closer scrutiny by the Puritanical forces of the Protestant church, it might be profitable to consider whether Shakespeare is discreetly sending. A message to his followers that such obsession with apparent proofs of religious recidivism in the mouth of a madman might represent the idiocy of the current position and a plea for sanity from James in order to avoid an utter destruction of the Catholic faith.  This idea, which can be extended into an exploration of the presentation of Cordelia and Kent as figures of a subterranean Catholic movement seeking to achieve permission to coexist with the Protestant Puritanism of  Regan, Cornwall and the ” forces of darkness” is worthy of debate.  Students should be looking at the book Shadowplay by Clare Asquith.
We will return to the Apocalypse- the just punishment for the evil and just saving of the good. Here students should find Weittrich’s writing in ….. And also Christophides in Shakesoeare and the Apocalypse.
Lear is a remarkable play because of the subverting of the expected trajectory of a tragedy.  At the end of this play, the dark side is suitably punished, despite some notable equivocation in the part of Edmund, but here is little evidence of redemption.  Bradley, writing in 1904, finds redemption in the death of Cordelia due to Lear’s belief as he dies that she is alive, but as the 20th century developed, many critics reject this idea – athem Stampfer and Belsey.  Indeed it is hard to see much hope in a play in which nihilism is so clearly stated time and again.  Moreover, the idea that the forces for good are actually defeated is hard to take for many.  What s the point of the fight if the wrong side win?  It is this area that led to the happy ending revision of the play in the 18 the century and to critics such as Dr Johnson whole-heartedly endorsing Nahum Tate’s rewriting.  For this discussion though, the ending is interesting because it denies the apocalypse hinted at throughout  by the language of Lear in the storm; of Edmund as Poor Tom or by Kent in Act 1.1 when he refers to Lear’s treatment of Cordelia as her “doom”.

Apocalypse must punish AND save or else it is not a true apocalypse.  Few are saved here and the elevation of Edgar to the throne (if we follow the folio reading) hardly inspires hope for the future.  indeed one might say that his last words”say what we feel, not what we ought to say” suggest that the whole cycle might start again.  After all, this is precisely what Cordelia did in Act 1 when she chose not to enter into the love-fest that was to divide the kingdom.
Christofides offers the idea the play actually takes place in a post apocalyptic world for consideration.  He likens Lear to McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel The Road, and suggests that we might need it see in the play evidence that Hell really does exist and that all the characters are already in it.  Citing Gloucester’s speech in 1.2 106-9 in which he describes an England in which “love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d twixt son and father”. Certainly, taken universally, rather than as musing solely on the recent events at court, this is quite persuasive and might also offer a response tot he question of why Gloucester barely refers to the banishment of Cordelia – simply put, the world has already slipped into its post apocalyptic state and such things are simply symptoms of a much wider malaise in society.  Against this, though, we should note that Lear’s bond with Cordelia is not actually broken and we might see the eventual reconciliation ( if there is one…) as a sign that hell has not taken over and that redemption is still possible.
At the end of the play this exchange takes place : Kent :”is this the promised end?” Edgar:”Or image of that horror?”  Kent has first referred to the Doom in Act 1 and as the King cradles the body of his dead daughter, he wonders if the apocalypse has now been revealed.  Edgar’s reply suggests not- this is merely a vision of Hell, rather than Hell itself.  The apocalypse has not taken place and continues to threaten the audience to this day.  What we see is a representation in the form of an inverted Pieta with Mary replaced by a tired and defeated old man cradling his murdered daughter in his arms.  There are no Devils and demons as in popular images of the day, but instead Edgar might be suggesting that the fall of the “dragon”, an animal featuring in the Apocalyptic writings as emerging from hell where it is an evident compound of the Serpent which tempted Eve, is completed by the senseless death of his daughter – a figure of truth and virtue.  both will die, neither will be saved, but Lear is punished here by suffering the death of his beloved child. Lear will suffer death and remains, I think, unredeemed even when he thinks Cordelia lives.  She doesn’t.  The audience know this and Lear’s exclamation seems to be almost like a futile piece of equivocation as he faces his judgement.  He started this process with his irreligious division of a Kingdom founded by God.  If Cordelia lives he can be redeemed, but in a vision of the apocalypse, why should this take place?  Instead, it is important to see the  Doom, not just for Cordelia but also for the man who caused her suffering.
However, and students should always be looking for a however, what if Cordelia is a figure of redemption? How might we achieve this reading.  The play has a specifically non-Christian setting, practically due to the issues of putting religion onto the stage in the 17th century, and in practice to allow for a non-Christian apocalypse: one with no clear redemption for the “good”.  During this play we encounter characters wishing or suggesting that poison might be a good source of cure for their ills.  This is a splendid oxymoron: that one’s ills can be cured by suicide- a Great Sin. As Christophides asserts, Cordelia’s “nothing” works both as the catalyst for Lear’s madness as well as the instrument for his healing- without it he would never examine his inner soul and explore the nature of “unaccommodated man” and so would never move through madness to true sanity.  Further in 4.7 she begs for him to find “thy medicine on my lips”, again suggesting that she is the instrument of his salvation, from Hell, if not to any form of ascension to heaven- in the pre-Christian world of the play, such a location cannot exist.  Lear goes as far as to say that “if you have poison for me, I will drink it”. Here he clearly accepts that his redemption will hinge on drinking the poison offered by his name daughter specifically to cure him.  Whether this equivocation which allows suicide in order to be redeemed would fit into the 17th century accusations of Harsnett and his like is not certain.  For the student in Y13 it may be enough to note the issue and consider how to use it in a range of potential essays.  It might be simply another moment of inversion in a play riddled with this sort of image- the thing which brings death is the instrument of salvation and one chooses sin in order to attain redemption.

A final point of consideration is the relationship between Apocalypse and prophecy.  All writings on the Apocalypse foretell the destruction/cleansing of the Earth.  With this in mind we should be aware of two speeches in particular:  The Fool on 3.2.80ff and Edgar on 3.6.98ff.  In both cases the voice of the prophet is that of a character at their lowest point and the ideas presented suggest a Kingdom in the utter turmoil already discussed in reference to Gloucester’s statements about the state of the nation in Act 1.  Both speeches come when the King is cast adrift on the Heath and both present a clear warning about the destruction of the Kingdom – both in the play and in real life, one assumes.  Possibly Shakespeare’s target here is the King: a warning not to split his kingdom.  Possibly his warning is a coded message of support for a Catholic underground movement.  Possibly our students will develop other ideas for themselves.


Wittreich: The Apocalypse in King Lear

Christofides: Shakespeare and the Apocalypse

St John of Patmos


O’Toole : Shakespeare is hard but so is life

Shapiro: 1606, The Year of Lear