21 JULY 2014
'When the feeling's gone and you can't go on...it's tragedy.'
In 2001 Cambridge University outraged the Campaign for Real Education (admittedly not a difficult thing to do) by asking its English undergraduates to evaluate the proposition:‘"It's tragedy...Tragedy/ when you lose control and you got no soul, it's tragedy." John Kerrigan, the chair of examiners, defended the decision, claiming that the examiners ‘wanted to see how far tragedy survives into modernity’. He could quite easily have observed, close up, the tragic continuing into the modern, albeit rather shakily, by simply playing the track at any gathering of people (including me) who first danced to it in 1979. But he went on to make a more serious point which is worth considering:
"There are elements to the Bee Gees song that could have directed you to the great central canonical texts... where [Robin Gibb] sings `the feeling's gone and you can't go on' is a fair summary of the end of King Lear,"
No doubt a sizeable number of undergraduates will have agreed with Professor Kerrigan. But, is he right? Can we add the brothers Gibb to the likes of Hazlitt, Bradley, Rowse, TS Eliot and Dover Wilson, as penetrating critics of Shakespeare’s most demanding text? And, if it applies to this tragedy, does it apply to ‘Othello’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Hamlet’?
The closer you scrutinise the lyrics the more you see that (leaving aside the conventions of Shakespearean tragedy for a moment) the tragedy in ‘King Lear’ is not so much the absence of feeling as the abundance of it: these characters ‘feel’ too much and that, to some extent, explains the drama of the text. Of course, as we sit in our theatre seats (or in our classrooms) we want this exaggerated - even extreme - outpouring of raw emotion to wash over and through us; we want the language to ‘blow its cheeks’, to exhilaratingly reach into every part of our conscious and unconscious selves, affecting us in turn. I believe we also flatter ourselves by being both able to empathise with the sheer human-ness on view, and also to remove ourselves from its worst excesses, always believing, possibly, that we are capable of such monumental responses if we are given the right (or wrong) circumstances.
Above all, we want to be moved, and what we don’t want is a void, or an absence. Of course, there’s no danger of ‘King Lear’ doing that. In ‘Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human’, Harold Bloom argues that the most important emotion in the play is love. He writes that Lear ‘is loveable, loving, and greatly loved’; he goes on to argue that ‘Shakespeare's intimation is that the only authentic love is between parents and children; yet the prime consequence of such love is only devastation’. That which should provide succour provides nothing of the sort, and it is because of the intensity of the love that we see its limitations, and, in turn, are reminded of the borders - the cliffs - across which we cannot step. Lear’s famous speech about women in Act IV scene 6 (‘Down from the waist they are Centaurs...’) springs not from a lack of feeling, but from an inability to stop thinking, and thinking dark thoughts, about the inevitability of disappointment (‘the pity of it’ as Othello says, despairingly, to Iago). Lear wants his imagination ‘sweetened’, but not necessarily stopped. And the same is true in the other tragedies: each of the eponymous heroes are driven to their fates not because ‘the feeling’s gone’, and not even because, as the Bee Gees sing later in the chorus, no one loves them (in fact, each came to realise how loved they were). No, they decide not to ‘go on’ because we are all, at the end, alone, goin’ nowhere. Our tragedy, as Shakespeare shows us, is that we continue to feel right up to the end. Macbeth realised this, but went further, grasping at that elusive dagger of mortality, concluding that it signified ‘nothing’. At different stages of our lives we are Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Lear, but they knew that the feeling has only ever really gone when we are no longer alive. It is what makes us human, all too human.
Cambridge School Shakespeare editor Dr David James is an experienced teacher, Director of IB, former head and author of student study guides.
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