It’s one of the most gut-piercing scenes ever to be enacted on the theatrical stage. An old man, bleary-eyed and half-naked in an ancient English heath, rages against a pitiless storm: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”
His shrieking at the cutting rain is unworthy of his royal pedigree, for he is a king: King Lear. And if we could match every year to a Shakespeare play, 2020 would undoubtedly be a “King Lear” type of year.
“Lear” is the greatest tragedy ever written, because it’s so damned tragic. Schoolchildren are taught “Romeo and Juliet” and even “Hamlet,” but fewer teachers dare go near “Lear.” From its hopeful opening, which finds a royal father planning to magnanimously bestow his kingdom upon his three daughters, to its bloody end, where nearly every meaningful character lies dead, the Bard is unsparing.
The play was so dark that for more than 150 years, eminent critics like Samuel Johnson approved Nahum Tate’s rewritten happy ending. Johnson admitted he couldn’t re-read the last crushing scenes until the work of editing Shakespeare’s collected works forced him to do it.
And America’s 2020, as I say, was a “Lear” type of year. No, it didn’t feature a revolutionary or civil war. There were bread lines, but not as bad as the Great Depression’s. Nor did 2020 pile up the body counts of World War II. Even our social unrest, bad as it was, didn’t reach the militant lows of the 1960s.
Still, 2020 did have a paralyzing pandemic that consumed lives, destroyed jobs and shuttered businesses. The violence of riots was surpassed only by the vitriol of the mind, manifested in critical race theory, cancel culture and unapologetic censorship. As hatred abounded, and mercy was in short supply, there was no lack of cultural storms and bodies strewn about the stage; 2020, too, was unsparing.
But returning to “King Lear,” it’s instructive — and deeply heartening — to know that there can be great light amid darkness, hope in the presence of tragedy. An often-ignored scene in “Lear” reminds us of this enduring truth. Lear, in the crashing storm, has been betrayed by two of his daughters. His friends have abandoned him. He has lost his sense, never mind his kingly comforts.
Worse, his conscience torments him over his treatment of his one honest daughter, Cordelia, who loves him, though pride and misunderstanding led him to banish her.
As the storm subsides and his other, wicked daughters continue to pursue Lear’s life, Cordelia (now the queen of France) rescues her father. The scene of their reconciliation, the sheer grace a wronged daughter visits upon her shamed father, is so poignant that it nearly rivals Christ’s Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Upon reuniting with his once-lost daughter, and notwithstanding the perils that are to come, Lear abounds in joy. Even as the two are captured and facing harsh imprisonment, he comforts Cordelia. Lear’s joy doesn’t fade: “No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage. . . . And take upon’s the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies.”
Grace enters Lear’s bloodstained world, suddenly, in a moment’s reconciliation. It’s almost like, well, Christmas, when, we Christians believe, the creator of the universe entered human history as a baby — that most joyous arrival — to reconcile humankind to himself.
In the year 2020, as we arrive at Christmas, we likewise have reason for great hope and sublime joy. While the storm wracks mercilessly outside, let’s find what Pope Francis calls “the joy [that] may reach the ends of the earth, illuminating even the fringes of our world.”
Let’s discover what Saint Paul calls “the peace that passes all understanding” — the peace of the divine-child in Bethlehem, who promises reconciliation between God and man.
We can find enduring joy like Lear’s, even and especially in this pandemic- and riot-battered moment in American history, by being open to the graces of the season. Christmas is the hour of hope and the season of joy inextinguishable.
Tod Worner is a practicing physician and the managing editor of Bishop Robert Barron’s Evangelization & Culture, the journal of the Word on Fire Institute.