We started reading King Lear in my English classes this week. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and also one of his darkest, and the overlap in those categories shouldn’t be a surprise. Like most pessimists, I don’t enjoy being miserable, but I’m deeply suspicious of anything too cheerful, any message that tells me exactly what I want to hear to make me feel good about the world. Lear is perfection in that regard. People suffer, and they make others suffer even more because of it, and then everyone suffers even more than that for no reason at all. And what’s even worse—yes! it gets worse!—is that while most Shakespearean tragedies end with a lesson learned (Ambition is deadly! Jealousy is poison! Quit it with the silly family feud already!), Lear ends with the survivors broken by the weight of the devastation around them. Surrounded by bodies, Edgar utters the play’s last lines:
The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
I hate to be the even-darker lining on an already-dark cloud, Edgar, but you got it wrong. The oldest hath borne much, indeed, but unless humanity takes a radically different turn, you who are young shall likely see so much more.
The great thing about working with high schoolers is that very few texts you teach in an English class are too dark for their tastes. We’re constantly giving trigger warnings and trying to set up safe spaces and worrying that they’ll be traumatized by reading a book where bad things happen, but come on, they live in the world; they already know. When we started reading Lear and I warned them of the play’s relentless bleakness, I swear they sat up a bit more in their chairs and leaned forward. These are the moments you cherish as a teacher.
I write this on the twentieth anniversary of an actual tragic event because it’s often easier to deal with fictional tragedy. All the feels, none of the loss. That’s cynical me speaking, of course; less flippant me wonders what this play has to do with this day and why I keep coming back to those sad last lines.
I imagine that twenty years from now, maybe one of the students I taught from the Class of 2021 will think back to this time and reminisce about The Year We Missed Out On Everything. Perhaps they’ll even broaden it to The Four Years Everyone Was Angry And Depressed All The Time. Their kids, if they have any, may try to nod politely at first but eventually sigh and eyeroll because they’ve heard this too many times to muster good manners yet again. They won’t understand. How could they? They didn’t go through it.
Except that their kids do understand, just as they themselves understand right now what the whole 9-11-01 business is about even though they had not yet been born. Because as much as I wish it weren’t true, by 2041 there will be something else we feel we can’t forget. Maybe the reason not to forget isn’t because of what happened itself but in the hopes that it remains shockingly singular. Most days, even good days, are forgotten. To forget a day deemed tragic could mean not that we don’t care but that we can’t care—because something else has demanded that place in our memory.
And so, ironically, Edgar’s words may yet be the most optimistic way this play can end. We can only hope we have borne more than our share.