Lear’s Storm

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(HOST) Since Hurricane Katrina and with hurricane season still very much with us, Commentator Peter Gilbert has been thinking about Shakespeare’s play King Lear.

(GILBERT) In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, a horrific storm hits. Lear stands in the open, on the heath, and cries out for the storm to do its worst:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” [he says]. “Rage, blow, you cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.”

Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans flooding didn’t cover church steeples or submerge weathervanes, but the destruction was as cataclysmic as that which Lear invokes.

Lear had been an arrogant king, more vain than wise, preferring the flattery of his two eldest daughters to the loving honesty of his youngest daughter, Cordelia. But, turned out of his own house by his ungrateful daughters, Lear comes, in the end, to see himself more clearly. He learns humility. He learns the importance of caring about – and caring for – those less fortunate than he.

Lear urges his companion, the fool, to take shelter from the storm in a small hovel. When the fool goes inside, Lear stays outside a bit longer, and prays for the homeless poor everywhere:

“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
from seasons such as these?”

Lear then acknowledges his own failure to pay attention to those who have the least. “O, I have ta’en too little care of this!” he says. He urges the vain and pompous to cure themselves by exposing themselves “to what wretches feel” so that they will become more charitable.

I’ve long found this passage one of the most moving in all of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s words suggest that we should not insulate ourselves from suffering but rather share the suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves. The passage also shows the power of literature to reflect the transformative power of human experience and the potential for personal change.

After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Vermonters donated money and food to the homeless and hungry, and clothing to those dressed in “windowed raggedness.” Regardless of what becomes of Hurricane Rita, now gaining strength in the Gulf, we know that time will inevitably bring other catastrophes that will cry out and remind us to care for “the least of these.” In doing so, we not only help others, but also, as King Lear understood, we help heal ourselves.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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