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Author of this essay:

Yao Xiang Shakya
(April 6, 2014)

King Lear’s Retirement Plan: A BAD, MAD ‘SELFIE’
by Yao Xiang Shakya

Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear begins, plays out and ends reeking with the stench of deadly trouble. All the ghastly envy and jealously, the dire madness and soaring body count rest on this King’s desire for a carefree and burnished lifestyle. His story, though old, is relevant and germane to the current aging of America. Beware! This caution is not to be taken lightly, for aging comes to us all and although most of us are not kings nor queens, we still may desire a way of life in our advancing years that lifts our burdens and allows us to live and play without worry. Perhaps Shakespeare understood a deeply rooted and universal wish to live a life free of worry and concern leaving us to do as we wish whenever we wish. Old age, our advancing decrepitude gives us a sense of urgency and our last opportunity to make this dream come true, often with frightful consequences.

Shakespeare’s message must be in essence this singular warning: BEWARE OF WHAT YOU WISH FOR!

Buddha, the great sage of India, points out the truth: BEWARE! YOUR DREAMS ARE DELUSIONS!

The first Noble Truth, may spring to mind as we contemplate the strident, clamor of this King’s braying for what he wants. But more importantly, the First Noble Truth halts those of us who tend to come up with schemes and strategies to find paradise in the material world no matter what our age. When we listen and take to heart that the truth of the material world is fraught with suffering, no matter what status or age, it tends to pop us out of the delusion of our dreams.

Unruffled by thoughtless dreams and restrained by moderation we are able to seize the Buddha’s vigilant admonitions about aging-

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is now way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no escape from being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

These certainties, perhaps more than anything else, are five fears that are shared universally. King Lear is no exception. Not one wants to grow old, get sick, and die. But each one of us will. Not one wants to lose those we love, things we cherish and treasure, but we will. And very few want to honestly assess life against all our deeds.

These five daily recollections in Buddhism are allegedly the five recognitions of Shakyamuni when he was still young, robust and a Prince of the Shakya clan. Don’t wait to recall these truths when memory fails and the body is frail.

These five truths are at least part of what influenced Siddartha Gotama to leave his young wife and his newly born son in search of a Way to end these universal fears. We are encouraged to recall these five truths every day. They are known as: The Five Remembrances.

Whether we like these truths or not, we, like Siddartha, generally ‘react’ to these certainties in attempt to escape them. It might be fair to say many of us react against them. When we notice the inevitable aging of body and mind we make many attempts to conceal the unavoidable in so many ways that we can’t keep track of them. Our health care system, as cock-eyed as it sometimes seems to be, is a fierce example of extraordinary reactions to getting sick. As most know, health care costs skyrocket at the end of life. ‘Extraordinary means’ to stay-alive kicks into gear and every possible attempt is made to ward off death. Dead bodies, particularly in the Western world, are hidden from view. Cremation conceals the corpse. Loss of everything dear to us mostly comes as a shock. And the final remembrance of deeds as our inheritance is often shaded from full sun assessment since we tend to blame others for our failures and claim victory for our successes.

We are misaligned with both absolute reality as well as the mundane truths so clearly put in these five daily remembrances. They are fears and we naturally want to escape them. A common reaction to an encouragement to recall these five remembrances daily is that it is ‘morbid’ and discouraging. Actually, what is off-center and a cockamamie practice is to ignore them, to react against them in such a way that we think we can escape them. Ignorance is ignorance no matter how it manifests itself. We need to be aware of both the ignorance of the mundane as well as the ignorance of the absolute.

King Lear offers us a look at the trouble that may come about when a man, an aging monarch, fails to dispassionately recognize the intrinsic and arduous nature of the material world, not just for him but for all sentient beings.

Still with property and power, Lear headlong sets out his retirement plan before the Lords of his court. Although there is a paltry gesture of generosity, it is merely a flattery of virtue before his kinsmen and servants. It’s a show steeped in self-praise and self-reverence. The body count in this tragedy is offensive, the betrayals pervasive and the disappointments lead to bone-penetrating madness. And yet, each vulgar act stems from this old man’s retirement plan. The coarse ignorance of Lear rests in his failure to consider these five fears as truths as a mortal man and as a fading sovereign.

In the first act, in the very first scene we see the multifarious problems of Shakespeare’s aging regent, King Lear. He is old, he no longer wants to lead as King as he ‘crawls towards’ his own death, he wants to divest his fortune as well as the burdens of rule between his three adult daughters. Although Lear has already decided that to divide his property is in his best interest for a ‘carefree’ retirement, he insists that each daughter respond in public to his question, “Who is it that says they love us?” Lear’s constant referral to himself as “we” and “us” is a clear indication of his strong identification as the royal “we.” He is long accustomed to the majestic and powerful address which he lays claim to as ‘who’ he is. All of this in the first few minutes of the play!

The details of his particular troubles are not so much the showpiece of an aging ruler to whom, like all of us, lose to aging, sickness and death. No, the showpiece lives and beats as Lear’s pride and joy in his own chest. It is none other than Lear’s hardened view of himself as King. And this King, although a man, and perhaps because of his kingship, is incapable of Self-sufficiency (Awakened-mind). Power and position in his case is not an example of cream rising to the top. In fact, that he is a King merely emphasizes the destructive power of ignorance when coupled with an inability to be Self-sufficient (Awakened-mind). But we must bring mercy to the table as we discuss this King, who reminds us of ourselves in so many ways. Lear suffers. And he suffers from ignorance.

But we need to be more precise regarding his ignorance as we must be for our self.

King Lear suffers from ‘subjectivism’ that human and common disorder shared by those who need and desire an audience. A subject, although in this case a King, needs something or someone to find self-fulfillment. This need is an indication of the absence of a spiritual stronghold. This need to be seen and recognized socially seems to plague mankind. It is on the rise as evident of the 2013 new word added to the Oxford dictionary, “selfie” which is defined as a digital photograph taken by one’s own hand and shared on various social media. “Look at me!” might be our new slogan.

Subjectivism is commonplace and yet, it is rarely discussed and even less is it a topic of holy sermons and holy directions. Although Lear declares ‘he is old’ he in no way means that he accepts the fact of the exactitude of aging on his body and mind. We learn that this dispossession of property in no way includes a dispossession of his need for recognition and power. He wants to be a ‘carefree’ king, loved, adored and powerful but without any responsibility. This dispossession of property and responsibility is a human condition but Lear fails to see where to offer this burden. He wants a retiree’s dream. He wants his children to take care of him in the way he wants and deserves. At the beginning of the play he is completely blind to the reality of an inner world, a spiritual kingdom. Those of us in reality might be asking, “WHAT was he thinking?” But let’s remember, those suffering arrogance, pride and power often lose their wits in dreams.

Lear’s predicament is relevant to the aging world even today. Many, and those who are often foolhardy, want to divest themselves of property and responsibility much like Lear as they sense the decline of both body and mind. Instead of waiting until death takes them, they want, like Lear, no responsibility of property and position but want to retain a proper love and respect from grateful children, grateful others. Like Lear they fail to see all that is in their care is given which presupposes their ignorance of a giver.

The growth in the promise of retirement as an ‘active, carefree lifestyle’ is highly advertised usually with a promise of comfort and love through failing memory and into assisted care. Retirement plans that promise to take care of everything. Lear’s retirement plan seems to reflect the same sentiment. He wants to be active, carefree, honored and looked after as he wishes. Security, safety and refuge are the peddler’s hype.

On the personal ego level, Lear senses his weakening by age and perhaps even illness and seeks to part from the responsibilities and burdens as King but does not in any way want to deprive himself of being the royal “we.” He devises a ‘retirement’ plan that rests on filial affection which he is quite willing to reward with all of his kingly possessions. But there is a serious flaw which he somehow overlooks, two of his three daughters barely tolerate him and certainly do not love him. They are willing, however, to pronounce their laudable devotion publicly in flowery, lofty words. His youngest daughter, whom Lear loves and cherishes far more than the elder two, is unable to proclaim and boast her devotion. Her true filial affection is not impressive to the gentlemen of the court. She admits a ‘balanced’ love for her father but makes clear to him and all those in earshot that she has room to love others as well. Lear is unable to see and hear this true affection even when it is spoken to him to his face. He cannot see it since it does not match what he “himself’ desires and therefore banishes this ‘true’ daughter from any of her inheritance. This scene nails Lear for we see that his relationship to ‘himself’ is the most pronounced.

Lear is a man who steps onto the stage and displays his dependence and neediness for courtly ceremony and for his daughters to declare their love for him above all else. This parade and demand in a public, formal procedure highlights Lear’s captivity to himself, and nothing but himself. The elder daughters, who have contempt for this old man, fulfill his need with glowing, albeit false, words of love, honor and devotion. Cordelia loses her inheritance as she is unable to deliver a glowing love of devotion. Lear’s inner attachment to his need for objects that please his frustrated subjectivism leads to madness and murder, not just for himself but for those close at hand. After all, Lear’s influence is that of a King, he swings and when he swings it stretches across his court. He is, after all, showing all those present, including the audience, that he is ill, not from age or dementia, but from a longstanding spiritual malady.

We, many of us, until we are liberated from this malingering illness of a relationship with the self, also suffer from this spiritual malady. We seek fulfillment and sufficiency in objects of all kinds. We do not want to be alone. Many of us can’t stand to be alone. As we watch Lear bounce between his two elder daughters we watch a man who is not Self-sufficient de-compensate into a mad, roaming old man in the moors of England.

Lear soon discovers the speciousness of his two elder daughter’s proclamation of love. The property once divided and given is eaten bread soon forgotten. His daughters display and then demand that Lear ‘get in line’ according to their way of life. Disappointment and disenchantment of not getting what he wants begin to shake Lear to the marrow. He enters confusion and despair which at first glance may appear harsh, even deserved but in the spiritual realm are all part and parcel of spiritual change. His longstanding relationship to “himself” weakens as his daughters reap his harvest. The Fool, who is his close companion, reminds Lear that ‘he has given all his other titles away...' and so he is left with the only reasonable and appropriate one, a fool. Not yet free from his familiar attachment to ‘himself’ Lear can’t hear such words, such truth very clearly and in time his confusion appears to set into madness.

There is plenty of collateral damage from Lear’s pension plan in this o so down-to-earth play. Only the Self-sufficient and even ‘Christ-like’ characters are left standing. Those crazed by the same malady of Lear, that most vicious and poisonous relationship with “himself” take revenge, avenge and deceive until they die either from each other’s hand or their own. And Lear, how does Lear fair from his retirement dream. Surprisingly, he begins to awaken. He declares more assuredly that he is “old and a fool,” as he holds the dead body of his dearest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia. In a small turn, he sees her worth as they both stand vanquished by a usurper of earthly power. Lear gives an indication of some release from his most torturous relationship, the one with ‘himself.’ His attempt to hearten his daughter as they are to be led away to prison, now inmates of defeat, he says to Cordelia:

Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, pacts and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th' moon.

Near his own end and hers, he sees differently and no longer asks to be revered but to bless and be forgiven. He sees her as a person in her own right and not merely a reflection of his personal need. And seeks to pray and sing and laugh as he sees a gap between himself and the material world of 'who loses' and 'who wins.' And as 'God's spies' they will look at the mystery of things and dispassionately accept the ebb and flow of the material world which includes them both.

There is a triumph and victory of greater things than court and daughters' affection, of carefree retirement and prevailing honor. No escape, no escape is the refrain in the five remembrances. Self-sacrifice, willingly or not, is inevitable; to what, to whom do we sacrifice our relationship to our "selfie?" What will it take to do it consciously?

Humming Bird