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Friday, April 30, 2010

William Shakespeare

How should we bring to a close our month-long celebration of April as National Poetry Month? We can’t go wrong if we turn to William Shakespeare, who is, in the opinion of many, the finest writer of the English language.

The lines below are from
King Lear, the greatest of his tragedies. Reflecting Shakespeare’s keen understanding of human nature and his poetic mastery, they are the final words spoken by Lear at the death of his beloved daughter Cordelia.

A legendary monarch of England, King Lear is an old man now. He foolishly decides to bequeath his kingdom to the daughters who love him the most. The elder two are fulsome in their expressions of affection. But Cordelia, his youngest, will not follow their example of insincere flattery. She tells him, in all honesty, that “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more no less.”

Enraged, the king banishes her from his sight.

He soon sees that he has made a fatal choice. Having won their inheritance, his two elder daughters abandon him in a storm and leave him to his enemies.

He does reconcile with Cordelia, only to see his enemies first capture and then execute her. Holding her dead body, Lear weeps in heartrending anguish:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

But she is truly dead.

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.

He cries out:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

Lear dies of his grief.

No one understood the power of poetry better than William Shakespeare.

Tomorrow, we begin to look at poems that celebrate the merry month of May, to use a popular phrase from Shakespeare’s time.

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