By Peter C. Herman
After you’ve destroyed the world, what comes next? That’s the choice Shakespeare faced after he wrote King Lear. That’s also the choice we face in the next presidential election.
Like Shakespeare after he finished his greatest tragedy, we stand at a crossroads. Shakespeare’s decision to shift from the catastrophes at the end of King Lear to the messy, qualified happy endings of the romances helps clarify what’s at stake depending on who gets elected on Nov. 3.
The arc of Shakespeare’s development follows a distinct pattern. Then as today, audiences came to the theater with certain expectations about comedy and tragedy. If the former, the plays would have happy ending, usually with a marriage, often several. If the latter, a great person would make a crucial mistake—Romeo and Juliet would defy the feud, Othello would trust the wrong person, Hamlet delays revenging his father’s murder—and they pay with their lives.
Usually, there’s a gesture toward recuperation and the possibility of a better future. In Romeo and Juliet, the families end the feud. In Othello, the bad guy, Iago, “this hellish villain,” is revealed for who he really is, and sentenced to a terrible death. And at the end of Macbeth, the usurper is removed, and Scotland returns to a semblance of political order.
But Shakespeare did not slavishly follow the rules. Instead, he took his audience’s expectations, pushed them to their limits, and then, broke them entirely. The comedies end with a marriage until we get Measure for Measure, where for the first time, the offer is refused. The Duke asks Isabella for her hand, she says nothing, and that’s the end of comedy for Shakespeare. Similarly, the tragedies get darker and darker until we get King Lear.
In the original sources, Cordelia returns with a French army, defeats her sisters, and restores Lear to the throne, where he eventually dies of old age. But in a move that must have shocked the first audience, Shakespeare changes the story. In his version, the good guys lose, Cordelia is hung, Lear dies deluded (he thinks Cordelia might be alive), and the crown becomes a hot potato nobody wants. Albany, the highest-ranking nobleman and so the person who by rights should step up and take the throne, asks both Kent and Edgar if they would together rule and “the gored state sustain.” Both say no. Kent claims he has another appointment (“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go / My master calls me, I must not say no”), and Edgar doesn’t really answer the question. Instead, he recites platitudes: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” never mind that’s what caused the catastrophe in the first place.
At the end of Lear, there is no recuperation. There is no redemption. There’s nothing, a word repeated endlessly in this play. No order. No hope. Pure nihilism.
So Shakespeare faced a crucial question: where does he go from here? Having broken tragedy, what’s next? Is there a next? Shakespeare’s response is nearly unprecedented in the history of art: he changed the rules of the game late in his career. He shifted keys, and came up with a solution that combined both comedy and tragedy. Late in the nineteenth century, critics gave this genre a name: romance.
In these plays, in particular, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare asks: what if a character goes through the tragic experience, and lives? What happens then? What if Richard II, Lear, Othello, and Hamlet didn’t die? What would they learn? What sort of a world would that be in which the wages of sin are not necessarily death?
The short answer is that Shakespeare gives these plays a qualified happy ending. In The Winter’s Tale, after sixteen years of repentance, Leontes gets his wife, Hermione, and daughter back, but not his son. The gods killed Mamillius as punishment for Leontes’ insane jealousy. And nobody gets back time. Looking at the “statue” of his wife (it’s actually her), he says, “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing / So aged as this seems.”
Similarly, in The Tempest, Prospero gets back his dukedom, the spirit, Ariel, gets his freedom, and Miranda, his daughter, gets married. Equally importantly, Prospero learns that a ruler must put ruling first. He cannot neglect worldly ends, delegating the business of state to his brother, and expect to remain Duke for long. But the ending is also shaded. Antonio, the usurper, never admits he was wrong; the “good old lord Gonzalo” may have helped Prospero survive, but he also put him on the boat that was supposed to kill him; it is not clear what happens with Caliban; and Prospero has to give up the magic he so dearly loves. Still, an older but wiser Prospero returns to Milan.
The question we face in November is whether the United States will follow Shakespeare’s example and replace Donald Trump with Joe Biden. Will voters choose a qualified happy ending to the nightmare of the last four years?
As in Shakespeare’s later plays, the damage Trump has inflicted is going to last a long, long time. Some will be permanent. The people who died of COVID-19 as a result of his refusing to take the pandemic seriously in its first months are not getting their lives back. The families destroyed, the lives blighted as a result of his border policies, are also not likely to recover. Then there’s the damage to the environment, which again may be too late to reverse, and the damage to political discourse by the proliferation of conspiracy theories. After birtherism and QAnon, what forgiveness?
The best we can hope for is to echo the qualified endings of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. We can make things better, but not perfect. Joe Biden is a decent man, in many ways the exact opposite of Donald Trump. But like Leontes, he has considerable baggage (remember Anita Hill?), and he does not have the love of the progressives, the most passionate and engaged part of the Democratic Party. Also, it is not clear if Biden’s response to the protests and riots following police violence sufficiently rise to the moment.
Nonetheless, if we elect Joe Biden, America will have a chance to “redeem all sorrows,” to quote Lear. But even if Biden wins, Donald Trump is not going away. The Trumpist party (once known as the “Republican Party”), like Antonio, may be forced to give up power if they lose the election, but they haven’t admitted fault, and they threaten to sabotage Biden’s agenda just as they did Barack Obama’s. We also have deal with the fact that millions of Americans accept malign fantasies as fact, preferring to believe memes rather than scientists and doctors.
Or America re-elects Donald Trump, and we are stuck in the end of King Lear, a bleak universe in which there is no morality, the gods do not answer, and nobody responsible wants to rule.
Peter C. Herman, professor of literature at San Diego State University, has published numerous scholarly books on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism as well as articles for Salon, Inside Higher Ed, and Times of San Diego.