Archive for May 8, 2008

Servant’s “Bit Part” in King Lear

Braveheart comes to mind when I think of the valiant efforts of western foreigners who are trying to make sense of our duties as university teachers in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  For those who have watched the three hours starring Mel Gibson, the major role he plays of William Wallace has you saying aloud in your head what Wallace yells at the end as he is drawn and quartered.  “Freedom!!!” 


Perhaps Braveheart may be easier to watch than reading Leo Tolstoy’s monolithic masterpiece of War and Peace concerning marriage, unity and disunity.  Fortunately, I have the long holiday weekend to plow through all 1455 pages of Tolstoy’s writings.  Maybe I’ll come to a better understanding about our teaching situation by the end of it.  I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina while I was teaching in China from 1986-88 and understood my Norwegian grandpa better who gave it to me.  Reading Tolstoy will be a major event for me, I’m accountable to my blog audience to achieve this goal.


Reading C.S. Lewis and his interpretation of King Lear got me to think about our institution of higher learning.  My Mom sized up our situation the other day in her concise way: It seems to me that it is hard enough to get along with people in the education business here in America but then to throw in people from many different cultures and make the mix work must be a real problem.”  Yes, that is it in a nutshell, unfortunately we are interfacing with people from various cultures who do not cope well with our present reality.  They are either dealing with their own past dysfunction or have grandiose ideas (read visionary) about the future.  See if Shakespeare’s King Lear character with a “bit part” according to C.S. Lewis, casts some light on our troublesome situation:


“…the idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience.  And it is a myth which distracts us from our real duties and our real interest.  It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters.  But how can the characters ina play guess the plot?  We are not the playwright, we are not the producer, we are not even the audience.  We are on the stage.  To play well the scenes in which we are ‘on’ concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it…


In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely ‘First Servant’.  All the characters around him – Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund – have fine, long term plans.  They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong.  The servant has no such delusions.  He has no notion how the play is going to go.  But he understands the present scene.  He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place.  He will not stand it.  His sword is out and pointed as his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind.  That is his whole part: eight lines all told.  But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.”


I’m reminded of Job’s words, along with Braveheart’s, from 13:15, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him, Even so I will defend my own ways before Him.”

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