Robert Cotner, Editor


he music above is among the most eloquent given us by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). It is a portion of his “Ode to Joy,” in the fourth movement of his Ninth (and final) Symphony (1824). One critic observed that this music, along with his other last works, “are among the most extraordinary achievements of mankind.” This final symphony and its final movement are my favorite musical compositions.

I thought of them the other day when I read a comment by David Sayre in his splendid book, Something There Is: “In the context of…universal love, one is drawn to consider the possibility of a continuity of individual consciousness.” Shortly after that, I happened to hear — a feat Beethoven himself never achieved, because he was totally deaf when he wrote the Ninth Symphony — “the Ode to Joy,” and I thought of Beethoven’s consciousness coming to me through the sounds of his marvelous music. This was not just music: it was the mind, the consciousness of Beethoven, I was hearing.

Responding to, or rising above, might be more appropriate, the turmoil of his age, when the whole social order of Europe was being shaken by the French Revolution, Beethoven asserted that it is humankind’s destiny to be free. Adapting Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” to this music, Beethoven composed for solo and chorus this final piece, to say with the human voice what music alone might not proclaim: “All mankind are brothers.”

This same “continuity of individual consciousness” came to mind as I reread Shakespeare’s King Lear. Here is a play so full of the dramatist’s consciousness that it is as if I held the poet’s protoplasmic gray matter in my hands and felt the very pulse of Shakespeare’s thought throughout my own being. What does that consciousness reveal? — that extreme age may be not just a time of frailty but of madness; that life itself is not succored by love; that kingdoms indeed mirror the schizoid nature of leaders; that redemption is more than just a confession away.

I once heard Roy Battenhouse, noted Shakespeare scholar at Indiana University, call Shakespeare a christian writer. He could not have had King Lear in mind when he spoke. Lear exists on the very fringes of human understanding and acceptance. The character of King Lear is at once the most complex and the most baffling in the Shakespeare canon. He emerges from the heart of Shakespeare’s most mature consciousness, and I read and view King Lear with an awesome sense, which chills my own responses to the human condition.

The play is nearly impossible to perform and, as many have suggested, should be read only. It was my pleasure to see the great Christopher Plummer perform King Lear at the 2002 Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival, the centerpiece performance of the 50th Anniversary of that festival. Few people have been able to capture the tortured soul of ancient King Lear as did Plummer.

As always happens in great theatrical performances, another level of individual consciousness is attained through the acting of a master thespian. We hear Lear speak with the majesty of frail age, and we remember, long after the performance, the timbre and the passion of the actor’s voice, enlivening the printed word: “When we are born, we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools. This’s a good block./It were a delicate stratagem, to shoe/A troop of horse with felt: I’ll put ‘t in proof;/And then when I have stol’n upon these sons-in-law,/Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.” (Act IV vi)

And we carry with us — who knows how far — the play’s profound tragedy in the somber voice of Christopher Plummer, of the Lear’s final words, speaking of his beloved daughter in his madness: “And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!/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!” (Act V iii)

To what end is this “continuity of individual consciousness”? David Sayre speaks of the Whole Each Other as a suitable culmination to the human process. This is a reciprocal enterprise, through which we give and are given of humanity-sustaining, community-building, life-enriching experiences, such as we share through music, art, literature, and social gatherings, such as we’ve become accustomed to each month as Caxtonians.

Return to Caxtonian table of contents

Return to the Caxton Club home page