King lear as parent


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A Sermon by Dean Scotty McLennan

University Public Worship

Stanford Memorial Church

August 9, 2009

There's a lot of language in today's gospel lessoni about parents. People ask, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" Jesus speaks about "the Father who sent me," his heavenly Father: "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me." The primary message that Jesus brings to humankind is that a new kind of love -- an unconditional love of the sort we associate with an ideal mother or father. The Greek word is agape, and it's different from eros (romantic love) and philia (friendship).ii As historian of religion Huston Smith has written, Jesus modeled a special parental kind of love -- like that which "begins in infancy, where a mother's initial unilateral loving smile awakens love in her baby and...continues into childhood, [where] a loving human being is not produced by exhortations, rules and threats." Instead, "Love only takes root in children when it comes to them -- initially and most importantly from nurturing parents."iii

The apostle Paul writes compellingly of this agape love, as often quoted now in weddings to help move couples' marital love beyond mere eros: "Love is patient, love is does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful...It bears all things...endures all things."iv

We have a compelling example of unconditional parental love in the Hebrew Bible story that Karen read about King David and Absalom.v The background is that Absalom was the third of David's seventeen sons,vi and for two years he was alienated from his father for having killed his brother, David's first-born, who had raped Absalom's sister. But finally David and Absalom are reunited, with David kissing him and forgiving him. However, four years later Absalom rebels against his father and tries to become king himself. He almost succeeds. David has to flee Jerusalem for his life. Ultimately, though, David's able to re-gather his troops and defeat the forces of Absalom.vii David specifically asks that Absalom not be killed, as we heard in this morning's reading, but he is, after Absalom's famously long hair gets caught in the thick branches of an oak tree as he rides under it. David's response is to weep and mourn for his child, crying out, "O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son."

Now there's unconditional parental love at its ultimate. Even after the king's son has rebelled against him, tried to take his throne, and has attempted to kill his father, as he previously killed his own brother, David still loves him unconditionally. He weeps for him, mourns for him, and wishes he had died instead of his son. "Love is patient, love is does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful... It bears all things...endures all things."viii

A very different story, but deeply instructional on parental love -- on unconditional agape love -- is that of Shakespeare's King Lear. As you may remember, the King of Britain in this play has three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. King Lear asks them which loves him most, as he's deciding about how to divide his kingdom among them in his old age. That's a bad start for a parent right there. Unconditional parental love does not have a most, nor expect a most. Goneril responds, "I love you more than word can wield the matter...As much as child e'er loved, or father found; A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable."ix Regan in turn claims, "[M]y sister...comes too short, that I profess Myself an enemy to all other joys...And find that I am alone felicitate in your dear Highness' love." Cordelia is the only one to speak honestly and truthfully: "[M]y lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me. I return those duties back as are right fit, Obey you, love you, and most honor you. [But] Why have my sisters husbands if they say They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty." King Lear's response is immediately to disinherit Cordelia: "Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower! ...Here I disclaim all my paternal care... And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this for ever."

Of course, it's Cordelia who turns out to be the loyal, loving daughter. By contrast, Goneril and Regan take everything from their father, even stripping him of all symbols of authority. As soon as she loses her inheritance, Cordelia is rejected by the Duke of Burgundy, who's been wooing her, but wants her dowry. Luckily, though, the King of France, finds his love for her "kindle[d] to inflamed respect" and asks her to become his queen. Later in the play, King Lear ends up staggering about outside in a raging storm, ultimately going mad. He's then tenderly ministered to by his daughter Cordelia, and they reconcile. But she's ultimately hung for treason, ostensibly as the French queen, on orders of the wicked commander-in-chief of the English forces, and King Lear himself then dies broken-hearted with Cordelia's body in his arms.

But here's the amazing thing. Cordelia never wavers throughout the whole play in her unconditional or agape love for her father -- the kind of love one would like to hope, instead, that a parent would have for a child. When she sees him in his insane state, she cries out, "He that help him take all my outward worth." She asks a doctor, [R]emediate in the good man's distress." Later, she kisses him awake with these words: "O my dear father, restoration hang Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss Repair those violent harms that my two sisters Have in thy reverence made." But when her father comes to consciousness and recognizes her as his daughter Cordelia, he exclaims, "If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have (as I do remember) done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not." Later, as he realizes that Cordelia still loves him deeply, he begins to reciprocate by saying, "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."

This Shakespearean play is set in pre-Christian England, for King Lear swears by Apollo and Jupiter in the first scene. But of course it was written and performed in the Christian England of the seventeenth century. So, it's fair to say that Shakespeare might have wanted King Lear to be seen as transformed from a petty, jealous, and resentful father into a parent who might well have understood the Apostle Paul's Christian concept of agape love, as demonstrated by his daughter Cordelia: "Love is patient, love is does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful... It bears all things...endures all things."

There's some evidence that Lear also eventually saw another dimension of agape love, often referred to as charity. (As an aside, you'll might notice after this service that Jane Stanford had both translations of agape put on the front of Memorial Church. Instead of just the three Christian virtues of which Paul spoke -- "Faith, hope and love abide, these three"x -- you'll find in the mosaics above the columns out front the four words faith, hope, love and charity). In the midst of the raging storm, King Lear begins to feel empathy with the poor and hungry and naked and homeless of his kingdom, realizing how little he's done for them as king: He cries out, "Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en Too little care of this!"

So there are critics who have claimed that Cordelia is a Christ-symbol, that the suffering in the play is ennobling, that the plot development demonstrates the power of repentance and personal transformation, and that this tragedy with its sad deaths is affirmative in spirit.xi At the very least, King Lear and Cordelia give us a powerful parental mirror image to King David and Absalom. The unconditionally loving child versus the unconditionally loving parent, with the other respective parent or child being ruled by ego-attachment, vainglory, and downright ill will. Jesus asked us not only to love our mother and father, and our neighbor, but even our enemy. What happens when your parent or your child becomes your enemy? How do you possibly love unconditionally through that? Well, King David and princess Cordelia show us the way. By patience, kindness, not insisting on our own way, and never becoming irritable or resentful. By understanding that true agape love bears all things and endures all things.


May the love which overcomes all differences, which heals all wounds,

Which puts to flight all fears, which reconciles all who are separated,

Be in us and among us now and always. AMEN.

Frederick E. Gillis

i John 6:35, 41-51.

ii Jonathan Z. Smith (ed.), HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 32. For a fuller definition of these three terms, see Alexander Moseley, "Philosophy of Love," in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006),

iii Huston Smith, The World's Religions (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), p. 334.

iv I Corinthians 13: 4-7.

v 2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33.

vi 1 Chronicles 3: 1-9.

vii See 2 Samuel 3: 2-5; Chapters 13-18.

viii I Corinthians 13: 4-7.

ix All quotations are from William Shakespeare, King Lear (New York: Penguin, 1970).

x I Corinthians 13: 13.

xi Alfred Harbage, "Introduction," to the 1970 Penguin edition of King Lear, p. 18.


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