King Lear (1605) and MacBeth (1606)
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
When the human narrative has power descending directly from God to His human representatives on earth via the divine right of kings, the consequences can be particularly devastating for both the king and his subjects. Let us focus on two of the kings most familiar to us in all of the literature of the theatre, Shakespeare’s Lear and Macbeth. In our definition of worldview (beliefs, attitudes and values) notice the importance of what most of us believe to be the truth in P-B but almost never is.
Because it is so enamored of power, the false self loves to project that illusion of power by bestowing it upon others. In King Lear, Lear has trouble letting go as he endeavors to hand over both property and power to his two “favored” daughters and withhold it from his youngest. As the false-self energy centers of all the players become energized, the intrigue and violence are predictable. The aftermath results in the deaths of all the daughters and many others as they lose control of the whirlwind of power.
Now let’s examine in greater detail the influence of P-B on the behavior of our protagonist King Lear and in doing so, gain insights into our own behavior. He is, in a sense, Everyman because he prefers “pleasant appearances to troubling realities.”[i] Like Lear, we tend to live in the denial of the unsustainable future that we unwittingly choose each moment of each day. Pretending it is not happening allows us to avoid taking responsibility and in turn allows us to continue to rely on the survival strategy that we took so long to create and are much more comfortable with. Continued denial has its price as Lear found out and we will too. “Lear has violated nature by a culpable ignorance of it. The result is familial discord, physical suffering, and existential confusion.”[ii]
Even the hapless king hits bottom and experiences the insight that extreme pain can trigger. “Lear comes to a knowledge of himself and of his community with all humanity that he had never achieved amid the glories of power.”[iii] Hope springs eternal for King Lear and for us. We can choose to make the fundamental changes necessary to avoid the extreme suffering portrayed in Lear’s story.
Having accepted P-B as the context in which to build our future, humanity has guaranteed an unfolding and continual disaster. Ironically, accepting the reality of P-B and taking personal responsibility for our individual roles in changing it is much easier than living in this madness.
Speaking of madness … turning to Macbeth we can continue to admire Shakespeare’s insight into the basic motives driving human behavior and how we can all get caught up in the insanity of P-B. Macbeth, like Lear, has succumbed to the temptation of acquiring and wielding power. The twin illusions of power and control come in the same package and together they inevitably create immense human suffering. “He [Macbeth] knows what he is doing, but his agonizing reflections show a man increasingly out of control of his own moral destiny.”[iv] In seeking power and control in the context of P-B we ironically lose the control we seek. This simple insight explains the madness of self-destruction.
Lady Macbeth, an accomplice in the violence that Macbeth uses to become king, also becomes a victim of her own aspirations. “[It] is she who falls victim to the physical manifestations of remorse and literally dies of guilt.”[v]
We cannot help but notice as we begin to awaken to the effects of P-B on human behavior that there is an inverse relationship between freedom and power. “As his crimes increase, Macbeth’s freedom seems to decrease, but his moral responsibility does not. His actions become more cold-blooded as his options disappear.”[vi] Authentic power can only be attained in the context of P-A; and with it comes true freedom, the freedom of living in the present moment.
Nothing is what it seems in P-B. We stagger about, unaware that our senses are delivering information that deludes us into thinking that we know what reality is. The problem is that “reality” is determined by the context in which it occurs. If we who are receiving the information do not know where we are, who we are or why we are here having this experience called life, then we cannot help but be in a continuous state of reaction, resisting life as it is, and thereby creating for ourselves endless suffering.
Shakespeare understood the importance of the influence of a profound story on the experience his characters were having. “Indeed if it can be said that one theme preoccupies Shakespeare more than any other it is that of perception. Both Othello and King Lear are perfect representatives of the tragic consequences of the inability to see. Hindered by their egos [false selves] they act in their own small worlds, oblivious to the reality that demands recognition. When they fail to take the real into account, whether it is the nature of evil or their own limitation, they must pay the full cost—their lives.”[vii] Another way to characterize the consequences of not “taking the real (P-A) into account,” is to say that a tragic outcome is certain before the final curtain comes down.
[i] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 444.
[iv] Ibid., page 487.
[vii] Ibid., page 561.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.