Lear Among the Young

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window 'd raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these?
(III. IV. 35 ff)

OUT OF THE SILENCE of a high-school classroom the tragic word is spoken, and, if the teacher is right in his conjectures, it is also heard. The poor naked wretches of the world are all of them, everybody. They did not know it before, but they know it now because they have heard it spoken. Without the word, they might never have guessed it, or, if they had guessed it, it would have been for them only one more unspoken thing among many other unspoken things that they carried around inside the worlds they were. Once spoken, the word of their nakedness and wretchedness is a shattering word. They are young and full of lunch and full of hope and clothed in the beauty that it is to be young, and thus of all people they are in a way the least naked, the least wretched; but the word out of the old play tells them for a moment otherwise. It speaks in a way they cannot avoid hearing for themselves, which is the awesome power of words because, although there are times when they shield us from reality, at other times they assail us with it. The play tells them that life is a pitiless storm and that they are as vulnerable to it as Lear himself, not just in the sense that youth grows old and beauty fades but in the sense that youth and beauty themselves are vulnerable — their heads are houseless, their youth itself a looped and windowed raggedness and as inadequate to the task of sheltering them as their teacher's middle-aged urbanity is to the task of sheltering him. The word out of the play strips them for a moment naked and strips their teacher with them and to that extent Shakespeare turns preacher because stripping us naked is part of what preaching is all about, the tragic part.

- Originally published in Telling The Truth