King Lear
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See better, Lear

by Charles Shaughnessy

In Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy about an arrogant King who divides his kingdom amongst avaricious daughters, King Lear’s advisor, Kent, advises him to think carefully about his actions. Lear has just scorned the one daughter who actually cares about him in favor of her dissembling sisters. The Duke of Kent advises him not to think more clearly, but to “see better.” Later in the play, the Duke of Gloucester has his eyes put out, but only after he has been fooled into condemning his loyal son through a fabricated message he has been given to read. It is only after his capacity to read is taken from him, that he is able to “see” the truth.

In high school, my English teacher was a provocateur. By that I mean he enjoyed challenging our young, fertile minds by deliberately goading us to critically analyze everything he told us. He would often come up with unorthodox interpretations of plays or books and dare us to refute his arguments. Citing the two examples above, he insisted that Shakespeare was using this play as a warning against the relatively new, printing press!

Plays, Mr. Dixon explained, along with all oral, storytelling traditions had survived through word of mouth. Reading and writing were the exclusive provinces of a very small number of people, mostly monks, while everyone else heard their news, learned their histories, exchanged their gossip, by speaking and hearing it.

Since we all know how unreliable our “word” is, there has always been an implicit understanding that we should take anything we hear “with a pinch of salt.” From the beginning of time, human beings have understood that you can’t believe everything people tell you. We know that humans are apt to exaggerate, color, edit or simply lie.

A good storyteller is one who can hear a story and then embellish it with imagery, detail and relevance to his audience.

The spoken word could be taken as an indication of the truth or the intent of the speaker, but only a foolish man would “take it to the bank” without some kind of collateral or ancillary proof. The phrase, “my word is my bond,” really meant something when one’s honor was seen as a valuable asset, and one not to be toyed with lightly.

Outside of such courtly protocols, trust was hard won. Before anyone made a momentous decision based on someone else’s word, they were well advised to have a “Plan B.”

That all seemed to change when we began to read. We seem to process what we read differently from what we hear. There is an implicit “gravitas” or weight to the printed word. Perhaps it is because reading and writing had to be learned, and required more effort than oral communication, that we give more credence to what we read, but we are apt to trust the written word far more than what we hear.

How many times, when confronted by a measure of skepticism, have we silenced the “doubting Thomas” by declaring conclusively: “It must be true, I read it!” Even now, at a time when news organizations are nothing more than political (and therefore inherently biased) mouthpieces, we place unreasonable trust in what they print. Indeed, our newspapers and magazines today can trace a direct lineage to the propagandist pamphlets and circulars rolled out since the day Guttenberg opened for business.

The Internet has expanded Herr Guttenberg’s audience at a rate even he could never have dreamed of, but the problem is the same. Biased reporting, twisted truths, ficticious scoops, litter the digital realm. I was “hoodwinked” myself recently by an apparently serious news piece from one of the countless, independent “news sources” outlining some of Pope Francis’ recent “pronouncements.” Ostensibly taken from a recent interview and without any hint that this was anything but serious reporting, the article described his acceptance of all religions as equally relevant and that even atheists were welcomed under God’s love (whether they believed in him or not), the article continued to outline his Holiness’ position on Heaven and Hell:

“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

I was so moved by this extraordinarily influential leader’s loving universality that I urged my Facebook friends to dub him “Man of the Century”… until one of them pointed out that the whole thing was a hoax. I was well aware of satirical sites like The Onion or Private Eye, but they always “tipped their hand” lest anyone take them seriously: their primary function was to entertain and amuse. This was different: there was no “tipping the hand,” no clear exaggeration. It all seemed utterly within the realm of possibility, albeit shocking possibility.

At first I was incensed for such irresponsibility, but then I wondered if it hadn’t done me a service. From now on, I check any information I get online before I pass it on. Mr. Dixon was right. Shakespeare’s admonition, like so much of his genius, reverberates down the ages:

“See better, Lear”… in someone else’s words, “trust, but verify!”

Charles Shaughnessy

About Charles Shaughnessy

British born actor, Charles Shaughnessy, known to millions as Fran Drescher's long-suffering boss, Max Sheffield, on the CBS sitcom, The Nanny, lives with his family in Los Angeles, where, he is delighted to say, he continues to make his living as an actor. Despite the heavy preponderance of estrogen in his household, he is never happier than when he is at home with Susan, Jenny, Madelyn, Maya (the dog), and Lulabelle (the feral cat!). Please follow Charles: @C_Shaughnessy, charlesshaughnessy.com, CharlesShaughnessy Facebook Fan Page.

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