Prince Edgar speaking about his usurped father, King Lear, from Shakespeare’s King Lear.
When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers suffers most i’ the mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind:
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’er skip,
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.
How light and portable my pain seems now,
When that which makes me bend makes the king bow,
He childed as I father’d!
Paul in his Letter to the Philippians about Jesus, also called ‘King of the Jews’.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Since Shakespearean plays were written in a time of ‘Christian culture’ when Biblical discourse was familiar to people in common ideas and phrases, it makes sense to form an analysis of these two passages together. The following are some of the salient ideas I see here:
- The effect of seeing a great individual suffering
- Having fellowship in suffering together
- The significance of a great individual suffering voluntarily for your sake
The Lear passage focuses on the first two points: when we see greater people than ourselves suffering the same things we do, it makes our miseries seem less intimidating (less like our foes/enemies). If you think you are suffering alone, life sucks. But when you suffer grief together with another, you don’t pay so much attention to the fact that you’re suffering. Less pity partying. When you’re in the dumps and you see that someone greater is also in the dumps – ah, well it’s really not that bad.
Paul’s passage more directly addresses us and Jesus, the King. Jesus is in very nature God – clearly someone greater than ourselves – but he made himself ‘nothing’. That is, God became human; and not just any human but a lowly human, a servant. The suffering he endured was not merely misery or grief alone, but also death. And that death referred to is not just an ending of life as biologically understood. Biblically speaking, the concept of ‘death’ is separation from God. (Colossians 2:13) It is the logical conclusion of sin, or non-holiness. But if one were holy and not sinful, death would not be logical or deserved!
“When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.”
“When we Jesus see bearing our sins,
We scarcely think our struggles worthy foes.” — Not great poetry, but interesting anyways.
For me, reading the Shakespeare is more emotionally gripping than Paul’s letter, not because Christ’s death on the cross is not moving, but because the passage about death on the cross is an explanation of a culminating event, whereas the Lear passage is an internal emotional palette. It’s a little like eating sugar or eating carbs – the carbs turn into sugar, but the sugar is already sugar and can give you an immediately energy boost. But in this way, non-Biblical texts can sometimes support the logic of the Bible with the immediacy of emotional trigger.
All this still does not discuss the part where suffering Lear says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” but I’m not getting into that here. I’ve written another post on King Lear a while ago that focuses on that anyways. See that post here on King Lear and God.