No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
King Lear, Act V
I’m about to leave for Stratford again and a two-week summer school looking at Shakespeare’s sources, that vast primordial soup of myth and culture he drew from to write his plays. The majority of stories he dipped in and caught up were refashioned almost beyond recognition. And at the height of his powers, with literary London and a mass audience in the palm of his hand, he wrote King Lear, the bleakest and most chaotic of all his tragedies.
He could have undone the button. Made it all come out all right. By the time the audience got to Act Five and the death of Cordelia, they’d had more than enough. Why ramp up the angst? What was going through his mind? What useful purpose did it serve?
Maybe he just did it because he could. Maybe he wasn’t trying to say anything in particular, or he felt he had nothing to say because the world was a cruel and random place. Or he couldn’t resist seeing his audience, horrified but riveted, reacting to the spectacle of such elemental human agony.
A writer at the height of his influence is a very, very powerful person. And we all know power corrupts.
So, having said all that, why do we watch drama? Or, for that matter, experience any work of art? I don’t see the need to make some kind of cultural distinction between the “high culture” of Shakespeare and the “popular culture” of Children of Earth. The Doctor, taking the longer view, wouldn’t do that, and neither do I. If Will was around today, he’d be writing for the telly, because he craved the dialogue with a mass audience, above all.
Writers generally set out with something to say. When young, it’s probably fair to generalise that many of us assume that the world is run by liars, hypocrites and cheats, and that the more of the truth we expose, the better and more moral our work will be. But there’s a problem with that. Maybe people can’t bear too much unvarnished truth. When we watch drama, we tend to be looking for an emotional equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics being reversed. The statement that the entropy of the universe is constantly increasing, that we live in the shadow of irreversible decay, is very bleak indeed. That is why most satisfying dramas move towards the restoration of order, tragedies included. There does not necessarily need to be a happy ending, but we do look for resolution, a pattern, a coherent narrative or, at the very least, the hope that lessons will be learned and the horror we have seen enacted will be avoided in future.
Children of Earth apparently gave us none of those things. We don’t even know for sure that the 456, or similar threats, have been banished. The day was saved, again, but at horrible cost, and who can be trusted? Not Jack, our hero, for certain. He did the least worst thing, given the big picture. Intellectually, on the evidence of sheer numbers, it was a happy ending, with the worst disaster averted. But it doesn’t make us feel good, and that won’t be what stays in our mind.
Scenes of grief and angst touch something absolutely elemental within us, particularly if children are involved. It is against our deepest instincts to know we will outlive our offspring, yet that is the price of immortality. From this position it could be argued that mankind is not meant to be immortal. In that sense, TW/DW is as stark a universe as the Greek tragedies ever inhabited. Rose Tyler’s act, which we tend to see as the apogee of selfless love, is a profound and dangerous hubris, an inversion of the natural order of things that cannot, under any circumstances, lead to good. It’s as serious as bumping off Duncan or deposing Richard II, God’s anointed King with all his faults.
Shakespeare lived in a moral universe that valued order very highly indeed. The terrible cost of disturbing it resonates through all his histories and tragedies. It cannot, must not, come to good. King Lear is the ultimate expression of this chaos and dislocation, the closest he came to depicting the complete social breakdown that RTD et al wanted to dramatise.
When we’re young, we truly and probably correctly believe we must continually chip away at the walls of tradition, of accepted rules and codes of behaviour. It’s vital and necessary, and it’s how change happens. Without it we’d be condemned to slavery, fundamentalism, hate-crimes and God alone knows what else.
But there’s a question of balance involved. As Tevye said, in Fiddler on the Roof:
One little time you pull out a prop, and where does it stop? Where does it stop?
It is highly possible that it’s better for us not to know too much. That’s the virtue of propaganda. The end does sometimes justify the means. The universe is a cruel, brutal and chaotic place. There are many moral dilemmas where only the least worst solution is possible. Hope? There isn’t any, not really. Standing up to the enemy against suicidal odds may give us a brief moment of glory, but if we don’t crumple at the first serious threat to our loved ones, we’re condemned as monsters. It’s not a very comfortable scenario. And we revolt against it in many cases, to the point of ripping apart writers who kill off our favoured characters in a Bacchic frenzy or frankly denying that the writer’s chosen outcome should be the last word on the subject.
Perhaps we’re right to do so. There comes a point in our lives, for many of us as middle age advances, when we start to feel that the primary function of any work of art is to give us hope. Hope becomes more important than stark realism because without it we can’t go on. We do actually need the illusion that some power, some providence is essentially in control. The sight of seeing a human forced into making Godlike choices and having to live with them, a Jack Harkness or a Tenth Doctor, is simply too painful.
And I think we might be right.
Shakespeare’s last plays were, even by his own time’s standards, ludicrously improbable. He knew that himself, and he didn’t care. He actually broke the fourth wall, calling one of them A Winter’s Tale and having his characters say on stage that they’re unbelievable. They are, but beneath the ridiculous plots lies a story of reconciliation and hope that is absolutely fundamental to our spiritual and mental health.
He was old enough by then not to care what clever, cynical people thought of him. So he pressed the button.
I don’t think RTD has got there yet. I hope he will. There’s a reason why we tell old tales, participating in the drama of them even as we recognise their impossibility.
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.