And my poor fool is hanged: 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.
—Lear V, iii
These are Lear’s last words. They are awful. The whole scene is awful. Grief incarnate. Never, never, never, never, never. It’s unbearable — unbearable for Lear, and all but unbearable for an audience. Just to read the words on the page is horrible. The whole play, beginning to end, is heartwrenching. And that’s why we keep performing it, and watching it, and studying it, and teaching it, and reading it — so that our hearts might break, but safely, in a measure we can handle, at a moment of our choosing. So that someday when they break unbidden we are not unprepared.
But if we can read Lear‘s ending to rehearse and ready ourselves for the curtain call of existential despair, we can also read it as a signpost pointing the way to a kind of humble hope born out of our very helplessness. This is how Ronald Rebholz, for many years a professor of Renaissance literature in the English department at Stanford, read the end of Lear, and this is how he taught us to read it in his undergrad Renaissance lit survey.
At the conclusion of his lecture on Lear, Professor Rebholz called our attention to this single line:
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
After suffering his own and others’ folly, treachery, arrogance, anger, and betrayal, on top of the enfeeblements of old age, the diminution of his power to command others or even to command himself, and now staggering under these last brutal blows of unspeakable bereavement – at this moment, Lear is utterly, finally, fully helpless. He is not a king, nor even the shadow of a king. He is all brokenness, all sorrow, all loss. Completely abased beneath the crushing weight of grief, Lear is a shattered, hopeless, helpless human being, unable to see to even the simplest of his own physical needs. Having borne the burden of Cordelia’s lifeless body, he can bear no more. In his final enfeeblement, he can only ask for help caring for himself. So he turns to one of the men nearby – Edgar, or Kent, or Albany, or perhaps even the messenger – and humbly asks for assistance with the simple task of unfastening a button. “Pray you…” he asks his fellow man, and then, when help is given, “Thank you, sir.”
It is the smallest gesture, this simple request made without presumption and met with quick compassion. Yet in this fleeting moment at the play’s momentous end, Professor Rebholz saw, and helped us see, a single faint glimmer of hope amid all that awful sorrow–just a glimpse of decency and kindness, solidarity in suffering, a willingness to acknowledge brokenness, to name what is needed, matched by a willingness to do what is needed for another. This mutual vulnerability, this camaraderie in bearing the burden of our mortal coil with all its frailties and failings — such a gesture of kindness and care cannot make death less awful, but it can make life more bearable and perhaps more meaningful. That is one purpose of literature — to help us see and say what makes life meaningful in the face of death.
That’s what I remember of Professor Rebholz on Lear, but that’s certainly not all I remember from his class. I don’t have the syllabus any more, but I can tell you most of what was on our reading list: Thomas Wyatt, Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, some more of Shakespeare’s plays and – mirabile dictu! – the sonnets, John Donne, Montaigne’s essays, John Milton.
There were probably some other authors I’ve forgotten, but I remember these well enough, for many of them have held pride of place on my bookshelves ever since. My scholarly library has changed with my scholarly interests, but these texts are among the books I turn to when I don’t know where else to turn. They settled on my heart; I re-read them when I need to. It would be difficult to describe what some of these poets, some of these poems, have meant to me in life, in love, in loss – difficult not just because I would struggle for the right words, but also because if I found those words they would say more about me than I care to tell.
Instead, what I want to tell now is how wonderful Professor Rebholz was, what a fine teacher he was – urbane and jolly, warm and witty, gracious, generous. I am looking now at the profuse comments he wrote on my final paper for the class. In addition to his hand-written remarks – penned in the margins in a slashing, angular script so dissimilar to the ruddy jovial roundness of his smile and his great booming voice — he also typed up a whole page of additional comments and criticisms and suggestions for improvement, not just for that paper but for my writing in general. I don’t think there was anything special about me or my paper to merit that kind of feedback; I think he must have done that for the whole class. It mattered to him not just that we learn, but that we see what learning – what wisdom — looks like, how it lives. In the classroom and beyond it he demonstrated how literature and art and a humanistic vision of life can be not just something you study, but something you believe in — not like you believe in a cause or a creed, but like you believe in a person.
I am sad to say that Professor Rebholz died in November — very fine obituaries ran here and here. I found out about his passing only last Tuesday, via an end-of-year email that went out to alumni and friends of the English department at Stanford. When I saw his name in the email, I cried out. It hurt. It hurt my spirit, it hurt my chest. It felt like someone had punched me in the sternum. And I had only taken that one class from him, and that one class was a while ago. And I was just an undergrad; he was not my doktorvater. Still, when I saw his name, I felt orphaned. How great must be the grief of those who knew and loved him best.
I will have more to say about Professor Rebholz in my dissertation. He is all over my primary sources. Among the faculty at Stanford, he played a significant part in the Western Culture debate. His was an important voice on that issue and many others, and it will be important to the story I am telling. In my dissertation, I will have to historicize Professor Rebholz right alongside his colleagues.
But this isn’t my dissertation. This is my much-belated tribute to a wonderful professor – a fine scholar, a great teacher, a lovely man — who gave me Thomas Wyatt’s glittering ballades, and John Donne’s divinely lusty poems, and Shakespeare’s peerless sonnets, and who provided one marvelous model of what being a humanist can mean, what the life of the mind can look like when we take it to heart.
To Ron Rebholz, my professor: Thank you, sir.