Dodge: Christian Hope
Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of his most powerful tragedies. The story of Lear would have been well known to Shakespeare’s audiences since it had been performed as The True Chronicle History of King Leir in the 1590s. Yet, when the Queen’s Men, a competing troop disbanded, Shakespeare picked up the play and rewrote it.
In his rewriting, Shakespeare changed the ending and made the play far more dark and foreboding. The original play ended in the restoration of Lear and his daughter Cornelia. Shakespeare ended his version with one of the most haunting scenes in the history of theater.
Instead of resolution, Shakespeare unexpectedly had both Lear and Cornelia die. The pathos is simply wrenching when Lear, holding Cornelia in his arms, exclaims:
Lear: Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones: Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so that heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever! I know when one is dead, and when one lives; she’s dead as earth.
Carrying unbearable grief, Lear then dies as well, saying,
Lear: And my poor fool [Cornelia] 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!
Lear isn’t just a tragedy. There’s seemingly no meaning to it, no justice, no resolution, no redemption. Oblivion is what awaits us.
Shakespeare’s bleak ending is a snapshot of what life without Christian hope would entail. Nihilism would be the norm. In the absence of hope, only the mindless pursuit of power holds any appeal, and this, too, ultimately proves meaningless, as Lear discovers.
As we come to the end of our liturgical year, we are reminded about what the basis of Christian hope really is. The basis of our hope is the return of Christ to exercise dominion over his creation and to set things right. As the Psalmist proclaims: “The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty…he is girded with strength” (Ps 93.1).
It’s John, at the beginning of the book of Revelation, who expresses this hope most fervently: “Behold he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, everyone who pierced him” (Rev 1.7). Then John ends the book of Revelation by exclaiming, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22.20).
Together with faith and love, hope is one of the so-called theological virtues. This means hope does not come naturally, but rather is a gift from God. As Daniel Westberg, Professor of Ethics and Moral Theology at Nashotah House has written, “Hope is the virtue directed to God as our final end and supreme happiness…grace through the Holy Spirit is required for us to have God himself as the object of our hearts and minds.”
Our liturgical year ends in expectation and hope. God has not left us to wallow in meaninglessness. Hope in the return of Christ is an essential answer to the seeming futility of life in the modern world.