Pain and self-importance: Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ and Charles Lamb’s ‘The Convalescent’

Upon observing from close range the great pain that Lear is going through due to having been rejected and abused by his daughters, Edgar feels that his own emotional suffering, caused by his father and half-brother, is more bearable:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,

We scarcely think our miseries our foes.

Who alone suffers, suffers most i’ th’ mind,

Leaving free things and happy shows behind.

But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip

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.

(King Lear,, 100-107)

Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ is a study of suffering and the way in which it affects human beings differently, and, to me, the central vision of the play is the idea that, as Kenneth Muir puts it, adversity ‘wins fragrance from the crushed flower’.

Charles Lamb’s essay, ‘The Convalescent’, from his collection, The Last Essays of Elia, reminded me of Lear precisely because of the very significant differences in the way in which Lamb discusses the subject of suffering. Taking his own personal sickness that makes him indisposed for a few weeks as a starting point, like other great essayists, Lamb moves on to extract a series of general observations about human behaviour in such times. And the revelations are far from tragic or romantic:

if there be a regal solitude, it is a sick bed. How the patient lords it there! what caprices he acts without controul! how kinglike he sways his pillow — tumbling, and tossing, and shifting, and lowering, and thumping, and flatting, and moulding it, to the ever varying requisitions of his throbbing temples.

The sick man becomes a king of his own world and, unlike the opening to the world that suffering brings to those noble of spirit in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lamb speaks of how sickness makes us more selfish and self-centred than usual:

How sickness enlarges the dimensions of a man’s self to himself! he is his own exclusive object. Supreme selfishness is inculcated upon him as his only duty. ’Tis the Two Tables of the Law to him. He has nothing to think of but how to get well. What passes out of doors, or within them, so he hear not the jarring of them, affects him not.

Lamb writes about how, for example, he becomes completely indifferent to a friend’s serious situation in court even though he was very worried about it before:

he is wrapped in the callous hide of suffering; he keeps his sympathy, like some curious vintage, under trusty lock and key, for his own use only.

Rather than feeling pity for the pain of others, he becomes ‘his own symapthiser’.

Honesty, or at least the impression of it, is a hallmark of the essay. The essayist opens himself up like a book and is not afraid to lay bare everything and to reflect on the significance of it. And leaps of thought are another characteristic of the essay. In ‘essaying’ or ‘trying’ a subject, the essayist discovers something. He produces some kind of turn. And in the case of this essay, the turn is in the recovery from sickness, which transforms the sick man, once again, into a common mortal:

How convalescence shrinks a man back to his pristine stature! where is now the space, which he occupied so lately, in his own, in the family’s eye? The scene of his regalities, his sick room, which was his presence chamber, where he lay and acted his despotic fancies — how is it reduced to a common bedroom! 

The essayist, Charles Lamb most of the time, tends to write about himself. In this sense, he is egocentric. But he does this with an acute dose of irony and an ability to, paradoxically, not take himself too seriously, so that Lamb ends with the self-depreciating acknowledgment of how good health returns him to a common mortal:

the giant of self-importance, which I was so lately, you have me once again in my natural pretensions — the lean and meagre figure of your insignificant Essayist.


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