Down, thou climbing sorrow

In my last post, I mentioned President Obama’s Americanism, how his ability to connect with the public defines him as a leader. Specifically, I mentioned how he openly cried on national television in response to the Newtown shootings last week.

Crying is a strong motif in King Lear. Tears, or “hysteria passio,” are frequently alluded to. Lear attributes crying with femininity; when he first sees Kent in the stocks and finds out his own daughter is responsible, he fights his own tears: “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!/ Hysteria passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,/ They element’s below” (II.ii.246). According to the Arden footnotes of the text, Lear is referring to a disease that primarily affected women, “that arose from the womb and took them ‘with choaking in the throat.’ It was called ‘Passio Hysterica’, or, in English, the mother, or the suffocation of the mother (Jorden, A Brief Discourse of a Disease Called the Mother).” 

King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia, by Henry Fuseli

King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia, by Henry Fuseli

Later in the scene, he asks for anger instead of sadness and tears: “If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts/ Against their father, fool me not so much/ To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,/ And let not women’s weapons, water-drops/ Stain my man’s cheeks!” (II.ii.271). The connection between tears and feminine weakness detracts from Lear’s kingly status, which at this early stage in the play, he relies upon. After he throws himself to the mercy of the storm and begins to recognize the fickleness of wealth and power, this once-great king begins to speak with more tenderness. When reunited with Cordelia, he says “You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave:/ Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound/ Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/ Do scald like molten lead” (IV.vii.45). Lear, finally aware of his own mortality, has let go of the godlike fervor that defined his character earlier in the play; a king’s tears are not a sign of weakness, but of humanity and realism, traits which we as Americans clearly value in our leaders.

James Barry, "King Lear Weeping Over the Death of Cordelia" (1786-87)

James Barry, “King Lear Weeping Over the Death of Cordelia” (1786-87)

Time has a slideshow called “Barack Obama and other men who cry.” The website says that “The U.S. President has been accused of being aloof, arrogant, emotionless — in a word, Spock-like. That opinion may now need to be revised. At the start of the week, he got teary during a campaign rally in Iowa; then on Wednesday, the day after he won re-election, he really let his feelings get the better of him. Addressing a group of young staffers at his Chicago headquarters, Obama told them about his work in the city as a community organizer, before saying they’ll go on to do “amazing things” in their lives. The President explained how he believed the work he had now accomplished ”had come full circle,” before wiping away tears when telling the enthralled audience that he’s proud of the work they’ve done.”

So here we are, praising a national leader for sensitivity and his “climbing sorrow.” I think this says a lot about what makes a respected leader; is it power and strength, as Lear defends early in the play, or something else?

Barack Obama during his campaign in 2008, when took a rest from public appearances to visit his ailing grandmother. Compare this photo to the two paintings of Lear; how are the king's perceptions of leadership and power in contrast with ours today?

Barack Obama during his campaign in 2008, when took a rest from public appearances to visit his ailing grandmother. Compare this photo to the two paintings of Lear; how are the king’s perceptions of leadership and power in contrast with ours today?

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