A lifetime of 'Lear,' five hours in class Teacher: Thomas E. Scheye, who has taught courses on Shakespeare's "King Lear" for three decades, has four class sessions to convey the play's complexities.


Thomas E. Scheye loves teaching English at Loyola College, and this is at its heart: In five hours stretched over four days, Scheye must help a group of 20-year-olds to understand Shakespeare's "King Lear," one of the world's greatest and most complex works of literature.

Each year he takes on this task in the hope that his students will overcome their resistance to centuries-old poetry and come to look at life in a slightly altered light.

"King Lear" is a play about the troubles of an aging monarch in his twilight years -- which is rather like saying that the Book of Genesis is an account of what God did during a week off.

It is also a study of the twin impulses of love and selfishness, a meditation on blindness and insight, an examination of the arrogance of power and the inevitability of death.

Scheye has five hours for Lear spread over two Tuesdays and two Thursdays, during a section on tragedies in a semester-long course on Shakespeare.

A reporter for The Sun joined the Loyola class for two weeks to observe Scheye's challenge -- shared by instructors across the country -- and the students' response.

This is what he saw and heard.


Scheye, 54, stands at the side of a lectern, facing 28 students, mostly sophomores and juniors, in seven rows of chairs. He strikes a commanding presence at the front of a room in Loyola's Maryland Hall. He is provost of the college, and in this classroom he appears entirely at ease.

Georgia-born and Baltimore-bred, Scheye is the son of Jewish doctors who fled Germany at the outset of World War II. He now teaches beneath a crucifix hanging on the wall of a classroom at a North Baltimore Jesuit college.

He chose "King Lear" for this course because he believes that the 390-year-old play, above all others, asks the hardest questions of its readers.

He has done this before -- nearly 30 times before.

"For some students, their view of the world is changed, or at least altered slightly, by Shakespeare -- but this [play] in particular," Scheye says. "If the climb is hard, I think you're going to value more what you're going to see."

The students are a little cool to his pitch.

Early this first day, he is talking with the students about human nature. Isn't love a law of nature? he asks them.

Not really, says Betsy Allen, 20, a junior who lives in Reston, Va. Survival of the fittest, she tells him. That's the law of nature.

What of a parent's love for a child? Scheye asks.

David Dunleavy, a sophomore sitting at the front of the class, retorts, "That's instinct. That's not love."

Scheye stops. He nods slightly at Dunleavy, raises his head to look at the rest of the class, smiles genially and tries again.

But the students resist. Scheye asks: "If you acted the way you wanted to, if no one was looking, would you look out for others?"

"I guess I would look out for myself," says Mark Gallagher, another student.

"I'd be selfish."

To Scheye, the response -- not unexpected -- comes from students who grew up in an age of me-first materialism.

King Lear, a warrior king of 80, plans to abdicate his throne. He has already decided to carve up his kingdom for his three daughters -- Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Before announcing how much land each daughter will receive, he seeks to hear each describe her love for him.

While the first two daughters praise him to preserve their inheritance, Cordelia tells him that she loves her father as much as he deserves. For this slight, Lear renounces and banishes his youngest, most beloved daughter.

This, it becomes clear, makes no sense to the students. They shift in their chairs uneasily. One slouches forward over her notebook. Another leans back and tugs on the bill of his baseball cap. Why would Cordelia screw it up? they ask. Why wouldn't she tell Lear what he wants to hear?

The scene sets up a defining distinction for the play. One daughter resolutely tells the truth and loves without condition. The two others lie to suit their schemes and profess a false love when it profits them.

But Scheye would rather the students come to that conclusion under their own steam.

Three decades ago, when Scheye first started teaching "King Lear," he was an instructor at Towson State. Back then, he tried to bring the refined sensibility to his lectures that he so admired in his professors at Georgetown, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. Now, Scheye hopes to help students make two discoveries: first, to understand the language and events of the play, and second, to seek its meaning.

"This play asks, How do you live your life under the shadow of death? That's an issue these students have not had to grapple with -- yet," Scheye says later. "The decision is between survival and living. All of us compromise, every day. You can die alone, or you can die in the arms of those you love."

The students speak up. But they are not yet where Scheye wants them to be.


Before class, as they drag books out of lockers, students talk about parties, dates and grades. To plunge into Scheye's world is to abandon late 20th-century life for an hour and fifteen minutes, twice a week. That can prove tough to do when the play is "Lear."

College students embrace "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," a common reference in American popular culture, in the stand-up routines of comedians, say, or car commercials. Once the wrinkles of Elizabethan English are smoothed, the moody prince, a college student himself at the play's start, is easily enough understood.

Not so for the characters in "King Lear."

In a scene Scheye wants to explore, King Lear tells several ill-clothed people to seek shelter during a storm while he stands outside to endure it. Only after several false starts does the discussion lead where Scheye intends.

"Have we ever seen Lear be caring?" Scheye asks. "How does he feel toward these naked wretches?"

"He feels pity," Dunleavy says.

"It's not quite pity, is it?" Scheye responds.

It is as though Scheye were a tennis pro at camp, darting left and right to return each student's ground-stroke. He uses their words and insights to keep the rally going. Sometimes students come up with keen observations. Sometimes they refer to fraternity parties and soap operas. All is grist for discussion.

A few shots go astray, until Allen finally says: "He wants to expose himself to the same suffering, so he can understand them."

"It's compassion," says Clara Cole, an 18-year-old sophomore from Gaithersburg.

"Right," Scheye nods. "Isn't he suffering with the lowest of the low? As he suffers with them, he learns compassion for them."

These Loyola undergraduates -- many of them bright and curious -- come to the classroom less well-prepared than students of previous years. Even though more than half attended Catholic schools, they do not have a ready ease with biblical references, and they have at best glancing familiarity with classics.

Like her classmates, Allen has other activities calling for her time. She practices up to two hours a day for the cross-country team. A business major who takes an active role in class discussions, she takes four other classes and tutors other varsity athletes.

Allen enrolled only because the course she initially chose would have conflicted with cross-country practice. She asked teammates whether she could sail through Shakespeare with her customary high marks. You've gotten yourself into a big hole by taking Scheye, she was told. You won't get that easy A.

OK, Allen said to herself, time to buckle down. Time to give Shakespeare a try.


For Scheye, the play is never quite the same twice. He rereads it at least once every year. He comes to see lessons of "Lear" everywhere: In facing the legacy of the Holocaust. In thinking about the threat of nuclear war. In confronting the decline and death of his mother.

Cradling his half-moon reading glasses in his right hand as he gestures with his left, Scheye homes in on an extraordinary scene: The Earl of Gloucester, like Lear, an old man, is tricked by his younger son, Edmund, into disowning his older son, Edgar. The younger son's henchmen then gouge Gloucester's eyes and cast him out into the storm.

Realizing that he has betrayed one son and been betrayed by another, Gloucester abandons faith in God. He staggers along with the intention of hurling himself from the cliffs of Dover. Edgar presents himself as a stranger willing to lead the old man to the cliffs and instead takes him to a field. He deceives Gloucester, describing fictional fishermen below. Gloucester falls forward, he thinks to his death, and faints.

Edgar waits, then pretends to be a passer-by who witnessed Gloucester fall hundreds of feet unharmed. Since the gods have intended for him to live, Edgar tells his father, he should not thwart their desires by killing himself.

Scheye must describe the mechanics of the scene before he can explain its greater meaning.

When Scheye reads dialogue, he brings the archaic words to life, and animates his students as well. " 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the boys. They kill us for their sport,' " Scheye reads aloud, from a lament of Gloucester before his suicide attempt. "So, what is Gloucester saying about God?"

A student says that God is cruel, but Scheye gives a slightly different reading: "How does a boy feel when he kills a fly? No emotion. [Gloucester's] not saying God is cruel. He's saying God doesn't care."

Gloucester, Scheye says, "needs proof that the gods care. And Edgar tries to stage a miracle."

By this point, many of the students are actively vying to speak, verbally jostling to make points. They are engaged with the play, however fitfully. And Allen no longer considers the course to be solely about literature.


By the end of the play, the evil all die. Regan is poisoned by her sister and rival, Goneril. Goneril kills herself when thwarted in trying to marry Edmund and command all Britain. Edmund falls in dueling with his brother Edgar.

The good die, too. Gloucester's heart bursts, too weak to handle the passions of grief and joy; Cordelia is hanged by Edmund and Goneril's edict; Lear slays Cordelia's killer and carries Cordelia from her prison cell, only to die after he vainly tries to revive her.

In fact, most of the major characters die. Most of those who do not die wish they were dead.

This ending does not strike the students viscerally, as it might if they were seeing "Lear" as a movie or on stage. But a sober mood settles on the class.

Scheye asks, "What does it mean to live, in this play?"

"To suffer?" asks Michael Schlosser, a gaunt young man with cropped hair.

"That's right," Scheye says.

His confirmation prompts a frustrated response from Dunleavy: "That sucks. That's not life."

"That's life in this play," Scheye counters.

A bit later, Cole singles out a possible ray of hope. "Some people die knowing people love them," she says.

"Yeah," another student, Ralph Doran, adds, trying to assess the plight of the play's characters. "They all die in truth."

Scheye pauses, pleased with Doran's phrase. "We can find in nature the law that says kill to get ahead," Scheye says. "We can also find in nature the law [of love] that Cordelia finds, Lear finds, Edgar finds."

He stops. "King Lear tells you to ask yourself what to believe. There are no conclusions."


Scheye says the play can be used to mark passage of time, much as parents measure a child's growth by drawing lines against the frame of a door.

"If you ask what's the one thing I'd hope for them," Scheye says, "It's the hope that they'd take my old professor's advice and re-read the play every five or 10 years to see how much they've grown."

Allen finds that she's more open to the play's possibilities. "I didn't understand it at first. I wasn't able to see the connections.

"He is very good. He doesn't sit there and spoon-feed it to us. He lets us figure it out -- for the most part -- for ourselves."

Says Scheye: "We want to teach our students that there is value to making yourself vulnerable to the world around you."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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