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Statue of a stone king seen against a tall skyscraper.
‘King Lear’ sculpture seen in Chicago in 2008. (tom_allan/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

8 lessons from ‘King Lear’ as we head back to work or nights out after COVID-19

Our pandemic “re-entries” into a world still grappling with COVID-19 offer complex questions that we must navigate through the lens of consent. Consent is agreement to do or allow something to be done, or giving permission for something to happen or be done — and it’s bound up with respecting each other’s boundaries.

How (and in what form) should we meet with people? When and how should we return to offices and classrooms, or social and cultural events? Who has the authority to decide? Such decisions are being made in real time — by politicians, human resources offices, administrators and all of us in daily interactions.

Understanding consent — and its effect on how we get together — is key to avoiding ambiguous and socially awkward encounters and, more importantly, reducing the potential for harm to ourselves and others.

As a scholar of early modern drama, I am interested in how Shakespeare helps us move across and between historical, cultural and geographical boundaries, and be more thoughtful and empathetic citizens. As we move towards a post-pandemic world, King Lear — and the character Cordelia from the play in particular — helps us negotiate the complex landscape of consent that COVID-19 has exposed.

Withholding consent: An act of resistance

A throne seen on a stage.
Lear imagines he can dictate how events will unfold. (Shutterstock)

Scholars have noted how Shakespeare’s works help us question things we thought we knew and relearn lessons we assumed we had already mastered.

As the play opens, Lear gathers his court together to announce his retirement. In his ceremonial withdrawal, he commands his daughters to tell the court how much they love him. He advises that once they do so, they will be rewarded with their third of the kingdom.

The king has set the stage and assembled an audience to behold what he expects will unfold, but his carefully stage-managed performance is set up to fail: Lear did not make people aware of expectations in advance and, upon their arrival, they are caught off guard.

Cordelia, his youngest daughter, agonizes about her awkward position. In an aside, she worries: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

Facing ‘ambiguous’ situations

Many of us have found ourselves in positions where someone acts badly but we are anxious about speaking up because it might be rude or disruptive. Psychologist Catherine Sanderson categorizes these as “ambiguous” situations. She notes that “when facing an ambiguous situation, our natural tendency is to look to others to figure out what’s going on.” But if everyone looks to others for cues, the behaviour often goes unchallenged — and people’s “silence conveys a lack of concern, or even tacit acquiescence,” making it far more likely that the behaviour will continue.

When Cordelia realizes her sisters are compliant, she is faced with a difficult decision. Ultimately, she chooses to resist her father’s command, exclaiming: “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth.”

She refuses to participate in the love test; in response to Lear’s command, her one-word response (“nothing”) is the opposite of remaining silent. Her answer is a damning indictment of Lear’s domestic drama. She does not consent.

Learning how to solicit consent

Cordelia’s story does not end with her refusal to grant consent. She is exiled and her father denies her the dowry she would need for marriage. However, she leaves court with her integrity intact and a plan to regroup and return. She also continues to love her father despite his betrayal.

Cordelia is loyal to the highest ideals of what Lear can be without judging him for his worst moment, and persists in loving him. She teaches him, and us, that we can learn how to solicit consent.

Oil painting showing an aged man stretched on a cot and his daughter reaching towards him.
‘Lear and Cordelia,’ by Ford Madox Brown. Oil painting first shown in 1849. (Tate), CC BY-NC-ND

When Cordelia is reunited with her father at the end of the play, Lear acknowledges anew the reciprocal nature of their relationship, and the need to approach their future interactions through the lens of consent. The king says: “When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh / At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues / Talk of court news …”

Lear learns a fundamental lesson about the power of consent. He understands he cannot unilaterally determine how their relations unfold.

Instead, he sees his role as supplicant when he says “I will kneel,” and honours Cordelia’s agency and autonomy when he acknowledges it is her choice to ask for his blessing. And he realizes he will need to ask for forgiveness.

Read more: Don't stand so close to me – understanding consent can help with those tricky social distancing moments

Tips for the trenches

As we practise new ways of gathering and meeting during COVID-19, what lessons can we learn from Cordelia and Lear to help us navigate the “weight of this sad time?”

  1. Think about the purpose of the meeting and provide that clear framework for others: “Would you be available to engage in this type of gathering?”

  2. Outline, in advance, the roles and expectations of all the participants: “In asking you to participate, I hope we can tackle (insert meeting objectives) together.”

  3. Be explicit about the conditions of the proposed meeting and be clear about the parameters. For example: “We will exercise the following cautionary measures, including being outdoors, masked, limit capacity, confirm double vaccination status, ensure proper ventilation” as applicable.

  4. Provide a dignified way for people to withhold consent. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed by COVID-19, limiting your in-person interactions or for any other reason (that is none of my business), we can organize a virtual meeting or meet at a future date.”

  5. Offer room for a more nuanced RSVP: “Please indicate your level of availability and/or level of comfort.”

  6. Be attentive to the uneven access to power. Philosopher Shannon Dea outlines ways we can be attentive to how we occupy institutional and cultural power and take steps to be more inclusive and respectful to those whose circumstances are more precarious and contingent.

  7. Appreciate that consent can be withdrawn at any time. If the meeting is scheduled in advance, check in a few days before to see if everyone still feels comfortable in the light of constantly changing conditions.

  8. Develop a menu of choices for people to connect: video-conference, phone call, walk and talk, chat (Teams, texting, Slack), in-person outside and so on.

We need to exercise critical empathy to understand there is a spectrum of readiness to re-enter the world. If we can make space for consent in all our encounters, we can co-create new ways of being together with compassion. Lear learned to solicit consent but it was too late to save his kingdom. We ignore these lessons at our peril.

This is a corrected version of a story originally published on Nov. 8, 2021. The previous version misspelled Shannon Dea’s name.

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