Wisdom is a trait mostly associated with the elderly and highly valued in today’s world. However, do all old men truly possess wisdom merely because they can see their own deaths in the near future? In both King Lear by William Shakespeare and Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, the protagonists acquire wisdom after undergoing trials of sufferings and tribulations. Despite learning similar lessons, both of these men begin their quest as completely different people. Morrie, the main character in Tuesdays with Morrie emphasizes the value of family and love, while King Lear on the other hand sees these values as insignificant pursuits which at best can be used to elevate his ego. Morrie is disappointed by the way things are in his society; contrarily King Lear initially shows no sign of concern nor does he significantly care for his community. Morrie’s views on death suggest that it is a natural process that is essentially an ideal way to live, whereas King Lear still strives to live a kingly life in spite of his agreements to divide his land between his daughters.
Although King Lear and Morrie differ completely in both character and beliefs, initially the two men come to acquire true wisdom and knowledge by experiencing a fact of life which one can regard as a phenomena; death. Both Morrie and King Lear differ in values when it comes to understanding the principles of life. Morrie’s beliefs are simple suggesting that death is a greater sentence in life rather than having lived without any love: “”If you don’t have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don’t have much at all. Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said ‘Love each other or perish’”(Albom 91). Morrie’s theory proposes that it is better to die than to live a life barren of love. Due to Morrie’s pervious lack of affection in his life as a child, it is for this reason that he emphasizes the importance of love and family. Conversely, King Lear believes that his family only exists to serve his needs. Lear’s conviction on family is exemplified when he questions his daughters about how much they love him:
Tell me, my daughters
(Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state),
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge (I i 50-55).
King Lear pitted his daughters against each other in a competition that not only satisfies his lust for the reassurance of love, but also to search for the best candidate for his personal benefits. His adoration towards his daughters is evidently conditional, even though Cordelia is his known favorite amongst all three of them. When Cordelia somewhat questions her father’s intentions he warns her by saying: “How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, Lest you may mar your fortunes” (I i 96-97). King Lear justifies his belief that love in a family is unilateral, that is, he should only receive affection but not give any, therefore contradicting Morrie’s beliefs and love for his family. Lear nevertheless realizes the true value of love and family when Cordelia returns to him despite his actions towards her, his realization however is too late as Lear quickly learns of her death at the end of the play.
Meanwhile Morrie learns the value of love through his experience of lacking it earlier in his life. Both King Lear and Morrie learn to cherish family and life after coming to terms with death, and realizing the ills of their respective societies. In addition to life values, protagonists in both works of literature also have different perspectives on life and society. King Lear accepts his society’s hierarchy since he’s the ascendancy to the throne. When talking to his daughters Lear says: “With reservation of an hundred knights/By you to be sustained, shall our abode/ Make with you by due turns” (I i 135-137). Proving to be the head of society, King Lear justifies his views by depriving 100 knights for his personal benefits. Morrie however is disgusted by the materialistic world his society values: Do you know how they brainwash people? They repeat something over and over again. And that’s what we do in this country. Owning things is good. More money is good. More property is good. More commercialism is good…We repeat it-and have it repeated to us-over and over until nobody bother to even think otherwise (Albom 124).
Morrie believes is community is guilty of promoting materialism rather than important things such as love. His hatred towards this act is proven by his words and teachings as he brings forth his answer as to why society behaves in this manner: “You know how I always interpreted that? These people were so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes” (Albom 125). The theme of wisdom is evidently shown as Morrie wisely explains that materialism is merely driven by the lack of love in one’s life. Similarly, King Lear also realizes the troubles of his society while encountering hardships: “Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!/ Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back;/ Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind/ For which thou whip’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener” (IV vi 162-165).
King Lear comes to realize the flaws of the social customs of his time and how it favors the rich and frowns upon the poor. His realization brought upon him a sense of regret for not being a just king and for allowing his materialism to deceive him into mistreating the poor: “Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/ How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/ Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/ From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en/ Too little care of this!” (III iv 28- 33). King Lear acquires wisdom about the problems his society is facing only after going through difficult tribulations, whereas Morrie was always aware of these issues and always spoke out against them. Both Morrie and King Lear became aware of the problems imbedded in their cultures through the realization of their near deaths.
Besides views on life and society, Morrie and Lear also had contrasting opinions on death well before gaining their wisdom. King Lear believes that he would die as king even in his old age and after dividing his kingdom amongst his daughters: “With reservation of an hundred knights/By you to be sustained, shall our abode/ Make with you by due turns only we shall retain/ The name, and all th’ addition to a king” (I i 135-138). The thought of death or saying goodbye to loved ones never crosses Lear’s mind as he strives to maintain his title even after giving way his kingdom and wealth. On the other hand, Morrie believes that death is the ideal way to live and should be accepted: “Oh yes, you strip away all that stuff and you focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently…Learn how to die, and you learn how to live” (Albom 83).
Morrie’s theory is- that if more people live knowing that they could die at any moment then the world would be a more positive place. His beliefs also reflect his optimism and his gratefulness towards his disease as well as knowing the amount of time he has to say his farewells: “It’s horrible to watch my body wilt away to nothing. But it’s also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye.” (Albom 57). On the other hand, King Lear is coming to terms with his own death. When Gloucestor askes to kiss his hand, he responds: “Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality” (IV vi 125-126).
Lear’s newfound humbleness is demonstrated as he learns the acceptance of death. Morrie and Lear both achieved wisdom and enlightenment by coming to terms with their deaths, something both people and society can learn from to improve their lives. King Lear and Morrie Schwartz are very much alike, despite being completely different people before their acquisition of wisdom. While facing difficult hardships both men were able to attain contentment and become aware of problems existing in their society. They discovered that if more people lived every breath as if it were their last, they would live more fulfilling and satisfying lives. The wisdom gained by both men assisted in the realization of the importance of family and love. Death is a fact of life that we must accept and embrace. People should not live life until they can see their death on the horizon.
Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
Shakespeare. William. King Lear. Toronto: Signet Classic Shakespeare, 1998.