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.

December 29, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

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.


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