The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

King Lear, Shakespeare (spoken by Albany or by Edgar, depending on the version you read. They are the final lines of the play)

My father and I share a love of marginalia. I suppose I inherited it from him. He would pull down one of his books from the shelf and point out to me the markings that so-and-so had made, and what it might mean. At a certain level, marginalia becomes not an annoyance, an intrusion from a bossy reader – but something that makes the book priceless. Like Thomas Jefferson’s cross-outs and markings on his draft of the Declaration of Independence.

This morning, at about 5:30, he asked me to look for a book for him. “It’ll be on the top shelf. It’s a Shane Leslie book.” I stared at the shelf, scared that I wouldn’t be able to find it. Dad said, “They’re all Shane Leslie books up there.” Oh, okay, so that makes it a bit simpler. I pulled down the first five books from the shelf. “Open them to the title page and let me see,” said Dad. I opened the first one, he took one glance, “Nope, that’s not it.” Hysterical. He could tell in a second. I opened the second one. Nope. Third one. Nope. Fourth one. Nope. Fifth one … BINGO.

On the title page of this book (The Passing Chapter) was a quote from King Lear, the one above. Dad showed me how on the page before there was a stamp – someone had stamped the book to show ownership. It was from a Jesuit house (in Ireland) called St. Ignatius (naturally). Okay, so I’m oriented as to what I am looking at. The book was published in 1934, and a Jesuit house obviously had the book in their library.

Now back to the title page.

The quote from Lear sat there beneath the title, in smaller typeface. But it read like this:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel and what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Instead of “comma NOT what we ought to say” – the typo made it all one thought, as though one part of the sentence agreed with the other (when it does not, in the original). The original is a sentence of diametrical opposites, it pits one way of being against another. That is the point of the “comma not”. But the typo took away the comma and replaced “not” with “and”. The typo completely negates the sentiment.

But here is what my dad wanted to show me:

The Jesuit had crossed out the word “and” and had put the word “not” over to the side – in pencil. He hadn’t even made it into the book itself before the typo had immediately become apparent to the learned Jesuit, and he had to correct it.

I love that man.

There were markings in pencil through the rest of the book, and my dad (who has given papers on Shane Leslie, and also bibliography and marginalia) had put on the blank first page a list of page numbers where the markings occurred. We looked through those as well. These were more your standard markings – paragraphs marked with an X, sentences underlined (all in pencil) – but it is the stunning correction of a typo and what it all signifies that interests my father, and interests me.

Dad said, “Here’s this Jesuit – he hasn’t even gotten into the book yet – and he notices a typo on the title page …”

And not just a typo, but a word-change which totally alters and irons out the original meaning.

It MUST be “not”, it cannot be “and”. If it is “and” then it becomes a benign toothless saying on a cross-stitch wall-hanging. Nothing threatening, nothing really profound, the equivalent of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” If it is “not” then it has teeth, it has life, it is a difficult profundity – full of grace and tragedy, and it makes demands on you the reader (or, listener, as Shakespeare would have thought of it). It is a command. It indicts those who feel they must speak “what they ought to say” in hard moments, when the “weight of sad times” buries them. If you speak what you feel “you ought to say” in those moments, then no, you are not “obeying” the weight of sad times. It is when you have the courage to “speak what you feel” in such moments that you can come close to touching divinity, to the eternal. There is much we can never understand, especially those of us who are young, who “shall never see so much”, but at least we can decide to not be “polite” in sad times and speak only the accepted words. Even if we are young, we can decide to speak what we feel. And that is what it means to truly “obey”.

The Jesuit’s note of correction has all of that in it.

It makes my dad’s copy of the book an important one.

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14 Responses to Exeunt

  1. Annie says:

    gorgeous. thanks for edifying my morning.

  2. Jayne says:

    I love that. So cool, Sheila. Thanks for sharing.

  3. ted says:

    Beautiful. There are probably those who cannot tell the difference between the two sentences and are the poorer for it. A rich and precious time it sounds like you’re having with your dad.

  4. amelie says:

    that is wonderful! as i’ve said before, your dad reminds me of mine.

    happy whatnot, sheila. hope today found you well and leaves you in a state of reasonable bliss. cheers ^_^

  5. just1beth says:

    I love the relationship you have with your Dad- he is ALWAYS a scholar at heart, isn’t he? So eager to share with his child. Very generous. And I love the fact that you are open to it, too. Some people would be “over it”, or closed minded, or jaded. But it is a beautiful thing you two have always had. Very, very nice.

  6. Stevie says:

    The perfect “comma-but” if ever there was one – it changes everything. The vast difference between saying what you feel and saying what you ought to say. And that Monk who just couldn’t let the error slide. Breathless.

    You and your Dad might know about my genius-genius friend from high school, Roger Stritmatter, who is famous now for analyzing the marginalia in Edward de Vere’s 1570 Geneva Bible and their correlation with the use of biblical verses by Shakespeare.

    Here’s an article about Roger’s dissertation defense I think you would find interesting.


    Roger is the most unique person I ever knew (there are many candidates for that vaunted title, of course) – a brain the size of Nutley, New Jersey, and a heart to match, plus a delicious naughty laugh I can still hear thirty-odd years later.

    xxx Stevie

  7. red says:

    Stevie – I will definitely ask my dad about your friend. Sending an email right now!

    And so funny that you would mention Nutley, New Jersey – because Beth’s in-laws used to live there and she has myriad connections with the place!

  8. just1beth says:

    How do you know NUTLEY???? That is where my husband is from- we still have friends there. As a matter of fact, Tom picked up hot sausage from Cavahlo’s Market (Umm…the BEST!!)that we are cooking up for the NY Giants game tomorrow.

  9. Bernard says:

    I read another possible meaning. The ‘weight’ of sad time is an obstruction or inhibition on the ability to speak what should or “ought” to be said. In such an instance it is easier to say what we feel, which aligns with the general sense and risks offending no-one.

  10. red says:

    Bernard – I like that a lot!

  11. Stevie says:

    Beth – I just chose Nutley out of the air, so it couldda been Cos Cob, but it wasn’t! Never been there. But I love the name. It’s poetic. Somebody famous is from there, right? (besides your husband, I mean). Sheila – hope your Dad finds it interesting to look into Roger’s dissertation. Love xxx Stevie

  12. just1beth says:

    Martha Stewart is from Nutley. I believe that the writers of “It’s a Wonderful Life” are from there, also. Jackie Kennedy’s grandparents supposedly lived there, and she played in the “Mudhole Park” as a child. Whereas, Frankie Valli is from Belleville, I believe.
    Why do I know these things? My brain is stuffed full of bizarre things. Also, I love that you even KNOW the word “Nutley” – ha ha ha!!

  13. David says:

    My God. King Lear. Your Dad. This post. Wow. I’ll say this, you’re all as close to “touching divinity, to the eternal” as you’ll ever be.

  14. Mark says:

    The beauty in this goes far beyond just the importance of Shakespeare’s words and the significance of how the meaning was changed. The beauty I see relates to the common bound you and your father share through love of the literary arts. A closeness and understanding passed down from a father to his daughter. A mutual love of the arts transformed into a very unique and special love for each other.

    It is yours (you and your father) and yours alone. A very beautiful thanksgiving gift indeed.