The Greatness of Grief: Lear and Ahab

by Ezekiel Fry

At the penultimate moment of his quest Ahab sees the dual nature of his mad aim. It is through his own position and situation, as both a whale-man and the “victim” of Moby Dick’s justice in taking his leg, that the will to follow his “iron rails” towards the heights, or greatness, of cowing a crew, finding a single whale in a vast sea, and giving battle to that whale, that his purpose rises. Without this purpose—this weight of sadness—his greatness would be an impossibility. In a similar manner, it is only through this combination of grief and greatness, and vice versa, that Lear, in King Lear, sees something akin to truth; something as valid and real as Ahab’s final moment of epiphany.
By being raised to the heights of King, similar to a captain at sea as Melville tells us, Lear, through his own folly, much like Ahab’s attempt to lash out at Moby Dick which results in the taking of his leg, loses his (Lear) wholeness. His crown is severed like an egg-shell, his royal body as truly cut apart as the physical body of Ahab. It was only a king that could have fallen this low. To go from absolute power to nakedness in the storm is perhaps the furthest a man may fall while still remaining alive. The grief and anguish that Lear feels, after the abdication, are accentuated and amplified by the height from which he fell. Like Satan, Lear has fallen from a place of divinity to one of humiliation and suffering beyond the scope of his own imagination. The height of his fall literally shocks him into a new state of being. He becomes a “shadow” of his former-self, just as Ahab becomes, through his own grief, possessed of a single purpose.
The degree, or “greatness” from which he fell creates the “grief” that so possesses Lear, intermingling the two things in the same way that Ahab’s “grief” creates the “greatness” of his quest—the royal aspect of his person, and the impossibility of his achievement. In this way the two men have similar relationships—in their souls—to grief and greatness, merely in a reverse order.
Even so, it is only in raising Ahab to such Olympian heights—the level of divine kingship—that his fall, the pull of Moby Dick into the depths, may take on the level and degree that is experienced by Lear. In crafting a king out of Grief, Melville replays the fall of Lear and once again melds grief and greatness into one “monumental ball of woe.” For both Lear and Ahab the two concepts—the two emotions—are inseparable from one another. They are perhaps the eggshell that the fool describes and the meat that has been eaten within is each man’s tortured humanity.