The subject of grief is not one to be taken lightly. In the face of grief, it seems that we can hardly find the words to express our loss, nor the words to comfort the bereaved. Often, we are met with cliches and the repetitive mantra of well-wishers hardly comforts as it should.
In Constance, Shakespeare offers us a glimpse of what it means to truly live with grief: to allow its presence into one's daily existence. I think this is one of the most extraordinary speeches ever written on the subject. In 1596, Shakespeare lost his young son, Hamnet, at age 11. We can imagine (or prefer not to) that a parent's loss of a child is perhaps one of the most profound forms of loss there is. Surely, it upsets the balance of what we believe to be the 'natural order' of things: parents should not bury their children. Even in the Sixteenth Century, when many children died before reaching adulthood, the loss must have been devastating. We do not know what the affect of Hamnet's death was upon Shakespeare, or upon his work. King John was likely to have been written in the mid 1590's, so it is unclear whether or not Constance's words echo Shakespeare's own sentiment about the loss of his son, although Bill Bryson argues this is the case. Undoubtedly, the presence of grief is so strong in this speech -- it is personified literally -- we can find ourselves swept up in the notion that this ought to be true.
Recently, I listened to the audio recording of Chris Cleave's Incendiary: an incredible look at the presence of grief in daily life. I'll tell anyone who'll listen how much I adore Cleave's writing; it haunts me and I felt all my breath expulse from my body, my chest heave, when I came to the line where the protagonist (a son-less mother and widow) states, "I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind." She is writing to Osama bin Laden to implore him to "stop making boy-shaped holes in the world". I thought immediately of Constance, and I'm willing to admit that I spoke aloud in my car as much of this speech as I could remember. Then, I promptly replayed those passages to consider them again. I wonder if Chris Cleave considered this speech at all ...
I will offer you two very different readings of this speech, to help stir your imagination. In the first reading, I consider the fact that no one seems to really be listening to what Constance is saying; in essence, they dismiss her by commanding her to have patience, comfort (have you ever seen how someone in the heat of passion reacts to an outsider who says 'calm down'?). They reduce the complexity of her emotion to sheer madness. In the first reading, I offer a Constance who must make them understand that through her grief, her son lives still. Her grief keeps him alive, she relies upon it: she needs that grief or he'll fade away. In the second reading, I pay closer attention to Constance's lines (3.4.53-54):
For, being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
In the second reading, I consider how Constance's appeals are being dismissed as being 'emotional' and see what will happen if Constance takes a different tactic in trying to get them to see her point. What if she tries to appeal to their sense of logic? If she can prove logically that her grief serves a purpose, perhaps they will stop dismissing her. If she can reason (she states she is capable of reason: literally, able to reason 'reason-able') then they will see that she "is not mad"; a statement she repeats four times in fifteen lines -- more if you consider other variations of the statement -- if she can switch from an argument steeped in pathos to one of logos, perhaps King Philip, Lewis, and Pandulph will understand what it is she wishes to impart.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure!