Laughing Through Lent

Peter Leithart uses Shakespeare’s Cymbeline to turn the typical understanding of Lent on its head, arguing that Lent “seems a grim and black season of self-accusation”:

But that’s all superficial. Lent is better understood as a season of Christian comedy. … The knot of misunderstandings and deceptions is the very thing that in Othello or King Lear drives the characters helplessly toward a bloody denouement. Cymbeline avoids the cliff because the final scene is a riot of confession. Shakespeare assembles the remaining characters at a prison and begins to unravel the tangled skein. The queen shows no remorse, but on her deathbed she confesses her intention to feed her husband a “mortal mineral” that would have wasted him away “by inches.” It’s the first domino, and other confessions rapidly follow. Iachimo acknowledges that he lied about seducing Imogen, prompting Posthumus, disguised as a common soldier, to confess his guilt in believing the lie. Imogen, who has no sin to confess, reveals her true identity. Cymbeline’s two sons, kidnapped long before, have wandered into the action, and their true identities are unveiled too.

Leithart concludes:

Comedy happens to characters who share Shakespeare’s belief about human helplessness and express that belief in penitent confession. Helpless self-accusation, it turns out, is the road to joyful restoration. It is a happy Shakespearean (and Christian) paradox that final happiness depends on practices associated with the most somber season of the Christian calendar.