Studying King Lear with Max Bluestone

Charles Lutsky



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Studying King Lear with Dr. Max Bluestone at UMass Boston in 1968 was my most meaningful college experience. His first words were, “Before we discuss the play I want you to read it and then read it again and again until you no longer have to look at the footnotes.”

Max had his PhD from Harvard. He rejected the idea of dumbing down his classes to fit our less than elite student body. He was determined to give us the best he had to offer and demanded our best in return.

When he was asked for a definition of tragedy, he told us the nature of tragedy will emerge out of your reading of the play. “My job”, he said, “is to make sure you don’t confuse maudlin sentimentality with tragedy.”

One day I was coming down from the boardroom. He and I were alone in the elevator. I was upset by the week’s tally of dead soldiers in Vietnam combined with my desire not to go there. I asked him, in a tone that must have been both angry and cranky, how he could be teaching us a playwright who had been dead for hundreds of years when men my age were dying in Vietnam?

It was the only time I ever saw him uncomfortable and seemingly lost for words. Then he said slowly with awkwardness in his voice, “Reading Shakespeare cannot stop a war or save a soldier’s life. What he can do, if you let him, is to show you the quality of a life worth living and why that quality deserves to be protected.” Then, in this rare encounter, he did not look directly into my eyes and he said, “I teach Shakespeare because I love him.”

Max Bluestone died young many decades ago. I never had a chance to tell him, and maybe I didn’t know it then, but I want to say it now. “Max Bluestone, I love you.”