In previous posts, I have drawn attention to the significance of Edmund—he is the glue of the play. And I have stressed that—for me—Lear is indeed mad from the start. Now I want to write about Gloucester and his fate. Belle and I have already noted that Shakespeare often sling shots minor characters into the lime light and Gloucester is another powerful example.
Let’s summarize what happens: With the play rolling we now watch as Edmund betrays his father to Regan and her husband Cornwall. A brutal scene of torture follows. It takes the form of an interrogation, though one that is limp and insane because Regan and Cornwell already know everything: they know that forces friendly to “the lunatic king” are trying to get him to Dover to join with Cordelia and France who are leading an army intent on (re)taking England.
The staging of the torture is very clear, yet I have never seen it done properly. First Cornwall says, “To this chair bind him.” Gloucester could be carried in already bound, but Shakespeare wants the audience to see the man tied up. Then the interrogation begins and climaxes with Gloucester stating that he sent the king to Dover because he would not see Regan’s nails pluck out Lear’s eyes. More tension: What has been uttered will now be enacted. Cornwall: “Fellows, hold the chair, upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.” Now Gloucester is tilted back so that his feet are in the air and his head is resting on the ground. While this stage business is being done one of the henchmen discretely takes out a bag of ketchup and places it to one side of Gloucester’s face. Then Cornwall stomps on it.
I find it useful to think about a remark of Samuel Johnson’s: Lear’s blinding scene is “too horrid to be endured in dramatick exhibition, and . . . must always compel the mind to relieve its distress by incredulity.” In other words, Shakespeare fails here because the audience refuses to suspend belief. We tell ourselves this is only a play—that was ketchup.
Yet what I would stress is that this failure allows Shakespeare to step through even more critical restraints when it comes to what he wants to do with his art. But first the play idles further in barbarity: Regan eggs on her husband to finish and Cornwall extends his hand to put out the other eye. Just then a servant rebels and stabs his master. Regan grabs a knife and kills the rebel declaring: “A peasant stand up thus?”
Nowhere in Shakespeare is there a more powerful political act: out and out mutiny. I think of former JAG Matthew Diaz:
He spent six months in the brig for printing out 39 pages of information on Gitmo detainees, sticking them inside a Valentine’s card and mailing them to a civil rights lawyer. But the Bush machine cranks on, as does the mutilation of Gloucester. Next Regan straddles Gloucester, getting up in his face, while shifting another bag of blood into her hand and then in a motion that turns from a caress to a jab: “out vile jelly!” Then the mortally wounded Cornwall orders Gloucester’s release: “Let him smell his way to Dover.”
It’s a scene cut from the headlines, as they say. But none of this contemporary resonance explains Lear’s rise to prominence in the twentieth century. Rather that rests with Beckett and the Swann Theater drawing I talked about earlier.
To understand what I mean we have to stay with the Gloucester plot. (I said he takes over the play.) He now encounters his good son Edgar, who is busy meditating—now he’d be blogging—on the meaning of life. He looks at his blind father and concludes “the worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ ” And I have to say: is this the message of Lear: that life is a sequence of going from worst to worst?
And all this mere prelude to the Dover cliffs. There Gloucester is climbing yet he says “methinks the ground is flat.” And of course it is. There is no hill on the stage. It’s bare. But there is no hill either in Edgar’s plan to stage his father’s suicidal leap. So both on stage and in the story there is nowhere to fall from. There is nothing. Now we see what catapulted Lear past Hamlet (and before that the Merchant). It became Shakespeare’s Waiting for Godot: it was seen to dramatize existentialism or the absurd in advance (read Jan Kott, who popularized this view).
Northrop Frye put it well when he summed up this interpretation as the tragedy of tragedy. So I will end where we began. What is the point of tragedy, and of this tragedy? Is it to witness a character gain enlightenment through suffering? Yet what happens when the tragic artist turns on that classical definition of tragedy. What happens when the form itself is made the victim? He says, how sweet, you want tragedy to mean something! I said failure allows Shakespeare to move past restraints and this is the last big one. Lear doesn’t learn. Some people never do. This tragedy reveals (and revels in) the meaninglessness of itself. In it we see tragedy die. This is what critics saw when they burned Lear down to a blind man doing a prat fall on a blank stage.
I will conclude this Lear blog sequence with some final thoughts on the play’s end.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports