Guest blogger, Jonny Patrick, writes…
My favourite moment in Shakespeare is the scene in King Lear where the blind Gloucester is led by his son Edgar to the cliffs of Dover, where he intends to commit suicide. Gloucester does not know that his guide is Edgar, who has taken on the disguise of the madman Poor Tom.
Gloucester has lost his sight; we have ours. However, what we are about to see will make us question its reliability, morality, even its desirability. We watch as Edgar leads his father forward, telling him that he is now “within a foot / Of th’extreme verge” (IV, vi). He gives a dizzying verbal picture of the view from the precipice. Gloucester tells him to leave and Edgar does so. What, we ask ourselves, is Edgar playing at? Will he really let his father jump? Is this some kind of revenge for Gloucester’s earlier injustices towards him? In an aside, Edgar addresses the question, but tells us merely “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it”. In this play about eyes, where should we look: at the man about to leap or at his son, who must surely stop this from happening?
Then Gloucester jumps. He falls, and is prostrate onstage. So he’s dead? Have we really just watched a man leap to his death? Edgar himself is unsure and runs up to Gloucester. Assuming a new accent and persona, he shouts to Gloucester, who wakes up. Once again, Shakespeare pitches us into confusion. Have we just watched a man jump from a cliff and survive? Or have we just seen him die then rise from the dead? Gloucester himself is unsure: “But have I fallen or no?” Ultimately, we can work out that this is an elaborate ruse by Edgar, designed to trick his father out of his suicidal despair by convincing him that he has been miraculously preserved. Gloucester’s leap landed him on the ground before him; Edgar never took him to the edge. But Edgar/Shakespeare is toying with us too: was that really what we saw?
I can think of nothing more purely theatrical than this scene. On the radio or on film, it just can’t work in the same way. It has to be done on a bare stage; make the staging realistic and you give away that Gloucester hasn’t jumped at all. It’s a soul-saving experience for Gloucester and a theatrical miracle.
Head of English, St Paul’s Girls’ School