Blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, Scene VII, Act III

“The blinding of Gloucester on the stage has been condemned almost universally; and surely, with justice………... It is a blot upon King Lear as a stage play”. (A. C. Bradley)

The blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall takes place on the stage in Scene VII, Act III, King Lear. The old man’s offence was his contact with the invasion of Britain by France. Gloucester was betrayed by his bastard son, Edmund to whom he had confided (vide Scene III, Act III). This incurred the wrath of the wrath of the wicked sister and villainous Cornwell who finally blinded Gloucester aided by Regan in his own castle where they were guests and Gloucester played host. The barbarity of this blinding act is no doubt revolting. Shakespeare has come in for severe criticisms for showing such a barbarous act on the stage. Great critics like Bradley have consider this to be an artistic blunder and “a blot upon King Lear as a stage play”. To Dr. Johnson, the blinding scene seemed to have been beyond endurance. Even Coleridge, who otherwise is a great admirer of Shakespeare’s art, disapproves of this scene as he says: “I will not disguise my conviction that in this one point the tragic in this play has been urged beyond the outer most mark of the dramatic”.

Shakespeare defenders, however, justify this scene on various grounds. They point out that this barbaric scene was in conformity with the barbaric pagan age portrayed in the play. But this argument fails when we consider the attitude of the low menials of Cornwell, one of whom mortally wounded his master in protest of this ghastly act. Other refers to coming corruption of the world, if such crimes went unpunished. Next defense is takes in the name of Elizabethan audience whose nerves were stronger and who cherished to see such horrible things on the stage. This may or may not be true but it has little relevance to the staging of the scene. The only criterion is whether the scene so enacted on the stage strengthens the effect of the play as a whole. If it fails to do that, it is a blot on the play, a blemish in Shakespeare’s subtle dramatic art.

William Shakespeare
A German critic, Tieck, has tried to offer an explanation of the scene as staged than with reference to Elizabethan stage arrangements. It is known that the Elizabethan theatre had an elevated inner stage and an outer stage. Tieck supposes that the blinding scene was enacted on the elevated inner stage curtained off from the spectators. He further supposes that under this stage arrangement, Gloucester would have sat back to his spectators while the rest of the actors acted behind the curtain, whose words were only heard. As a result, the spectators were spared the ghastly sight of actual blinding. We think that the above is not a real defence of Shakespeare in this respect but an indirect admission that such blinding should not be openly staged.

A more convincing defence of the scene comes from Lloyd, who admits that an open representation of blinding of Gloucester produces some strong reactions. However, he reminds us that it is no more disgusting than Othello’s smothering of Desdemona on the stage. Mort over in the play itself the spectators had already seen many scenes of horror prior to this scene, including the frenzied and pitiable scenes of horror prior to this scene, including the frenzied and pitiable scenes of storm and had been hardened by their experience. Something stronger and more horrible was, therefore, necessary to shock the Spectators and arouse their sympathies which lay exhausted by the horrors previously witnessed. This might have been the cause for the poet – dramatist’s daring attempt to go in for the last disgrace of filial ingratitude. It was a symbol that served both the main plot and the sub – plot and its actualization on the stage pointed the spectator’s attention to the loss of physical sight for gaining an insight into the filial relationship with Edmund betraying his blood and the pelican daughters drinking almost from the blood of their father who was mentally blind. Such an impression could not be wrought on the minds of the minds of the average auditors with any slighter or inferior infliction on Gloucester whose misfortunes then and of his master (for his story intensifies the story of his master) would have gone unappreciated.

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert    
          2. Wikipedia

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