Responding Blindly? A Reading of a Scene in'King Lear'

Derek Peat


How does an audience respond to a play in performance? In this essay I want to explore the question through an analysis of a scene widely regarded as the most brutal and disagreeable Shakespeare ever wrote, the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear (III. vii). The conventional wisdom about an audience faced with the scene is that they respond with horror and disgust and consequently condemn the perpetrators of such violence. This response may then be viewed in terms of the larger values the play explores. S. L. Goldberg offers a representative comment: "The sheer fact of the blinding and our sheer horrified rejection of it as unendurable lie at the very centre of the play." If this is true, is it only a matter of propriety that caused a series of critics to suggest that in presenting the blinding Shakespeare had gone too far? "What can I say of this scene? My reluctance to think Shakespeare wrong, and yet ., ." Coleridge was by no means alone in his unease, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century the scene was frequently condemned. Dr Johnson's comment is representative: "the extrusion of Gloucester's eyes ... seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distress by incredulity." Dr Johnson had never seen the blinding performed, but he had realized that it is the audience who must endure what amounts to a direct attack upon their senses. In the nineteenth century they didn't get the chance, because the scene was cut in performance. A. C. Bradley approved of the omission: "the mere physical horror of such a spectacle would in the theatre be a sensation so violent as to overpower the purely tragic emotions." While reading he could control these emotions, but thought the scene "a blot upon King Lear as a stage play.' All three critics recognize that Shakespeare is attacking their sensibilities and their emotions: he demands they respond, but they refuse.

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