Gloucester’s mock-suicide

…for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through…
– John Keats

“Damnation and impassioned clay…” Keats certainly had a way with words! But impressive though those words are, I particularly love here his use of the word “must”. King Lear is a harrowing play: fierce disputes betwixt damnation and impassioned clay, even at best of times, are unlikely to be anything but harrowing. But no matter: those of us who are under its spell feel that they must keep returning to it. And no matter how many times one sees or reads this play, each new encounter overwhelms with its terror and its pity, and its savage power.

I was eleven years old when I first encountered this play. It was at the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, during the 1971 Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West played Lear. I am not sure how much I took in, or even how much I was capable of taking in at that age: but I took in enough. I was so excited by what I had seen, that I could not get to sleep that night. There are few single instances that one could describe as “life-changing”, but I think I can with some confidence describe that evening in such terms: my Shakespeare mania can be traced back to that performance.

Timothy West was, I think, only in his forties when he played that role in Edinburgh. Some thirty or so afterwards, I saw Timothy West, now himself closer to Lear’s “fourscore and more”, play the role again, this time in an English Touring Theatre production directed by Stephen Unwin. I am afraid I cannot give a detailed account of how his interpretation had changed over the years, but his performance was every bit as overwhelming as I remember it to have been some thirty years earlier.

I am currently reading the play in two different texts. Last year, I read Hamlet in different texts – the two Quarto texts (the so-called “good Quarto”, and also the “Bad Quarto” for completeness), and the Folio – and convinced myself that when more than one legitimate text exists, then we must treat them as different versions of the work: no purpose is served in conflating them. So now, to King Lear: as with Hamlet there are two good texts – the First Quarto, of 1608, and the First Folio, printed after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623; and there are sufficient differences between the two texts to indicate significant revisions. I’ll try to compare the two texts once I have finished reading them, but for the moment, I am drawn once again into this fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay. And there’s one scene in particular in this fierce dispute that, even after forty and more years of repeated reading and viewing, I find puzzling.

It occurs in Act 4, shortly before the famous scene in which the blind Gloucester encounters the mad Lear on the heath. Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son, leads his eyeless father: the father is unaware of the identity of the man leading him, and, in despair, wants only to die. Edgar pretends that they are at the edge of a cliff, and delivers a magnificent vertigo-inducing description of what it is like to look down from the imagined heights. Gloucester, thinking himself to be on the edge, leaps forward, only to fall on the level ground. When he comes to, Edgar approaches him again, this time pretending to be another person; and he tells Gloucester that he is now at the foot of the cliff, having fallen from the top, and that, but by some miracle, has remained physically unscathed. He adds also that the person Gloucester had been with at the top of the cliff – himself of course – had appeared to him from the bottom as some sort of fiendish supernatural figure.

This episode has always struck me as bizarre. I frankly do not understand it. Edgar playing these games with his sightless father makes no sort of sense at all: what is he trying to achieve? He tells us that he is doing all this to cure his father from despair, but how all this tomfoolery could achieve such an end, or even why he thinks it could achieve that end, is far from clear. It is utterly bizarre.

And yet, it is a scene that haunts the mind. I do not understand it, and I cannot see how it fits with what I understand to be the themes of the play. But I would not even think of cutting it from performance. After all, Shakespeare did not remove it when he revised the work: he clearly thought it important.

Am I missing something here? Or is this scene – like Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” – one of those Shakespearean miracles that defy analysis? I do not know. Analysis is important, certainly, but it is salutary perhaps to keep in mind that a work of this stature has about it a mystery; and that even the most trenchant of analyses cannot pluck out the heart of that mystery.

11 responses to this post.

  1. You know how Shakespeare often uses parallel plots in his plays; this is another parallel. Gloucester’s blindness, fall and being led by someone he should but doesn’t recognize parallel’s the actions of Lear, who is “blinded by rage” and (symbolically, at least) falls, and is led around by Kent. I guess I don’t have trouble with Edgar’s actions, especially because people in Shakespeare often refuse to act according to normal rules of behavior, they act according to Shakespeare’s metaphorical needs. Edgar acts to parallel Kent, then, and that’s enough to justify it. Both Edgar and Kent are parallels to Cordelia, the unrecognized voice of truth.


    • Maybe a better way of putting it is that Gloucester and Lear both attempt to destroy themselves (Lear is blind to his self-destruction because he is blinded by his pride and his false belief in his daughters’ adoration of him), and each of them acquires a guide to in some small way restore them from death (at least from a symbolic death).


  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on April 19, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    This is indeed a puzzling bit if the play.

    Just to add to what Scott commented above, I do agree that the desire to destroy one self seems to a topic of exploration here as reflected in both Lear and Gloucester. Perhaps in a Universe where so much chaos and horror abounds, such efforts as self extinguishment cannot even bring the intended relief.


    • Relief is important here: Dover is mentioned often in the first half of the play, as a place where relief will be found, almost as if it’s a sanctuary of some sort. After Gloucester’s jump, it is no longer mentioned, because sanctuary is a false idea in this play. See the final scene, for example, where Lear thinks he and Cordelia will have sanctuary from the world, relief, in prison. Then she is hanged, and he dies, her corpse in her arms. The theme of escape, freedom, from responsibility and accountability for our actions is very strong in “Lear.” We cannot escape, except through death.


  3. I’m not at all sure of this, Himadri, but I’ll give it a go…

    However unconvincing the moment may look to us from the outside, in the inward theatre of Gloucester’s imagination he really is standing on a cliff and he really does throw himself off it. He genuinely believes he is committing suicide and gives himself over fully to his desire to do so, though of course he is safe in reality.

    If we then think, ‘So what, won’t he soon find out he hasn’t killed himself and so be back where he started?’, then I’m reminded of a news item I saw a few years ago about a man who lost his business and took an overdose, fully intending to kill himself. As it turned out he recovered, but the tablets damaged his sight and he was left with something like 30% vision. To any outsider he would now seem to have even more reason to kill himself – instead of which he took up painting. Something had changed in him once the desire for suicide had been acted on and he found himself still in the world, and it gave him a new and unexpected appreciation of life.

    I don’t know how this would relate to your idea of the themes of the play, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with: Edgar is doing exactly what he says and is making his father pass through the experience of suicide imaginatively while protecting him from the real consequence. It suggests the power of cathartic imaginative experience – it is, after all, through a powerfully imaginative description that Edgar convinces Gloucester that he is standing on a cliff, and Edgar does then wonder if his father may actually have died through the power of his belief of having thrown himself off it.

    I’m stiil usure about it though, because if on the one hand I love the idea that imaginative experience is boundless in its possibilities and effects – Shakespeare had dedicated his life to imagination – then on the other I think, “Come on, he’s just had a little tumble. How would that help him?”.

    btw I agree there are strong parallels between Lear and Gloucester, and I make a connection between Gloucester’s coming round after his fall and Lear’s question after his madness is in abeyance: “Am I in France?” – “In your own kingdom. sir”. I am less in agreement with the idea that this is all purely metaphorical. I think a profound everyday psychological understanding underpins Shakespeare’s plays and this is why they have survived. People act in unusual ways not to fulfil Shakeperean metaphors but because people are unusual and cannot be predicted.


    • “People act in unusual ways not to fulfil Shakeperean metaphors but because people are unusual and cannot be predicted.” Yes, except that Gloucester and Edgar are not people; a guy named Shakespeare sat down with paper an pen and decided what these characters were going to do, and in what order, for them. Shakespeare gives us the illusion of the complexity and opacity of real people, but he picks their actions to suit his specific meaning. “Edgar” has no free will, not an ounce of it. So “why does Edgar act the way he acts” is not the real question; “why does Shakespeare have Edgar act so” is the real one, right? “Edgar” is an abstraction within a dramatic piece, which is another abstraction. Maybe I mistake your meaning, though. I’m terribly literal at times, without seeing it.


  4. Thanks all for all your very interesting comments.

    Please do excuse me if I don’t get back to you right away: I’m not at home right now, and have very limited access to wifi. But I’ll certainly respond fully once I get back home later this week.

    I trust you’re all having a good Easter break,
    speak to you soon,


    • Once again, thanks everyone for your contributions, and my apologies for the delay in replying. Since the points you all raise are inter-related, it’s possibly best if I were to reply to you all in together.

      It is true, as Scott says, that:

      Gloucester and Edgar are not people; a guy named Shakespeare sat down with paper a pen and decided what these characters were going to do, and in what order, for them.

      But that still leaves open the question “Why did Shakespeare decide to make the characters act in this way?” And in addressing this question, it seems to me that Shakespeare’s characterisations in this particular play are somewhat different from those in his other major tragedies. For in Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, etc., Shakespeare made his characters behave in a way that is psychologically coherent, and is amenable to analysis in terms of the characters, given certain innate characteristics, perceiving and reacting to external events at various different levels, and, as a consequence, developing. But this kind of psychological coherence does not always seem to me present in King Lear: here, we seem to move away from a world in which rational analysis is possible.

      The story Chris tells of the man cured of suicidal thoughts by a failed attempt is striking: this is indeed what happens to Gloucester. But I don’t know that Edgar, who had been naïve enough to have been taken in my Edmund’s machinations earlier in the play, could suddenly become so acute a psychologist as to devise such a therapy as a cure for his father. Certainly, it is true that Edgar develops as a character, but such a transition seems to me too extreme. Not that I am ruling out the possibility: it’s more that when a character develops from A to B, and when we are not shown any stage in the development from A to B; and when, further, A and B are very different from each other; there is inevitably a sense of jarring. And Edgar’s transformation from credulous and naïve youth to an acute psychologist jars.

      But it seems to me that this sense of jarring is deliberate on Shakespeare’s part. Continuities in character aren’t important here (as they are, say, in Hamlet or in Othello), because in this play, Shakespeare is depicting a world that has stopped making sense. When we get to those apocalyptic storm scenes at the centre of the play, it isn’t just Lear’s mind that collapses: reason itself collapses, and it becomes impossible to make sense of such a world. The Fool steps out of his role to deliver a prophesy: actually, he delivers three prophesies. First, he prophesies that he will “speak a prophecy” ere he departs; then he fulfils it by speaking his prophecy; and then, he opens up vast vistas of time by prophesying that Merlin will make that prophecy in the future, for “I live before his time”. There is no point trying to make sense of any of this: we are past the stage where the world can be made sense of. Even language, the means by which we communicate meaning, seems to break down, and lack meaning:

      Says suum, mun, ha, no, nonny.

      Dolphin my boy, my boy, sessa! let him trot by.

      Do de, de, de, do, de. Sessa!

      O, well flown, bird! i’ the clout, i’ the clout: hewgh!

      It is within such a dramatic context, in the midst of this terrible absurdity within which we cannot even begin to search for a meaning, that this titanic drama of pain and cruelty and pity plays itself out. It’s like witnessing the end of the world itself.

      I agree that the two main, the stories of Lear and of Gloucester mirror each other. Shakespeare has done this sort of thing elsewhere, but never, I think, has the mirroring been so close. This results in some moments of awkwardness: it means, amongst other things, that the climax of the Gloucester-Edgar strand – where Edgar reveals himself to his father – has to be played offstage so as not to repeat what we have already witnessed in the earlier scene in which Lear is reconciled to Cordelia. And yes, I agree also that Gloucester, like Lear, has to go through a symbolic death and resurrection. Lear, on seeing Cordelia gain, says: “You do me wrong to take me out o’th’grave.” He believes he is dead, and in Hell:

      Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
      Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
      Do scald like molten lead.

      And similarly, Gloucester too must go through a symbolic death. But what a strange way to set it up! The scene of Gloucester’s mock-suicide resonates in the mind for reasons that seem to be beyond analysis.

      If Lear and Gloucester are parallels, there seems to me also a third parallel: there is another character who had lived his life in safety and comfort, but who, having had that safety and comfort stripped from him, has had to live through horrors previously unimagined. This character is, of course, Edgar. And, like Lear and Gloucester, Edgar in his distress learns humanity. This is how he describes himself:

      A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows;
      Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
      Am pregnant to good pity.

      Actors playing Edgar have always complained that they have little in the text to go on, and maybe this is the reason: there is already too much repetition with Lear and Gloucester. But if this is so, then why did Shakespeare, by then an experienced dramatist, decide on a narrative that involves so many parallels? As ever, there seems more questions than answers. What is not in question, though, is the impact this play makes, even on the umpteenth reading. It is like being overtaken by a whirlwind.


  5. That scene is awkward. It is awkward to stage. While Edgar is (mis)leading his father to the cliff, we can’t help feeling that either Shakespeare is being nonsensical or Edgar is being a bit cruel. Why didn’t Edgar simply announce his presence at the moment his father wished for him? We are uncomfortable with the whole premise. Then Glouchester jumps off the cliff. It’s always uncomfortable to see an older actor fall on his face, but here the actor must take a little leap on a perfectly level stage and fall down without the assistance of swordplay or any kind of a push. And when he hits the ground, he has to lay there as if he’s knocked himself unconscious. Physically, it is hard to pull off convincingly, and if the actor is of a venerable age, we wince and hope he hasn’t really hurt himself. The audience really has to meet Shakespeare half-way–suspend all that and just go with it, but we really don’t want to because Edgar isn’t making us want to. Why does he play along through this torturous scene instead of ending his father’s anguish by revealing himself?

    So here is my take: Edgar is already known to Gloucester as poor Tom–a worm of a man. His father has reduced him to this–even if it is a charade, it is a humiliating one and its necessity is entirely Glouchester’s fault. The noble father is already a wreck, but at least he can believe that his noble son has escaped nobly–not by posing as a naked lunatic. Edgar might kill his father with joy (as he does later) or (prematurely) with regret. Glouchester is clearly in despair and expresses his intention to die, if poor Tom would be nice enough to lead him to a particular bluff. Edgar might dispute the merits of suicide with him, but he sees another, probably more effective, way to persuade his father that suicide is pointless. He lets him jump. When Glouchester wakes, his frenzy is somewhat burned out. He is assured that something evil drove him off the cliff and that grace forbid his death. His existence, therefore, has a shape and a destiny, and the universe is not mere chaos. Edgar has put aside his own pressing desire to be restored to his father in order to first restore his father’s mental health. When Lear fortuitously comes toodling along, followed by Cordelia’s officers, Glouchester is able to grasp the situation with some perspective and is glad that his jump had come to nothing. He is able to die of joy a little later, something no one else in the play is granted.


    • Hello Janet, and thank you for your very interesting comments. I agree, this is possibly the only way that this bizarre episode can be made sense of. But it does involve asking the audience to believe that Edgar, who not that long ago was so utterly naive and gormless to be duped by his brother, has now acquired out of nowhere so profound an understanding of human psychology that he can carry out this complex therapy on his father, whose mind is in an extreme state. It may be true that Edgar has developed in the meantime, but since we do not see the process of this development, it is a bit hard to credit.

      Possibly we shouldn’t try to make much sense of this. The play by this stage is depicting a world that has stopped making sense. In the storm scene in the third act, everything seems to break down: the world is no longer something we may reason with – it is no longer amenable to reason. Whenever i see or read the play, even though I know what occurs, I find I have lost my bearings: the world is, as Wordsworth puts it, “unintelligible”. All we know is that we love and we hate, that we commit acts of miraculous love and self-sacrifice, and also acts of extraordinary violence and cruelty,and that there is no explanation for any of this..

      None of this, of course, helps the actors playing Edgar and Gloucester, and the approach you describe is possibly the best way to present this.

      All the best,


  6. […] eyeless on the heath, but keeps up the crazy act even when there’s no-one else around – for no apparent reason, other than to crank up the […]


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