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  • Voices of Violence:Medieval French Farce and the Dover Cliff Scene in King Lear
  • Edward Wheatley (bio)

The strangest moment in act 4, scene 6, of Shakespeare's King Lear involves the humiliation of the recently blinded Gloucester at the hands of his supposedly loving son. In the so-called Dover Cliff scene Gloucester wrongly believes that the mad beggar Poor Tom, who is actually his son Edgar, has led him to the place where he intends to commit suicide. In order to fool him, Edgar describes the cliff in poetic but horrifying terms, and he then steps away from his father, whose attempt to jump results in only a fall to the ground. Edgar then disguises his voice yet again, though not as Poor Tom, to convince Gloucester that he has fallen from the cliff but was rescued by the gods from a demon at the top. The trick evidently persuades Gloucester that he has been saved by a miracle, and he decides to go on living.1 Although Edgar says that his mistreatment of Gloucester is an attempt to cure him of his despair, it remains gratuitous and difficult to explain within the context of the play, so in this essay I would like to move beyond Lear to examine the scene in relation to drama that provides surprising analogues to it: medieval French farce featuring blind men and their cruelly deceptive guides.

Scholars have long agreed that the idea of a suicidal blinded man who wants to be led to a cliff to end it all came to Shakespeare through the story of the Paphlagonian king in book 2, chapter 10, of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia. The king, father of one legitimate and one illegitimate son, is persuaded by the lies of the bastard son Plexirtus to turn against the legitimate heir, who is named Leonatus. After the bastard usurps the throne, he blinds his father, a development that resembles the involvement of Gloucester's bastard son Edmund with those who blind his father. Then Leonatus, in order to help the king, returns from a nearby country where [End Page 455] he has disguised himself as a soldier. The despairing king asks Leonatus to help him find a rock from which to throw himself, but Leonatus refuses.2 Thus the story sketches the rough outlines of the subplot of Gloucester and his sons, but significantly, it stops short of anything resembling the episode in which Edgar tricks his father into believing he has jumped from the cliff. So the passage from Arcadia does nothing to explain Edgar's surprising and rather cruel response to his father's death wish, nor does the redoubtable Geoffrey Bullough in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare have anything to say about the way the scene plays out.3

Edgar's trickery has long troubled critics. In The Wheel of Fire, G. Wilson Knight writes of the scene, "The grotesque merged into the ridiculous reaches a consummation in this bathos of tragedy: it is the furthest, most exaggerated, reach of the poet's towering fantasticality." Knight reads the episode as evidence that "the Gloucester-theme throughout reflects and emphasizes and exaggerates all the percurrent qualities of the Lear-theme."4 For him, the scene is a "towering stroke of the grotesque and absurd to balance the fantastic incidents and speeches that immediately follow."5 Building literally on the notion that the scene is absurd, Jan Kott in the 1960s tried to contextualize this scene among others in relation to Theater of the Absurd. Kott echoes some of the Knight's vocabulary when he writes, "The pantomime performed by actors on the stage is grotesque, and has something of a circus about it. The blind Gloucester who has climbed a non-existent height and fallen over on flat boards, is a clown."6 Kott goes on to compare the scene to Beckett's Endgame. In the Arden edition of Lear, editor R. A. Foakes writes that Edgar's treatment of his father can be viewed as a game, and he adds, "No wonder that there has been much debate about the nature of this episode, which may be seen as grotesque, comic...