The Earl of Gloucester’s Blinding

The Earl of Gloucester’s Blinding

  [Corn.]  Fellows, hold the chair.
Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.
  Glou.  He that will think to live till he be old,
Give me some help! O cruel! O you gods!
  Reg.  One side will mock another; the other too.
  Corn.  If you see vengeance –
  1. Ser.  Hold your hand, my lord!
I have served you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.
  Reg.  How now, you dog!
  1. Ser.  If you did wear a beard upon your chin,
I’ld shake it on this quarrel. What do you mean?
  Corn.  My villain!
They draw and fight.
  1. Ser.  Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.
Cornwall is wounded.
  Reg.  Give me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus?
She takes a sword and runs at him behind; kills him.
  1. Ser.  O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O! 
He dies. 
  Corn.  Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vild jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?
  Glou.  All dark and comfortless!

King Lear, 3.7.67-84

Structurally, and perhaps conceptually, the blinding of the Earl of Gloucester is the centerpiece of King Lear. Alarmed by the mounting tyranny of the Duke of Cornwall, and the rift growing between Cornwall and Albany, Gloucester pledges himself to the French rebellion that will bring Lear back into power, as Gloucester relates to his bastard son, Edmund. Intent on acquiring his father’s fortune, however, Edmund betrays his father to Cornwall, who makes Edmund the new Earl of Gloucester and arrests the old Earl. Cornwall stomps out one of Gloucester’s eyes with his heel and then digs out the other with his bare hands. Arguably, the blinding of Gloucester is an example of stage stigma, of using some physical abomination to symbolize the errors and insufficiencies of a character, as Shakespeare did previously with the mutilation of the Andronici. As with Shakespeare’s other instances of stigma, the blinding of Gloucester poses the question of significance: is it metaphor or metonymy? On the one hand, by trusting Edmund over Edgar, Gloucester was blind to the virtue of his children, as indeed Lear himself was when he disinherited Cordelia. Shakespeare made this metaphor explicit when Gloucester laments, “I stumbled when I saw.” On the other hand, however, Gloucester’s blinding may be not the sign but the effect of his mistakes. Edgar voices this view when he says to Edmund, “The dark and vicious place where thee he got cost him his eyes,” suggesting that Gloucester’s adultery many years ago caused, eventually, his blinding many years later. It must be noted, however, that these two readings, which together can be called “figural” – the blinding being a figure for some error, whether that error is Gloucester’s misestimation of his children or the effect of his adultery – are two readings that are actually both available in Shakespeare’s source for the subplot in King Lear, the chapter on the Paphlagonian King in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. As such, it is possible to see Sidney as a stigmatizer heedlessly using blindness as a convenient symbol without any care for the actual experience of the blind. And it is possible to see Shakespeare after Sidney as a stigmatizer as well: surely it was the opportunity to use the story of the blinding as a gloss on King Lear’s misjudgment of his own children that inspired Shakespeare to incorporate the material from Sidney into his play in the first place. Yet Shakespeare stands apart from Sidney in the emphasis he throws upon the material, physical, creatural experience of Gloucester’s blindness, beginning with the “vild jelly” that Cornwall digs out, continuing with the flax and egg mixture that Gloucester’s servant uses to treat his wounds, extending to Gloucester’s beleaguered walk to Dover, for which he must depend upon a guide, his son, whom he cannot even recognize, and eventually ending with Gloucester’s attempted suicide, heart attack, and death. In the case of Gloucester, Shakespeare is not a stigmatizer as much as he is a dramatist of (1) disability and (2) stigma. That is, Shakespeare dramatized (1) the human experience of blindness as well as (2) the social construction of its meanings. If Sidney was a “figuralist” on this front, Shakespeare was a “realist,” but it must be remembered that, in Shakespeare, the figural is a part of the real. In other words, the figural meanings made of a physical abnormality such as blindness may not be real, but the making of those meanings by oneself and others is real, which is the reason that it is best to speak of Shakespeare as a “figural realist” on the issue of stigma.


The Paphlagonian King
Mutilation in Shakespeare
Blindness in Shakespeare 


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