Shakespeare’s Sadism: The Case of Gloucester’s Eyes

Friday, February 20, 2015


           Lear. Read.

           Gloucester. What, with the case of eyes?

           Lear. O ho, are you there with me?  No eyes in your head, nor
           no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse
           in a light, yet you see how this world goes.
                    Shakespeare, King Lear     

           What is a pair in this case?
                    Derrida, Truth in Painting


I wish here to consider a very minor episode in King Lear that has always bothered me, without attempting to make too much sense out of it, even the kind of non-sense with which I am usually comfortable.  First, however, a feint at non-sense making sense.

King Lear begins with an assertion of balance and symmetry, seeming to assure us the comprehension (in both senses) that follows from these:

           Kent. I thought the King had more favored the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.

           Glou. It did always seem so to us, but now in the division of the kingdom
           it appears not which of the two he values most, for equalities are so
           weighed that  curiosity in neither can make choice of neither’s moiety.  
                       (1.1. 1-7)1

Despite any prior familiarity with the story, it is difficult, reading these lines, to avoid the idea that the kingdom is being equally divided between two sons. The statement of symmetry here is brought home by Gloucester’s final phrase, which, even though one may have some difficulty parsing it, clearly indicates, in its strangely rhyming equal parts (as well as by the words “equalities” and “weighed” that precede it) that a balance is being effected. Students never have any difficulty understanding this, although they are unlikely to be able to articulate what the words actually mean. The idea  is further reinforced (and simultaneously undermined) by the scene that follows, in which we hear again of two sons who are theoretically equal—except of course that they are not: “But I have a son, sir,  by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet who is yet no dearer in my account,” 1.1. 19-21. All of these assurances of balance and equity inevitably create some discomfort when Lear finally enters and declares his “darker purpose” in one of greatest enjambments in literature: “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom” (1.1. 34, 35-6).  The movement from the easy equation of two to the somewhat more problematic division by three is then matched by the movement from sons to daughters—although that takes a bit longer to occur, as Lear begins by addressing (still in balanced terms) “[his] son of Cornwall /and . . . [his] no less loving son of Albany” (1.1.41-2).  Of course, any dislocation we may feel when the plot becomes clear soon dissipates as we relocate ourselves in the neat structure shared by those myths and fairy tales inhabited by three young women.2 Yet, although everyone is familiar with this with this structure, it never has the transparent, sense-making properties of an equal balance, which in making a statement of identity between two things, functions as figure for absolute truth.

Nowhere are these properties more evident than in Edgar’s attempt at closure in his final meeting with Edmund, when he comments on their father’s blinding:

           The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
           Make instruments to plague us:
           The dark and vicious place where thee he got
           Cost him his eyes.     

His judgment evokes the primary sense-making apparatuses of our culture: the lex talionis, which guarantees that the punishment shall perfectly fit the crime (that the guilty party shall pay “an eye for an eye”), and the most influential enactment of that law, the Oedipus story.3 As various differently inflected readings have noted, of course, by the time the play gets here it no longer allows us to take comfort from these structures, in large part because of the extreme physicality of the representation of Gloucester’s blinding.4 Kenneth Reinhard and Julia Lupton, for example, point to the excruciating pain we are made to feel when Cornwall declares as he destroys Gloucester’s eye, “Out, vild jelly” (4.1.62)—a pain that I would note is repeated (and balanced) here in a different way here: “the dark and vicious place” for which Gloucester must pay seems almost to pun on (and therefore to match more exactly) the viscosity of his eyes (and, of course, “the vicious place” to which Edgar refers—that female “other eye”—is itself viscous). Clearly, the cruelty (as well as the inexactitude) that is embedded in this logical formula, as in his similar abstractions throughout the play, is brought home to us; we are made to “see feelingly”  the violence and the violation that is involved in our sense-making structures.

Nevertheless we are not allowed to escape or deny our desire for them.  Whether one takes Cornwall’s “Out, vild jelly” as pointing simply to the physical pain we are witnessing, as Paul Alpers suggests, or to the mental pain caused when the symbolic is taken literally and we encounter fragments of the Real, as Reinhard and Lupton have argued, this is clearly not the only perspective we are offered on Gloucester’s blinding. We can, perhaps, decide that Regan is merely making a sadistic joke when—lacking any original ideas but always taking those of others one step further—she frames her desire to put out Gloucester’s second eye as a yearning for the comforts of balance and symmetry: “One side will mock another, th’other too” (71).   But that sadism is repeated by the play itself, and we are both maddened by and implicated in it, particularly in the strange episode in which Albany learns of the blinding.

This episode begins when a messenger enters into a scene in which Goneril and her husband have been arguing, and declares disconcertingly:

           Oh my good lord, the Duke of Cornwall’s dead
           Slain by his servant, going to put out
           The other eye of Gloucester.      

Although we have witnessed the event, as Albany has not, we are similarly caught off balance, sharing in some of his puzzlement when he exclaims:  “Gloucester’s eyes?” (72). We can’t, after all have “the other” until we have one—unless, of course, we are telling someone to “turn the other cheek,” a phrase that conventionally assumes the first blow.  Compared to this linguistic oddity (which forces us into the position of waiting for the first shoe to drop) the syntactic confusion about who was actually attempting to blind Gloucester seems relatively minor.

The commandment to “turn the other cheek” is, of course, mentioned in the Bible in explicit contrast to the lex talionis:

           Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth
           for a tooth. But I say unto you, Resist not evil; but whosoever
           shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to  him the other also.    
                    (Geneva Bible, Matthew 5.38-39)

Quite clearly, though, “turning the other cheek” is not what this episode is about.  During the blinding scene itself, Gloucester had called upon the retributive vengeance that Edgar will claim “cost him his eyes,” allowing those around to pun repeatedly on the figurative and literal meanings of the word “see”:

             Glou. But I shall see the winged vengeance overtake such children.
             Corn.  See’t thou shalt never.
             1 Serv. My lord, you have one eye left
             To see some mischief on him.
             Corn. Lest it see more, prevent it.      
                       (3.7.66-7, 82-3)

And, when what has happened is explained to him, Albany declares Cornwall’s death a clear example of the principle of “an eye for an eye,” confirming the order of the universe:

             Alb.  The shows you are above,
             You justicers, that these our nether crimes
             So speedily can venge.    

The rest of the scene continues to play, in a dizzying manner, with the desire for balance that this order assumes.  When, after asserting the existence of divine justice, Albany asks, “But, O, poor Gloucester, / Lost he the other eye?” (80-81), the messenger seems to correct the imbalance Cornwall’s actions entail by declaring twice, “Both, both” (81).  And the exchange between the two men is oddly framed by speeches that twice repeat the word “pluck’[d]” (78, 85).  Normally, of course, one might not notice this repetition, except that the word figures so prominently in descriptions of physically losing the eyes in this play (Gon. “Pluck out his eyes”; Glou. “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes” [3.7.5, 56-7]), as well in the New Testament.

The relevant Biblical passages focus repeatedly on dissymmetry (a dissymmetry that is temporarily “righted” here):

           Wherefore if thy right eye cause thee to offend, pluck it
           out and cast it from thee; for better it is for thee, that one
           of thy members perish, than that thy whole body should be
           cast into hell.

           And if thine eye cause thee to offend, pluck it out and cast it
           from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye,
           than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. 
                      (Matthew 5.29, 18.9)5

After considering the first passage and those around it, Jacques Derrida contrasts the injunction to “turn the other cheek” and asks:

           Does this commandment reconstitute the parity of the pair
           rather than breaking it up? . . . No it doesn’t, it interrupts the
           parity and symmetry, for instead of paying back the slap on
           the cheek (right cheek for right cheek, eye for eye), one is to 
           offer the other cheek.  It is a matter of suspending the strict
           economy of exchange, of payback, of giving and getting back,
           of tit for tat.  
                    (The Gift of Death, 102) 

I do not believe that the Christian commandment is, in any coherent way, relevant to King Lear (although the verbal echoes of Matthew make sure that it is floating around in our head, in a somewhat fragmented and unsatisfactory fashion), but the form of what Derrida describes—an apparent balance that is in fact but a repetition of the same—is certainly present in this scene. After hearing the news and being presented with a letter, Goneril says, aside:

                                         One way I like this well,
           But being widow, and my Gloucester with her,
           May all the building in my fancy pluck
           Upon my hateful life.  Another way
           The news is not so tart.     

Because of the presence of the intervening “but” (much virtue in that “but”), “one way” and “another way” are here, in fact, the same way.  To some extent, this passage reverses and balances Goneril’s comparison of Edmund to Albany earlier in the scene: “My most dear Gloucester! / O the difference between man and man” (25-26).  And this, in turn, seems to recall one of the most memorable moments in Sidney’s Arcadia, the source of the Gloucester plot: King Basilius, hoping to have intercourse with Zelmane (actually the disguised Pyrocles), does the deed in the dark with his own wife, after which he exclaims:  “O, who would have thought that there could have been such difference betwixt women! (725).

Something both similar to and different from Goneril’s musing about Cornwall happens in here in the next exchange:

           Alb. Where was his son when they did take his eyes?
           Mess. Come with my lady hither.
           Alb.            He is not here.
           Mess.  No, my good lord, I met him back again.    

Edmund’s back-and-forth movement seems to get him nowhere; he remains, at least figuratively, in the same place (“not here”).  And we are similarly left, after our own movement throughout this episode,  with only an empty “case.” The scene ends, of course, with Albany’s promise to “revenge [Gloucester’s] eyes.”  Clearly, the consolations of retributive justice have been wholly demolished by now.  But I don’t think this is the primary force of what is occurring here:  the effort to turn the other cheek (or eye) seems similarly unsatisfactory.  Rather, the lex talionis and the Christian commandment are themselves presented--along with the repetitions within the text and the echoes of other texts, the incessant puns on and conflations of the literal and figurative, the abstract and the embodied—as invitations to our desire for balance and comprehension.   And this desire seems both unbearably brutal and impossible to avoid; whether we recognize it or not, we are forced repeatedly to participate in it, although we never see it fulfilled.

Stephen Booth has argued that the numerous patterns and repetitions in Shakespeare, even when they describe the most painful things, work to counter the pain aroused (21).  This does seem to be the case in most literary texts.  But I would suggest that in Lear, at least, they have the opposite effect—an effect similar to that of the examples of lack of closure to which Booth has so memorably pointed: they intensify it.  If Gloucester’s blinding itself is painful (and of course it is), the episode I have discussed duplicates and reduplicates that pain by playing with it linguistically and figuratively, and by effectively putting us in Regan’s place as it does so (“One side will mock another,” indeed!).  And that, I think, is considerably more sadistic than forcing us to watch the spectacle of suffering itself.


  • 1. All quotations are from  The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al.   2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
  • 2.  See Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale UP, 1983). See also Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” in Writings on Art and Literature (from the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey, 1953-74). Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997) 109-22; and Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard,  After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997).
  • 3. See Derrida’s comments on Freud’s seminal reading, in “The Uncanny,” of Oedipus’s blinding, especially as it regards doubles: Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1993) 62-63, n. 59. Lupton and Reinhard argue (and demonstrate brilliantly) that it does not require a knowledge of Shakespeare’s reading list to think profitably about the repetition of Oedipal images here.
  • 4. See, e.g.. Paul Alpers, “King Lear and the Theory of the Sight Pattern,” in Ruben Brower and Richard Poirier, ed.  In Defense of Reading (New York: EP Dutton, 1963),  133-52; Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976) 267-356; and Lupton and Reinhard.
  • 5. The repetition of the word “cast” is also interesting here; like its near-double, “case,” this word recurs, with various meanings, through King Lear.