Printer Friendly

Voices of violence: medieval French farce and the Dover Cliff scene in King Lear.

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 Cliffscene 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 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, absurd, tragic, or a combination of these." (7)

This vein of the critical history of Lear yields such terms as grotesque, absurd, clown, and game, which are surely rare in discussions of scenes from Shakespearean tragedy. These terms serve as an implicit invitation to consider the Dover Cliff scene in relation to a dramatic genre very different from tragedy. Elements of French farces with blind characters and rebellious guides seem closely analogous to the part of the Dover Cliff scene in which Edgar masterminds his father's fall and then disguises his voice to lie to him.

The great scholar of early French drama, Gustave Cohen, traces the plot device of the servant disguising his voice to fool his master to twelfth-century Latin comedy in France. He discusses a play called Babio in which such foolery takes place, but there the master is sighted, and the servant hides in order to bait his master by using a disguised voice. (8) So although the play may be the earliest extant text in which a servant uses vocal disguise, it does not introduce the figure of the blind man as the victim of the servant's trick.

The seminal French vernacular drama in the representation of blind people emerged in the late thirteenth century from Tournai, now part of Belgium. The anonymous Le Garcon et l'aveugle (The Boy and the Blind Man), which has been called the earliest farce in French, bases its humor, if it may be called that, first on several stereotypical excesses associated with blindness and then on the punishment administered because of them. It is almost miraculous that this play survives: at 265 lines not only is it the simplest kind of street theater, the vast majority of which would never have been committed to the page, but also it survives in only one manuscript, described below. The trajectory of the play is simple: a blind man needs a guide, and a boy who needs work agrees to do the job. The boy proceeds to humiliate the blind man in several ways before finally stealing his clothes and his money. Obviously, such a simple plot could have a number of variations, but I would like to focus on a few that have commonalities with Lear.

The blind man opens the play with a begging lament that he has no guide. A boy named Jeannot then enters, bemoaning his poverty, but as soon as he sees the blind man, he rejoices in an aside that he now has all he could want, thus immediately indicating his intention to trick the blind man. His first words to the blind man are to warn him of a cellar into which he is about to fall, (9) though there was probably nothing in the original performances to suggest a hole in the ground, as a real one would have unnecessarily limited the places where the play could be performed. Aside from that, the boy is probably testing his victim to see if he is actually blind, as social anxieties about beggars feigning disabilities in order to avoid work were widespread in medieval France (and England, for that matter). (10)

The blind man suggests that when he has sex with his girlfriend, Jeannot can help by holding the woman's legs so high that dice can be rolled on the bottoms of her feet. Jeannot claims offense at this remark and immediately says that he needs to leave for a moment to piss; instead, he adopts a different voice, insults the blind man, and slaps him.
   Truans, Diex vous doint mal estrine,
   quant si desordenement parles!
   Mais chierement le comparres:
   tenes pour cou! (11)

(Beggar, may God give you bad luck when you speak so improperly! But you will pay for it dearly: take that! [translation mine])

The blind man calls for help from Jeannot, who feigns ignorance of what has happened. This is the earliest surviving appearance of the motif of the guide figure disguising his voice to inflict violence of some kind on the blind man, presumably a moment of uproarious hilarity for French audiences. When the pair arrive at the blind man's house, Jeannot offers to buy food and to have the blind man's torn robe mended; the man takes off his clothes and gives Jeannot his money. After a self-congratulatory aside, the boy tells the blind man to find another valet, for he is leaving. This he does in the final lines of the play, which apparently ends with the silent, victimized blind man standing alone and nearly naked before the audience.

No records of specific performances of Le Garcon et l'aveugle survive, but absence of such evidence is not at all surprising. On the other hand, the unique manuscript copy of the play demonstrates that it had a long performance history. Carol Symes has studied interpolations and emendations in the manuscript, Bibliotheque nationale de France, fonds francais 24366, that made it conform to changing textual conventions relating to performance practices over the course of two centuries. She delineates the scribal activity as follows:
   [F]ive main phases in transmission can be identified: the original
   transcription campaign, carried out sometime around 1270 (Scribe);
   an initial attempt at clarification, either by the same scribe
   working at a later time (with a better pen) or by a close
   contemporary (Hand A); a further attempt at clarification, effected
   sometime between the end of the thirteenth and middle of the
   fourteenth centuries (Hand B); and two periods of radical revision
   and censorship in the mid to late fifteenth century, the heyday of
   the farce (Hands X and Y). (12)

Symes also describes five explicits, only one of which she tentatively identifies as having been penned by one of the scribes above (Hand B). (13) This evidence strongly suggests a lively, lengthy performance history for the play, and since it appears to have achieved some popularity, other medieval copies probably circulated but did not survive.

Symes also indicates the play's possible didactic value for friars and others in the communication of doctrine; she cites Preacher Michel Menot's favorite text, Matthew 15:14, "Leave them: for they are blind and leaders of the blind; for if a blind man offers to lead a blind man, they will fall into the pit together" a verse that echoes the opening of the play, in which the boy saves the blind man from falling into a hole. (14) Furthermore, the possibility that the play was presented within some kind of religious framework would help to explain why very similar scenes of blind men and their guides punctuate some lengthy religious dramas.

The lengthiest of these to include a blind character and his guide is Le Mystere de la Resurrection from Angers, which survives in a manuscript roughly contemporaneous with the first performance in 1456, another manuscript from 1491, and a printing in 1492 by Anthoine Verard in Paris. (15) This three-day extravaganza stretches to nearly twenty thousand lines, roughly fourteen hundred of which are devoted to episodes on all three days in which a blind man finds a guide, abuses and is abused by him, sings and sells copies of songs, and ultimately receives a gift of charity from his community that apparently symbolizes the new law inaugurated by Jesus' death and resurrection.

The blind man, named Galleboys, has become blind because of sickness and old age, and he needs a guide to help him find food and lodging. (16) A boy named Saudret takes the job, and his qualifications are impressive: he has previously served as a guide for a man blind since birth, but Saudret lost the position when the man was cured by Jesus (4350-55). In a later scene, after Galleboys tries unsuccessfully to persuade his justifiably irritated guide to call him "monseigneur, mon maistre," (4755-56), Saudret agrees to lead Galleboys to the tomb of the recently crucified Jesus. As the pair approach the tomb, Saudret says that there are some very threatening Englishmen standing guard there (Since the play was first performed just after the end of the Hundred Years' War, the happily anachronistic playwright can exploit political tensions that were probably still in the air.). Saudret works Galleboys into paroxysms of fear about these monstrous soldiers. In the 1491 manuscript, Saudret puts on an English accent, which is effectively communicated orthographically in the text given that the attempt to produce a foreign accent in a written text was quite rare in the mid-fifteenth century, and as the nonexistent English soldier he threatens to kill the Frenchmen unless they give him ten sous. The blind man hands over the money--to his guide, of course--and the "Englishman" bids the pair a surly "adieu." (17)

Although the threatening Englishman appears in only one manuscript of the mystery play, another scene employing the disguised voice appears in all versions of the play on the second day of the performance. Galleboys's irritation at Saudret's continuing refusal to call him "monseigneur" grows to the point that he challenges Saudret to a duel (14223-26); however, the blind man's choice of dueling game, "Broche [en] Cul" (stick in the arse; 14254) furthers the lie of his claim of elevated birth. The descriptions of the preparations for this game and the players' postures suggest that each player's hands and feet are tied together, and then he bends over to have his hands tied close to his feet, leaving him standing but very nearly "hog-tied." The player is then given a stick with which to hit or jab his opponent's arse, a target made all the more accessible by the players' uncomfortable posture. (18)

The tying of the opponents requires a third person to participate, and Saudret very quickly claims to find someone to do the task, though actually the guide only changes his voice in order to fool Galleboys into being tied up. (19) Of course, the nonexistent character, who is labeled Fictus in both manuscripts, claims to have tied up Saudret as well, but the boy remains free. Saudret makes quick work of the game: he trips Galleboys and beats him so thoroughly that the blind man begs him to stop in a speech in which he calls his servant exactly what he had demanded to be called, "monseigneur, mon maistre" (14444). But Saudret maintains the ruse of the ever-present Fictus even after he has won his way with Galleboys, and the first scene on the third day of the Resurrection opens with Saudret insisting that Fictus be paid for his effort, money which the boy himself obviously keeps. Thanking Galleboys for the payment, Fictus says he is leaving (15242-62). So the motif of robbing the blind man reappears here as well.

The plot device of the servant abusing his blind master was picked up again in the anonymous Farce du Goguelu, written in the 1490s and printed before 1540. (20) It features a blind man, his chambermaid, and the valet Goguelu. Because these characters play the game broche en cul (318) in the same way that it was played in the Angers Resurrection, and because of the farce's temporal proximity to the resurrection play, it may have been directly influenced by the comic scenes from religious drama. Here the reason for playing the game is different: the chambermaid gives the blind man, Mausouppe, her urine to drink, after which he beats her badly. Goguelu enters during the beating and takes the part of the chambermaid, who agrees to give him her love if he takes revenge on the blind man. So Goguelu proposes the game of broche en cul between the blind man and the chambermaid as a "charyvare" (306). Again, only the blind man is actually bound, while the other player, the chambermaid, is not. When the blind man is tied up, Goguelu pretends to distance himself from the game, at which point the chambermaid says she sees a sergeant approaching who looks like an executioner (463-65). She runs away, and the valet Goguelu, "faignant sa voix" (disguising his voice), accuses the blind man of being the brigand with a thousand ducats, (21) presumably a thief. The valet then beats the blind man, counting the blows as his victim begs for mercy. He goes as far as threatening to hang the blind man (514). In an apparent aside, Goguelu says that his master is such a fool that he has failed to recognize the valet pretending to be the sergeant (522-24), and then Goguelu "returns," using his own voice again. Ultimately the characters make peace, joining together in a song.

Yet another comic interlude in religious drama, the Farce de l'aveugle et de son varlet tort is part of a larger religious play, Quatre histoires par personnaiges sur quatre evangilles de l'Advent. This work was written by Francois Briand and presented in the Advent season in 1512 by his pupils at the School of St. Benoit in Le Mans. (22) It is significant that by the early sixteenth century the plot device of the guide abusing the blind man reached a level of cultural acceptance (and perhaps familiarity) whereby it was considered appropriate for schoolboys to perform. This play, too, was printed, though it survives in only one copy that gives neither the date of the printing nor the identity of the printer. The early twentieth-century editor of the play, Henri Chardon, offers evidence that it might have come from the press of Claude Nourry in Lyon, who was known for printing Christmas plays in a similar format. (23)

Here the valet, named Jamet, is lame, but nevertheless he serves as guide for the blind man named Thonault. They agree to seek out a prophet whom they have heard of who is said to be a miracle worker who might cure them of their disabilities. The object of contention that arises between them is a certain chambermaid about whom Thonault has some intimate knowledge, although she is apparently also the object of Jamet's affections. The jealous guide tells Thonault to shut up about the chambermaid, and then he subjects the blind man to various degradations, including shaving him badly; afterward lamer claims to hold a mirror for the blind man to look into but actually bares his arse in the face of his employer, who lavishly compliments the beauty supposedly visible there. Then, although the two men remain alone, Jamet says that they are in the presence of a "bonne bourgeoyse" who might give them alms. Thonault speaks to the imaginary woman in a whisper, and Jamet responds, feigning the voice of a woman and asking the blind man to speak up. After a supposedly comic give-andtake with Thonault's voice growing louder each time, he finally shouts out his plea for money, and Jamet, still using the female voice, slaps him. The woman then disappears, and Jamet "returns" to say that the woman has slapped him as well. This story has a happy ending, however, because the disabled men then find Jesus and are miraculously cured. (24)

The creation and production of these four plays span about two and a half centuries, and the manuscript of the earliest one, Le Garcon et l'aveugle, was evidently in use during nearly that entire period. These texts bear witness to the perpetuation of a dramatic set piece in which a guide, usually of low social status, is hired by a blind man as his servant. The blind man does something--sometimes several things--to insult or anger the servant, so the servant, disguising his voice, assaults the blind man, sometimes physically, sometimes financially, and sometimes both. The servant then stops the vocal disguise and "returns," so to speak, to the blind man, sometimes reaffirming the terrible thing that the nonexistent character has done to the disabled victim. This is both an extremely simple and neatly theatrical plot device: at its core it requires only that one actor pretends to be blind, and that another actor disguises his voice, and then the playwright at his discretion can bring in additional props such as a couple of sturdy sticks and short ropes for a rousing, injurious game of broche en cul. Once someone had seen this plot device enacted, its basic structure would be very easy to remember, and thus, for every version of this play that was performed from a written text, many more could have been improvised.

Furthermore, for every version of this play that was committed to written form, many other written or printed ones must have been lost. It is fortunate that three of these plays were printed, but the sloppiness of the sole extant copy of La Farce de l'aveugle et de son varlet tort, in a pamphlet riddled with errors and lacking the printer's name and publication date, probably shows why many copies have not survived. We have evidence of at least one lost sixteenth-century farce that may well have included the set piece under examination here, La Farce du sourd et de l'aveugle, in which it is easy to imagine the deaf character taking advantage of the blind man's disability and vice-versa. This play was mentioned by title in a mid-sixteenth-century text by Charles Fontaine, who discusses satirical elements common to it and Erasmus's Absurda, (25) so the farce must have been reasonably well known in its day. And we should bear in mind that the printing of farces in sixteenth-century France was big business. The sixteenth-century bibliophile Du Verdier wrote in his Bibliotheque francoise, "One wouldn't know how to speak of the farces that have been written and printed, so great are their number." (26) And the more widespread and popular a genre is, the more likely it is to have frequent recourse to well-known plot devices such as the guide's voice of violence against the blind man. The case has been made that cheaply printed farces sold by peddlers were important texts in the spread of vernacular literacy, particularly among Protestants, since the plays used the simple vocabulary of everyday life, (27) so performance was not the sole means of dissemination of this plot device.

But how might we trace a connection between these plays and Lear? The influence of medieval French farce on sixteenth-century English drama has received some critical attention. In 1904 Karl Young found near-verbatim translations of La Farce de Pernet in John Heywood's play Johan Johan, and he also found that a farce called D'un pardonneur, d'un triacleur, et d'une taverniere influenced Heywood's play, The Pardoner and the Friar. (28) Furthermore, he cites "abundant opportunities for transference to England of French dramatic ideas" through diplomatic entertainments and French players visiting England. (29) B. J. Whiting asserts that the character of Diccon in Gammer Gurton's Needle bears a strong resemblance to the stock character Le Badin in La Farce du raporteur. (30) Most significant for my argument, M. L. Redoff finds that the foreign-language-teaching scenes in Shakespeare's Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the first scenes of their kind in English drama, are patterned after such lesson scenes in French farces. (31) So aside from the possible dissemination of this simple plot device via a spectator's memory of a performance, it could well have been transferred textually inasmuch as there is evidence of such transmission and translation across the English Channel.

So let us turn to King Lear to investigate similarities between the farces and the Dover Cliff scene. In act 4, scene 1, after Gloucester has been blinded, an old man leads him into the presence of Edgar, who is disguised in both looks and voice as the madman Poor Tom. Here the discrepancy between Edgar's line in the corrected quarto, "But who comes here? My father parti-eyed?" and the line in the uncorrected quarto and folio, "But who comes here? My father poorly led?" has received a good deal of attention (4.1.10) I agree with Foakes's reading that Edgar initially "sees his father in surprisingly mean company" only to realize a few lines later that he has been blinded. Furthermore, at this point in the play, "My father poorly led" also foreshadows Edgar's involvement in his father's blindness as a guide figure who will indeed lead him very well.

In a manner similar to that of the boy in Le Garcon et l'aveugle, Edgar uses asides to communicate both his sadness at seeing his blinded father and his attitude toward his father's despair. And in an inversion of the standard plot trajectory of the plays featuring blind men, here Gloucester cannot be robbed, because he almost instantly hands Poor Tom his purse as payment for leading him to Dover (4.1.67-69). Gloucester then alludes to two of the stereotypes associated with the blind in the Old French farces, greed and sexual excess, when he says to Poor Tom,
   Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man That slaves your ordinance,
   that will not see Because he does not feel, feel your power
   quickly: So distribution should undo excess And each man have


And Poor Tom, suddenly suspiciously well versed in English geography for a madman, agrees to take the blind man to Dover.

Gloucester and Edgar, still disguised as Poor Tom, reappear in 4.6. The scene opens with Edgar trying to persuade his father that they are climbing a hill toward the cliffs of Dover, but Gloucester curtly replies, "Methinks the ground is even" (4.6.3). Here we might be reminded of the boy in Le Garcon et l'aveugle, who may be attempting to control the blind man's perception of topography, warning the blind man that he is about to fall into a hole that probably did not exist. Gloucester also notices that Poor Tom is speaking more sensibly and eloquently; he says, "Methinks thy voice is altered and thou speak'st / In better phrase and matter than thou didst (4.6.7-8), an observation that he repeats. Shakespeare basically paints himself into a bit of a corner here. Would the mad, disoriented Poor Tom really be able to lead Gloucester to Dover Cliff? And would Tom, who speaks largely in disjointed sentences whose focus shifts constantly, really be able to persuade Gloucester that they have reached their destination? And would Poor Tom, who speaks mainly in prose, be capable of the sublime description of Dover Cliff given by Gloucester's guide?
   Come on, sir, here's the place. Stand still: how fearful
   And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low.
   The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
   Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half-way down
   Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade;
   Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
   The fishermen that walk upon the beach
   Appear like mice, and yon tall anchoring barque
   Diminished to her cock, her cock a buoy
   Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge
   That on rh'unnumbered idle pebble chafes,
   Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more,
   Lest my brain turn and my deficient sight
   Topple down headlong.


This is clearly not the voice of Poor Tom, but rather another of Edgar's disguised voices. It resembles the voices in the French plays in that it sets up the violence that Gloucester will inflict upon himself, slight though that violence is.

Of course, Gloucester gives no indication that he recognizes the more articulate voice as his son's, and he gives Edgar a jewel, perhaps another allusion to the money that is often at the heart of the disguised-voice plot device in French farce. Then Edgar, in an aside, explains the method in his feigned madness: "Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it" (4.6.33-34). An earlier point bears repeating here: in the French farces, asides are used frequently in order to create a sense of collusion between the tricky guide figure and the audience, which is done partly by allowing the actor playing the guide to return the gaze of the audience, something that the actor playing the blind man cannot do. But beyond this stage device, the structural similarity between the French farces and this scene emerges clearly in Edgar's remark. In this scene and its analogues, the blind man has done or said something that displeases the guide figure; here Gloucester's desire to commit suicide is the point of contention. The guide figure, disguising his voice, has tricked the blind man, and the result is to be his physical humiliation--in Gloucester's case, his fall to the ground, which occurs after his prayer to the gods.

Edgar then has recourse to another aside, presumably while Gloucester is lying on the ground or struggling to rise again. In this moment of pathetic or perhaps bathetic grotesquerie, Edgar metaphorically raises the issue of robbery, which is frequently the reason that guide figures disguise their voices to trick their masters. Edgar says, "And yet I know not how conceit may rob / The treasury of life when life itself/Yields to the theft" (4.6.42-44). In other words, Edgar is uncertain of whether Gloucester's imagination as he envisions falling may rob him of "the treasury of life," because Gloucester wants his life to be taken away. Inasmuch as Edgar is genuinely concerned about his father's well-being and wants him to live, this seems a rather cold, emotionless economic metaphor that may allude to the centrality of robbery in some of the voice-changing tricks from French farces. But it certainly reminds the audience that Gloucester has nothing left but his life, having given his money to Poor Tom and then the jewel to the "better-voiced" guide in this scene. Like the blind man at the end of Le Garcon et l'aveugle, he has been reduced to almost nothing, and the humiliation he undergoes here emphasizes that.

The next step in the voice-disguising plot device is that the guide figure may reinforce the idea that the event that did not really happen--for example that a sergeant or a bourgeois lady has slapped the blind man, that an English soldier has taken his money, or that the blind man has fallen off Dover Cliff--has actually taken place. Of course, in order to do this, Edgar must change his voice yet again, since he cannot pretend to have negotiated the fictive cliff face as quickly as his supposedly falling father. Edgar's newly voiced character again does a little more than necessary to make the plot device work. Instead of simply telling his father that the gods have saved him, he creates a victimizing figure along the lines of the sergeant, the bourgeois lady, or the English soldier--a horrible demon. Though Gloucester says that he left "A poor unfortunate beggar" at the cliff's edge, Edgar claims to have seen something different.
   As I stood here below methought his eyes
   Were two full moons. He had a thousand noses,
   Horns whelked and waved like the enraged sea.
   It was some fiend. Therefore, thou happy father,
   Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
   Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.


And like the blind men in the farces, Gloucester is taken in by the trick. He says, "I do remember now" (4.6.75), though what he remembers is ambiguous. Does he remember the gods floating him gently down the cliff face, or the supposedly demonic nature of Poor Tom, who "Often ... would say / 'The fiend, the fiend'" (4.6.78-79)? Regardless of that, Edgar's trick has worked, and Gloucester is persuaded, at least temporarily, to "bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself/'Enough, enough, and die" (4.6.75-77).

The structure of the Dover Cliff scene clearly has parallels with the plot device of a guide abusing a blind character in early French farce. Indeed, the most significant structural difference is that in the French plays the guide disguises his voice and then returns to his natural one, but here Edgar must change his voice completely from that of the guide who sets up the trick at the cliff top to that of the figure on the strand below, who completes the ruse. Only offstage in act 5, scene 3, does Edgar reveal his identity and the nature of these tricks to his father, with disastrous results. He tells Edmund and Albany:
   I asked his blessing and from first to last
   Told him our pilgrimage. But his flawed heart,
   Alack, too weak the conflict to support,
   'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
   Burst smilingly.


In a play with relatively few allusions to Christianity, Edgar's choice of the metaphorical term pilgrimage to describe his journey with his father stands out, for their travels can have no religious goal. Yet again, the word may be a faint echo of the farcical scenes in the French religious drama discussed above in which the blind men and guides are indeed on pilgrimages to the tomb of Jesus in the Angers Resurrection and to find the miracle-working prophet himself in La Farce de l'aveugle et de son varlet tort. Ironically, Edgar and Gloucester's pilgrimage ends in the blind man's death, and Edgar's revelation of his voice-disguising tricks is its proximate cause, as Foakes points out in his edition. This gives added poignancy to one of Edgar's lines in the final speech of the play, where he exhorts his listeners to "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say" (5.3.323).

In his important essay "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear" Stanley Cavell discusses the meaning of Edgar's strange ongoing desire to avoid recognition after being reunited with his blinded father. As Cavell states, if Edgar really wanted to cure his father of the desire to commit suicide, then revealing his identity "would seem the surest and most immediate way to do that." (32) Cavell goes on to say, "this revelation of Edgar's capacity for cruelty--and the same cruelty as that of the evil characters--shows how radically implicated good is in evil; in a play of disguises, how often they are disguised." (33) Cavell's point seems well taken, and it is surely significant in this bleakest of Shakespeare's tragedies. However, I would add that the point is equally applicable to the guide figures in the French farces discussed above: they are both good and evil, both cruel and helpful toward their charges. And in not only La Farce de l'aveugle et de son varlet tort but also Lear, a guide figure who is capable of cruelty at one moment leads the blind man soon thereafter to a "miracle," if, in the words of the pragmatic archbishop of Rheims in Shaw's Saint Joan, "A miracle ... is an event which creates faith." (34)

So Shakespeare brings a remarkable kind of closure to Sidney's story of the Paphlagonian king and his desire to jump off a cliff. If the playwright knew the plot device of the guide figure's disguised voice victimizing the blind man, then he courageously and perhaps even violently yoked together two very different kinds of stories. For centuries audience members and readers have felt discomfort at Edgar's treatment of his disabled father, and I believe that such discomfort probably arises from the important generic discrepancies between Sidney's work and French farce that Shakespeare could not entirely override. What my argument forces us to confront is the possibility that this scene might actually have been intended or received as comic relief in an otherwise very bleak play; obviously the episodes of the blind man and his guide served that purpose in the Angers Resurrection and Briand's advent play. But regardless of our unease and uncertainty about this moment, it is remarkable that Shakespeare could have taken a putatively comic plot device that demeans and humiliates a disabled character for laughs, and turns it into what, at least for a while, affirms both life and the love of a son for his father. (35)

Loyola University, Chicago


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Renaissance Seminar of the University of Chicago in May 2009.

(1) William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ser. (London: Cengage Learning, 1997), 4.6.1-80. Further references to the play are cited by act, scene, and line number.

(2) Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), 206-7.

(3) Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 7 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).

(4) G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), 171.

(5) Ibid., 172.

(6) Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (New York: Norton 1964), 147.

(7) King Lear, note to lines 4.6.33-34.

(8) Gustave Cohen, La Comedie Latine en France au XIIe siecle, 2 vols. (Paris: Association Guillaume Bude, 1931), l:xiii-xiv.

(9) Le Garcon et l'aveugle: Jeu du XIIIe siecle, ed. Jean Dufournet (Paris: Champion, 2005), 131. For an English translation of the play meant largely for performance, see "The Beggar Boy and the Blind Man: A French Farce of the XIIIth Century," trans. Reginald Hyatte, Allegorica: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Literature 9 (1987-88): 165-93.

(10) For the history of this anxiety and further examples of it from medieval literature, see Edward Wheatley, Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming [2010]), 22-23.

(11) Le Garcon et l'aveugle, 141; translation mine.

(12) Carol Symes, "The Boy and the Blind Man: A Medieval Play Script and Its Editors," in The Book Unbound: Editing and Reading Medieval Manuscripts and Texts," ed. Sian Echard and Stephen Partridge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 112.

(13) Ibid., 112.

(14) Ibid., 117-18.

(15) Cohen, "Le Scene de l'aveugle et son valet," 348-49.

(16) Le Mystere de la Resurrection, Angers (1456), ed. Pierre Servet (Geneva: Droz, 1993), 254-55, ll. 4314-4335. Further references to the drama are cited by line number in the main text.

(17) Gustave Cohen, "Le Scene de l'aveugle et son valet," Romania (1912): 354-56.

(18) A game that appears to be identical, "farte pryke in cule," is played by the characters "A" and "B" in Henry Medwall's late fifteenth-century play Fulgens and Lucrece; The Plays of Henry Medwall, ed. Man H. Nelson (Cambridge: Brewer, 1980), 60-61, ll. 1169-1212. The game's presence there may suggest connections between English and continental drama beyond those discussed later in this article. I am grateful to Eve Salisbury for this reference.

(19) In Servet's "B" manuscript of the Angers Resurrection from 1491, it is Fictus who proposes playing "Broche en Cul" (p. 919, 11. 3-6).

(20) Recueil de farces francaises inedites du XVe siecle, ed. Gustave Cohen (Cambridge, Mass: Medieval Academy of America, 1949), 357-67. For Cohen's discussion of the likely dates of the printing on the farces in the collection, see p. xviii.

(21) Cohen was unable to translate the word duquoys, which the blind man supposedly has a thousand of (367, n. to line 483). The Oxford English Dictionary states that the English word descended from the French word ducat, the first surviving usage of which appeared in 1395, so it is a possible translation that fits the context of the word in the play.

(22) Francois Briand, Quatre histoires par personnaiges sur quatre evangiles de l'advent a iouer par les petits enfants les quatre dimenches dudit advent, ed. Henri Chardon (Paris: Champion, 1906).

(23) Ibid., xxxi.

(24) Ibid., 34-38.

(25) L. Petit de Julleville, Repertoire du theatre comique en France au moyen age (Paris: Cerf, 1886), 313.

(26) "On ne sauroit dire les farces qui ont ete composees et imprimees, si gran en est le nombre"; qtd. in Christopher Pinet, "French Farce: Printing, Dissemination and Readership from 1500-1560," Renaissance and Reformation 3 (1979): 111-31 (112).

(27) Ibid., 120-28.

(28) Karl Young, "The Influence of French Farce on the Plays of John Heywood," Modern Philology 2 (1904): 97-124.

(29) Ibid., 106 n. 2.

(30) B. J. Whiting, "Diccon's French Cousin," Studies in Philology 42 (1945): 31-40.

(31) M. L. Redoff, "Influence of French Farce in Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor," Modern Language Notes 48 (1933): 427-35.

(32) Cavell, "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," in Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 54.

(33) Ibid., 55.

(34) George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946), 70.

(35) The theatrical device of a sighted man disguising his voice to fool a blind man occurs elsewhere in Shakespeare's work. In The Merchant of Venice, 2.2, the blind Old Gobbo encounters his son Launcelot, who disguises his voice to try to persuade the old man that his son has died. While Launcelot's cruelty to his father is even more gratuitous than Edgar's, who can at least claim to be trying to cure his father's despair, the brief episode is structured very differently from those discussed above. Launcelot has not agreed to serve as his father's guide, thus avoiding any unequal power dynamics; Old Gobbo has done nothing to displease his son; and the episode does not include physical violence to or robbery of the blind man.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wheatley, Edward
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2009
Previous Article:"Sumptuously re-edified": the reformation of sacred space in Titus Andronicus.
Next Article:"You were an actor with your handkerchief": women, windows, and moral agency.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |