“But have I fallen, or no?” So asks the ruined Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Blinded by the treacherous Cornwall, he has been led by his son Edgar to what he believes is a cliff overlooking the ocean and thrown himself down. The fall is a farce: he has not fallen at all, but lays upon the same level ground which he had been walking on all along. Only he is so disoriented as to be uncertain about the fact. His son adopts a new persona (which is his real one), and tells him a strange tale of his survival that Gloucester seems to accept.
Only moments later Gloucester will meet Lear, who’s mind is in a perilous condition from being buffeted from his exposure to the tempest. The same ‘nature’ that Lear repeatedly invokes in curses upon his alienated daughters finally descends upon him, revealing him to be the ‘nothing’ from which nothing ultimately comes. Lear also meets the same Edgar, encountering him not upon a (false) cliff as Gloucester did but within an all-to-real hole in the earth in which they attempt to escape the storm. Edgar enters naked: he is of sound mind, but plays the fool. And here, well beyond his court’s pompous confines and teetering on the edge of life itself, Lear sees humanity for the first time: “thou art the thing itself,” the ‘unaccommodated’ human, before attempting to join him in his nakedness.
Lear is almost a self-consciously ‘great’ play, and its namesake is among the least ‘relatable’ of Shakespeare’s tragic characters. It has none of the self-consciously introspective poetry of Hamlet, for instance. The impotent ravings of old age and the lostness of dementia serve to explain something about Lear’s conduct: but they do so only by eclipsing the fundamental cosmological and metaphysical crisis at the heart of the play. Chesterton’s quip about the madman, slightly altered, comes nearer a therapeutic evaluation of Lear than our contemporary psychological categories: he attempts to bow the heavens to his will, and it is his mind that splits.
The grandness and chaotic tumult of Lear’s encounter with Edgar makes the delicate humanity within his encounter of Gloucester that much more palpable. Everything in the play hangs upon the moment. Having just attempted suicide, Gloucester is known by the madman Lear—and known not only as the ‘thing itself,’ but as the irrepeatable individual. “I know thee well enough, they name is Gloucester. Thou must be patient.” There are few more tender declarations of familiarity in Shakespeare—and if I knew the canon better, I’d say in English literature as well.
But patience is not Lear’s only exhortation to Gloucester. That word arises because Lear has asked Gloucester to do the one thing for him that Gloucster cannot: to read. Gloucester is not impotent: he sees how the world goes, he says, “feelingly.” But seeing how the world goes that way is not enough, and Lear’s retort accuses him of the same problem as some would say besets him: “What, art mad?” Feelings are not enough, and keep us from the task: “Look with thine ears,” he tells us, instead.
Lear’s convulsion of sentences is not simply an accommodation to Gloucester’s tragic condition, to his blindness: it is a recognition that the prophetic apprehension of justice begins by listening, and by ignoring the obvious trappings of visible authority, money, and power which only serve to cloak the cruelties and vices of this world—and the feelings of vanity and pride that accompany them. “Plate sin with gold,” and it survives: when it’s in rags, though, “a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.”
Look with thine ears, then? Yes, the convulsion of senses is necessary to see things rightly—and an effect of those who have seen aright, as Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream reminds us. Upon waking up from his dream in which he appeared as an ass, he reports that the “eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what [his] dream was.” Bottom is the ultimate commoner, the tradesman who momentarily becomes royalty within the world of faeries. Lear is “every inch a king,” whose descent into madness exposes the loss of his humanity beneath the trappings of his kingdom and court—a loss that begins to be recovered only when he joins Edgar in his nakedness. They both see something—and in seeing, they learn the deceptiveness of sight and the priority of the word.
“But have I fallen, or no?”All this means we can put Gloucester’s question to Lear as well: Has he fallen? Or perhaps his fall been an ascent, because he—unlike Gloucester—has heard a voice of humanity piercing the tempest, and so can now see for the very first time.