‘Amazing’ was the verdict on Derek Jacobi’s King Lear in London. and it moved me very much to hear that my God Daughter was in tears, because she did not know that Cordelia dies. “Howl, howl, howl”. Apparently Jacobi’s voice rocked the theatre, in another triumph for the Donmar Warehouse. Their Twelfth Night was the best thing I’ve seen in ten years. One of the prevailing metaphor’s of Lear though is of course blinding. The ‘foul jellies’ that are plucked so viciously from Gloucester’s eyes, in part by his own son, even as his master, King Lear, goes so ‘blind’ at the start of the play. Blind by giving up the responsibility of power, while expecting all the pomp and circumstance of a King. Blind by mishearing the calculated language of his elder daughters, in his search for easy love, or avoidance. Blind in not seeing Cordelia’s truth. “What shall Cordelia speak, love and be silent?” “I love you according to my bond, no more, no less.” The true balance of mature love, almost the rejection of potentially lying language, which the tyrannical but also great King Lear loses completely. Except in the presence of his loyal friends, the double-edged wisdom of the fool, and the temporary return of his daughter.
Cordelia is of course the archetype of the redemptive feminine, not least because of her honesty, but because her love is also very active in the play, especially in returning to England to fight for her father. But she too falls foul of an inexorably tragic sequence, that begins to unfold with a series of lies, exposing the nastier underbelly of the world. As adulterous Gloucester says, while his son Edgar is disenfranchised by Gloucester’s bastard Edmund, and he turns into that spiked animal, ‘Poor Tom’, clutching at truth with a kind of Hamletian antic disposition, ‘”I stumbled when I saw”. Throughout Shakespeare that outer reality of the world is balanced with the inner reality of ‘seeing’, namely the concurrent journey of spiritual growth and real imagination. So an internal state of health and balance, or chaos, directly mirrors what is unleashed into the ‘actual’ world. But in terms of eyes, it is Gloucester’s metaphorical journey to the Dover cliff edge, and the play was written after a trip by the ‘King’s Men’ to Dover, that is the most triumphantly redemptive, and captures the tincture of Shakespeare’s own soul and vision. When kindly, sometimes naive Gloucester is taken to an emotional brink by his son, that promises a willful act of self-destruction, out of despair. Because Gloucester is now physically blind though, but Edgar is guiding him, it simply turns into a little stumble in the grass, that sees him reborn in his son’s tricking words. Now used as a trick to heal, and not destroy. Reborn not through a didactic or clichéd insistence on what is right, or true, but through an almost psychic process, and that reconnecting of inner and outer, in astoundingly precise language, and with the world of man and nature. Reduced at once to real things, but ones tiny and at least distantly encompassable in the scope of man’s struggling understanding.
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 yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumbered idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.
So Gloucester ‘falls’ and Edgar achieves the miracle of his survival, since the ‘Gods’ now wish it, and banishes the devil he claims to have seen with his father at the top of the cliff, beginning to heal himself too, and rediscovering his own identity, for the moment as an ‘ordinary gentleman’. That line, “Methinks he seems no bigger than his head”, highlights the scope of a play that is also about “madness”, and deficient sight, or sight gone wrong. Now Lear enters, railing insanely against all women kind, and human sexuality, ‘Let copulation thrive’, in the collapse of the really Self encompassed masculine, until Cordelia, garlanded with nature’s true flowers, comes to his partial rescue, although Lear has gone too far out to survive. All Shakespeare’s characters are encompassed inside the truly whole person though, perhaps the person Lear was, which is why they serve the structured genius of the playwright’s purposes – Comedy, or Tragedy. So while at times being powerfully ‘real’, Shakespeare is always working too to create an effect, on a heightened supratextual level, the really visionary level, that is absolutely instinctive to him, but directly experienced by us inside a theatre – Catharsis, and greater enlightenment.