Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dover cliff

This posting concerns King Lear, ‘which it is surely impossible for anybody who cares about poetry to write on without some expression of awe’ (Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language). There is an awesome description in Act IV of the view from the top of a cliff, when Edgar tells his blinded father, Gloucester
‘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,
Diminish'd to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber'd idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.’
This description is a reminder that landscapes appear relatively rarely in plays – there is not normally a reason for a character to describe what lies before them. But here, Gloucester has been blinded and cannot see the danger ahead of him. Edgar says “Give me your hand; you are now within a foot / Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon / Would I not leap upright.”
Reading the play to myself, I pictured the distant fishermen like the peasants in Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icraus, unaware of the drama being enacted in their midst. In his essay ‘Perspectives: Dover Cliff and the Conditions of Representation’, Jonathan Goldberg likens Edgar’s description to a Renaissance painting, with Gloucester asked to imagine distant objects progressively smaller, reducing them to near invisibility. Goldberg thinks Shakespeare was influenced by ideas of perspective which were being incorporated at this time into English stage design by Inigo Jones.
Watching the play you can’t stop to admire the view – the action continues and Gloucester falls, although not to his death. I went to see King Lear performed at The Globe theatre last week, a place which doesn’t give any real scope for landscape stage sets or other illusionistic devices to help the audience visualise the scene. Trystan Gravelle (Edgar) and Joseph Mydell (Gloucester) stood at the edge of the stage and delivered their lines surrounded on three sides by groundlings with upturned faces just feet away. It was hard to imagine a precipitous cliff and the distant pebbles below.
Nevertheless, this whole scene is curious as it’s not clear how much of what Edgar describes is really there. He tricks his father into believing he has fallen down the cliff and survived, telling him:
‘Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg; but thou dost breathe,
Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st, art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle.’
Earlier, as they approach the cliff, Gloucester cannot picture their location and his ‘view’ actually resembles the one we in the audience have – no slope, no sea:
Glo. Methinks the ground is even.
Edg. Horrible steep: Hark! do you hear the sea?
Glo. No, truly.
We, just as much a Gloucester, have to rely on the power of Edgar’s language to visualise what he could apparently see before him.

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