oath before this honorable assembly, she kicked
the poor King her father.
King Lear, 3.6.46-48
One of the most interesting scenes in King Lear is not in all versions of King Lear. Specifically—and I’m reaching way back here—the scene I have in mind is in the first extant version of the play published in the “First Quarto” (Q1) of 1608, but it is not in the version published in the “First Folio” (F1), the first “complete” collected works, published in 1623. Scholars debate what that and other discrepancies mean and which version better reflects Shakespeare’s true intent. I will leave the larger debate to others more qualified to opine on the subject. But, IMHO, the second (F1) version cannot be considered an “improvement” over the earlier (Q1) version for the simple reason that this pivotal scene is missing.
The scene to which I refer involves a mock trial (3.6). The trial takes place in a hovel where Lear and a little band of outcasts have sought shelter from a violent storm. At the time, Lear is busy losing his mind. To try to cope with his anxiety, he suddenly decides to put his two eldest daughters on trial in absentia. These two daughters are the ones who have emasculated him by depriving him of the last vestiges of power to which he’d tried to cling after impulsively giving them all of his actual power (and property). In the mock trial, Lear plays the role of prosecutor. He casts Edgar (disguised as “Poor Tom” the homeless madman) in the role of chief judge. He then appoints the Fool and his servant Kent to round out the panel of judges. The trial represents Lear’s hunger for a little law and order in a world that is coming apart at the seams. Wanting a public forum to counter the injustices he is experiencing is a profoundly noble human impulse. Even if this mock trial is just theatrical, the desire for such a ritual reflects one of the reasons we have real trials: We believe that these public vehicles, whereby the accuser and the accused must “bring in their evidence” (3.6.35), are a bedrock of civilization.
By contrast, in the very next scene (3.7), we see the opposite human impulse with regard to doling out justice. The Earl of Gloucester has been accused of treason. The circumstantial evidence of his crime, which amounts to a letter expressing a desire to help out the old king, has been conveyed to the Duke of Cornwall by Gloucester’s own son, Edmund. Cornwall, who is married to Lear’s second daughter, Regan, has no interest in a trial. He merely orders his servants to “seek out the traitor.” And Regan suggests a sentence in advance: “Pluck out his eyes.” At that moment, it is not clear whether Regan is simply expressing the degree of her outrage. But pretty soon, poor old Gloucester is dragged before them, Gloucester is called names (“filthy traitor”), bound to a chair (“Hard, hard!”), mocked (by having his beard plucked), and forced to confess. Gloucester explains that he came to Lear’s aid out of pity and dismay that the man’s own children would treat him so cruelly:
Because I would not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs.
The sea, with such a storm as his bare head
In hell-black night endured, would have buoy'd up,
And quench'd the stelled fires:
Yet, poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain.
If wolves had at thy gate howl'd that stern time,
Thou shouldst have said 'Good porter, turn the key,'
All cruels else subscribed: but I shall see
The winged vengeance overtake such children.
Cornwall reacts to this speech by taking Gloucester’s metaphoric use of “see” (and Regan’s previous impulsive suggestion) literally. He orders the servants to hold Gloucester as “[u]pon these eyes I’ll set my foot.” A more horrific punishment is hard to imagine. And very few Shakespeare plays ask that the audience witness such graphic violence unfold on stage. In addition to the eye gouging, for good measure, Regan kills a servant who tries to provide Gloucester some comfort during the torture session. She executes the servant by running him through with a sword from behind.
Gloucester is only “spared” a summary execution because Cornwall has some sense that “pass[ing] upon his life/ Without form of justice”—i.e., a trial—might look bad.
Cornwall and Regan’s approach to dispensing justice represents the flip side of the human impulse on display in the mock trial scene: reacting to perceived injustices by seeking revenge in the heat of passion. Trials are supposed to be about setting things right; yet the form is supposed to require that the desire for revenge/retribution/restitution be tempered by reason. That is, citizens who are asked to do their civic duty and serve on juries are explicitly instructed not to let emotion cloud their judgment. Jurors are supposed to assess credibility, weigh evidence, and see how the facts fit with the law as it is described to them. And jurors mostly seem to take those instructions to heart.
Of course, we can all probably think of historic and contemporary trials where justice did not prevail; and the trial was more a formal pageant than a substantive exercise in ferreting out The Truth. Yet trials sure are a better alternative than rounding people up, torturing them, and then dispensing punishment absent any meaningful public scrutiny. At least that is one of the many lessons Shakespeare’s Lear seems to teach.