Voices of Violence: Medieval French Farce and the Dover Cliff Scene in King Lear


Edward Wheatley


This article discusses surprising analogues to the so-called Dover Cliff scene (4.6) in King Lear, the origin of which has never been identified. Edgar, in the guise of Poor Tom, creates a rather cruel ruse to trick his father, the recently blinded Gloucester, into believing that the gods have saved him from dying. Although the characters are not near the cliff to which Gloucester has asked to be led, Edgar lies about their location in order to make his father take a fall which he believes will send him plummeting to his death. After his father falls over on solid ground, Edgar disguises his voice to persuade the blind man that he has fallen from the precipice but was saved by the gods from a demon at the top. This scene, which has long been thought grotesque and rather absurd, bears remarkable resemblances to an apparently common plot device in medieval French farces and comic episodes in religious drama from the late thirteenth through the early sixteenth centuries. In these plays blind men are victimized by their sighted guides, who disguise their voices in order to rob and/or inflict physical violence on their disabled masters. These analogous scenes from drama that is generically distant but geographically and temporally close to Shakespearean tragedy help to explain the discomfort that the Dover Cliff scene has caused in audiences and critics for centuries.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.