Shakespeare and the Senses: The Pain of Seeing

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Paul Edmondson and I gave a talk at Shakespeare’s Globe recently on Shakespeare’s sonnets and the senses. We shall probably blog about it all before long, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts about Shakespeare and sight which didn’t go into our talk.

Shakespeare’s writings are packed with references to the value of sight, to what Romeo calls ‘the precious treasure of his eyesight.’ Goneril in King Lear declares hypocritically that her love for her father is ‘dearer than eyesight, space, or liberty.’ Loss of eyesight is portrayed in the plays as the extreme of physical suffering. In King John the young Prince Arthur, learning that Hubert has undertaken to ‘burn out both his eyes with hot irons’, pleads that ‘none but in this iron age would do it. / Then iron of itself, though heat red hot, /Approaching near these eyes would drink my tears, / And quench his fiery indignation / Even in the matter of mine innocence, / Ay, after that, consume away in rust, / But for containing fire to harm mine eye.’ In this play the situation is somewhat laboriously milked for all the pathos it can evoke.

But then in King Lear the apogee of physical suffering, portrayed in parallel with Lear’s mental anguish, is reached in the far more economically written and thus even more devastatingly horrifying scene of Gloucester’s blinding which, someone recently tweeted, is far more appalling than all the long sequence of horrors portrayed in the R S C’s recent production of the Marat/ Sade. There are few more chilling lines in drama than Cornwall’s command ‘Turn out that eyeless villain.’

But eyesight is at the centre too of Shakespeare’s portrayal of love. In his mind sight and love were inextricably linked. Proverbially, love enters through the eyes – as the song in The Merchant of Venice puts it, ‘It is engendered in the eyes, / With gazing fed.’ Romeo falls in love with Juliet as soon as he sees her: ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ And when she is about to appear on the balcony, he speaks of the bright light that she casts before her: ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.’

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Biron, in one of Shakespeare’s most eloquent and deeply considered paeans in praise of love, declares that ‘love’ is first learned in a lady’s eyes’ and goes on to say that it ‘adds a precious seeing to the eye, / A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind.’

And in the tragedies, Lear’s ultimate expression of love for Cordelia comes as he looks into her eyes, desperately seeking for signs of life ‘Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips./ Look there, look there.’

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
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  • Humphrey

    Safe to say, Shakespeare must have had a lustful, roguish, insatiable appetite for his eyes… not least when looking at the stage. I’m sure many a fair maiden fell victim to his charmed eye and probably at least one young boy if the sonnets are anything to by.

  • Wllm1564

    What is your conclusion from these findings? 

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