What We Can Learn from the Torture Scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear
Perhaps the most famous torture scene in world literature takes place at the end of Act III of King Lear. In this scene, Lear’s ungrateful daughter, Regan, and her ambitious, power-hungry husband, the Duke of Cornwall, have discovered that the Earl of Gloucester, himself betrayed by his own bastard son, has proven loyal to the deposed king, Lear.
Having captured him, Cornwall and Regan torture Gloucester, supposedly to gain information. But as Shakespeare makes clear at the very beginning, the torture is not in the main about gaining information, but about exerting control, and serves as a release for Cornwall and Regan’s "wrath" and sadism.
Take note, as have generations of playgoers and critics, of the role of one of the play’s "bit players," the First Servant, who becomes the moral center of the scene, and recognizes, as the great powers do not, the horror of torture and its absolute prohibition among civilized persons.
Go seek the traitor Gloucester,
Pinion him like a thief, bring him before us.
Exeunt other Servants
Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a courtesy to our wrath, which men
May blame, but not control. Who’s there? the traitor?
Enter GLOUCESTER, brought in by two or three
Ingrateful fox! ’tis he.
Bind fast his corky arms.
What mean your graces? Good my friends, consider
You are my guests: do me no foul play, friends.
Bind him, I say.
Servants bind him
Hard, hard. O filthy traitor!
Unmerciful lady as you are, I’m none.
To this chair bind him. Villain, thou shalt find–
REGAN plucks his beard
By the kind gods, ’tis most ignobly done
To pluck me by the beard.
So white, and such a traitor!
These hairs, which thou dost ravish from my chin,
Will quicken, and accuse thee: I am your host:
With robbers’ hands my hospitable favours
You should not ruffle thus. What will you do?
Come, sir, what letters had you late from France?
Be simple answerer, for we know the truth.
And what confederacy have you with the traitors
Late footed in the kingdom?
To whose hands have you sent the lunatic king? Speak.
I have a letter guessingly set down,
Which came from one that’s of a neutral heart,
And not from one opposed.
Where hast thou sent the king?
Wherefore to Dover? Wast thou not charged at peril–
Wherefore to Dover? Let him first answer that.
I am tied to the stake, and I must stand the course.
Wherefore to Dover, sir?
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.
See’t shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair.
Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.
He that will think to live till he be old,
Give me some help! O cruel! O you gods!
One side will mock another; the other too.
If you see vengeance,–
Hold your hand, my lord:
I have served you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.
How now, you dog!
If you did wear a beard upon your chin,
I’d shake it on this quarrel. What do you mean?
They draw and fight
Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.
Give me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus!
Takes a sword, and runs at him behind
O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O!
Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?
All dark and comfortless. Where’s my son Edmund?
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature,
To quit this horrid act.
Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call’st on him that hates thee: it was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us;
Who is too good to pity thee.
O my follies! then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!
Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.
Exit one with GLOUCESTER
How is’t, my lord? how look you?
I have received a hurt: follow me, lady.
Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill. Regan, I bleed apace:
Untimely comes this hurt: give me your arm.
Exit CORNWALL, led by REGAN
Cornwall dies off stage, between Acts III and IV, setting the stage for the dispute between Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, over the villain, Gloucester’s son Edmund, and ultimately to the deaths of both daughters, and indirectly, to that of Edmund as well. Shakespeare, in probably his bleakest play, of evil rampant in the world, appears to be saying that taking responsibility and action for oneself and ones world, and standing up to evil, even by those otherwise humble and of minimal power, can have profound effects upon the course of events.
While I do not advocate running swords through the government’s torture plotters and policy makers, it is incumbent on all of us to take a stand against this poison that destroys the state and civil society. Tell your friends and family how much you abhor torture. Do not turn away from criticism of this administration’s stance of no accountability for torture, and cozening CIA and Department of Defense policies, such as the use of psychological torture techniques such as isolation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation, in the Army Field Manual, or the continuing operation of secret "black" prison sites by Joint Special Forces Command.
The ensconced power of the torturers in the military, intelligence agencies, and even to some extent in the Department of Justice (consider David Margolis’s recent rescue of torture advocates John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, and Steven Bradbury) means accountability will NOT take place, UNLESS there is a major upsurge of pressure from the ranks of society itself, from the average citizen, the church, synagogue or mosque worshipper, the union member and the guild practitioner, from doctors and nurses, auto workers and construction workers, from all the "First Servants" of this world who are not content to be bit players to the major actors, drenched in torture, murder, and malfeasance.
What can one do? Write letters, join anti-torture and civil liberties organizations like ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, or send them money. Write your congressman and senator, write to President Obama. But most of all, do what you can to raise the level of disgust with these policies. Educate yourself and others. We must purge this evil from our society, and it begins with you.
Also posted at Invictus