'"Now Wole I a Newe Game Begynne": Staging Suffering in King Lear, the Mystery Plays and Grotius's Christus Patiens

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THE mystery plays put the Passion at the heart of their drama and their concept of dramaturgy. They did not flinch from staging pain and death, and showed the persecutors of Christ reveling in violence and performing tortures as elaborate games. This article will explore the influence of this attitude to dramatic violence on King Lear through the coincidence of another Passion play that was published in the same year as Shakespeare's play. Hugo Grotius's Christus Patiens is written in a classical style, and it is fundamentally classical in its approach to the violence at its center. Grotius does not stage any part of the torture or Crucifixion of Christ. The scourging is not mentioned and the Crucifixion is only related through messengers. In King Lear however, the blinding of Gloucester is not mediated but presented to the audience in its full horror. Shakespeare's source, Sidney's New Arcadia, relates the blinding as a story-within-a-story, so that even in this nondramatic context, the reader is shielded from the atrocity by means of enfolded narratives. (1) Shakespeare, however, chooses that his audience shall see it. In Grotius's Christus Patiens, as in the Arcadia, the audience are not direct witnesses--the violence takes place offstage--and their response is conditioned by the pity of those who respond to it onstage. In King Lear by contrast, the onstage reaction to Gloucester's pain ranges from the excitable satisfaction of Regan to the silent complicity of the servants who hold him, with only one character daring openly to voice his opposition. Grotius, because he cannot rely on the sympathy roused by visible agony, does not dare to leave open such a multiplicity of response. However, earlier performers of Christ's Passion had dared to do so. In the mystery plays, as Jesus is beaten and humiliated in the halls of the high priests, the ordinary men--the citizens and the soldiers--are drawn into casual abuse of him through the premeditated vindictiveness of the Sanhedrin. As in King Lear, only the occasional character, such as the beadle who lays his coat under Jesus's feet in the York cycle, has the bravery to exhibit the proper response to the suffering victim.

The connection between the ludic portrayal of violence in the mystery plays and King Lear, which this article will explore, is not, I hope to show, a purely coincidental one. There are a sufficient number of small correlations between the punishments inflicted on Christ and the blinding of Gloucester to make it likely that Shakespeare's staging of this scene is influenced by the drama of his youth. (2) But there is a wider inference to draw from this case study, that despite the importance of classical texts--such as Ovid and Plutarch, on Shakespeare--his mature dramaturgy is inspired primarily not by Sophocles, Seneca, or Plautus, but by his native English tradition. In both classical and medieval drama, physical suffering is suffused with authority, but in Shakespeare, as in the mysteries, this authority is communicated through the spectacle of the broken body of the victim. Few Greek tragedies have onstage deaths, whereas in the mystery plays the Crucifixion was the climactic stage spectacle of the whole cycle. Like death, violence against the body (such as Oedipus's self-blinding) is generally committed offstage in classical drama, but the scourging and beating of Christ's body, and his agonized death on the cross, were vividly enacted in the mystery plays. In Shakespeare the violent power of medieval theater, rather than the decorum of classical, is revived in drama, which forces the sight of Lear's death, Gloucester's blinding, Desdemona's suffocation, Antony's mangled suicide, and the gang murders of Hector, Caesar, and Cinna upon its audience. In Shakespeare, as in the mystery plays, in direct contrast to the verbosity of Senecan (and Grotian) drama, "The terribleness of what is happening is conveyed by the inadequacy of the language." (3)

As the death of Christ was the climax of the action in mystery cycles, medieval drama centered on strategies for staging bodily pain and controlling the audience response so that empathy was elicited for the sufferer. …