In my last article for Synapsis on Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671), I mentioned that much of the tragedy is concerned with the fact that its blind hero is “[m]ade of his enemies the scorn and gaze” (34). It’s worth highlighting this thematic epicenter not only because scholars more often emphasize Restoration political debates than disability in their discussions of Samson but also because “[d]isabled individuals throughout history” have been stared at” and “defined by the gaze … of the nondisabled world” (Fries 1). How does such a process play out? Literature offers compelling answers. But rather than return to Milton’s tragedy, I want to focus here upon two other Restoration plays, both rewrites of earlier literary touchstones: John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s Oedipus (1679) and Nahum Tate’s The History of King Lear (1681). These texts offer us insight into the ways that blindness was often operationalized at the very start of the so-called “Enlightenment”—when many of our current medicalizing assumptions took root—as well as into the kinds of stigmatizing attitudes against which Milton was writing in Samson. For both plays encourage able-bodied bystanders and audience members alike to gape at the unnatural sights of Oedipus and Gloster (a variation on Shakespeare’s Gloucester), respectively. As a result, these characters’ blindnesses accentuate an asymmetrical power dynamic between sighted observer and sightless spectacle which allows the former to “read” the latter, while the latter remains unable even to stare back.
Before I attend to the tragedies themselves, however, it will be helpful to take a look a look at the theoretical underpinnings of these optical dynamics. In Staring, for instance, disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that “[t]he sight of an unexpected body”—or one “that does not conform to our expectations for our ordinary”—“is compelling because it disorders expectations” (37). “Such disorder is at once novel and disturbing,” Garland-Thomson explains, which “attracts interest” and “disgust.” The specter of medical otherness therefore becomes a “confounding stimul[us]” that generates “discomfort” due to the “social illegibility of the disabled body” (21, 38). These insights prove relevant to historical literary texts that feature characters marked with jarring physical difference. “Stareable sights”—like Samson, Oedipus, and Gloster—“capture our eyes and demand a narrative that puts our just-disrupted world back in order” (39).
For their part, Dryden and Lee more brazenly exploit disability’s stareable quality compared to Sophocles and Seneca (earlier authors of Oedipus plays) in two major ways: (1) after one of the characters (Haemon) recapitulates how Oedipus renders himself sightless, the king plunges climactically to his demise. And (2) Creon—Oedipus’s brother-in-law and successor, whom you might remember eventually sentences Antigone to death—appears, without precedent, as disabled. By the very fact of engaging with Dryden and Lee’s tragedy, then, we are forced to stare with Haemon at Oedipus blinding himself and to balk at Creon’s attempts at courting the beautiful Eurydice. Their interactions attract even more attention to the former’s disfigurement by recalling the best-known of early-modern disabled characters: Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Moreover, Creon and Eurydice’s banter showcases how disability can be processed—its hermeneutical threat neutralized—only by way of supposedly proper interpretation. Eurydice thus explains to Creon, “You force me” “to shew you what you are” (1.1.131-2): a horrific sight, at whom “Nature her self start back when thou wert born” (135), due to a “Mountain back” (138), “distorted legs” (138), and a face “[h]alf-minted with the Royal stamp of a man” (140). This invective parrots Anne’s and Margaret’s of Richard, if the Theban’s appearance and the Shakespearean echo—“rudely stamped” (1.1.16)—were insufficient to clarify the allusion. Creon even exhorts his lover to stab him, though she declines. Instead, Eurydice glosses that his “crooked mind within hunch’d out [his] back” (159), “[a]nd wander’d in [his] limbs” (160). Her response hails from the kind of staring central to this essay, a totalizing gaze concerned not with input from the disabled person himself but only with the need to make sense of her admirer’s monstrosity: namely, that his “crooked mind” accounts for his warped body (159). Creon agrees that his “body opens inward to [his] soul / And lets in day to make [his] vices seen” (179-80). Dryden and Lee, their royalist agenda necessitating the nobleman’s vilification since he attempts to dethrone Oedipus, have no interest in a kind of staring that privileges anything but the most bleakly programmatic reading of disability. Eurydice’s interpretation of the mountain-backed nobleman as a mountebank is as thoroughly as the playwrights want to engage with their antagonist.
We, the starers, are thereby prepared for how to react towards Oedipus’s sightlessness. Although Dryden and Lee follow their ancient Greco-Roman models in omitting the scene of his blinding, they position us as voyeurs all the same, complicit with the peeping Tom Haemon who manages to take in the entire gory affair. “[T]hrough a chink I found, not only heard, / But saw him, when he thought no eye beheld him” (5.39-40), he explains to his father (Creon). With the epanorthosis of “saw” replacing “found,” we realize that Creon’s son does more than merely come across Oedipus; he situates himself as an eyewitness to this sensationally multi-sensory event with apparently no qualms about making public Oedipus’s ostensibly private moment. In Haemon’s account, the king devolves atavistically with “Eye-balls fiery Red” (62), warning them to take their “fatal farewell-view” (67). Surely by now, even those unacquainted with the story can predict what happens. Yet Dryden and Lee take over twenty lines to narrate what Seneca does in ten, and Sophocles but a few. They bring us to a fervent tipping point, before finally Haemon recounts how “[w]ith horrid force lifting his impious hands, / He snatch’d, he tore” (69-70)—grammatical structure strikingly similar to the description of Samson’s final act: “He tugged, he shook” (1650)—“from forth their bloody Orbs / The Balls of sight, and dash’d ‘em on the ground” (70-1).
Creon dubs the ordeal “[a] Master-piece of horrour; new and dreadful,” which in the context of late 1670s England is telling. The king has become a show of the tragedies borne from insurrection. Oedipus himself laments being reduced to paltry spectacle, for he “shall be gaz’d at now / The more; be pointed at, There goes the Monster!” (5.1.144-5). His lament confirms my reading of the ruler as a display since “monster” hails from the Latin monstrare—“to show, point out, indicate” (Lewis and Short)—and indicates that disability morphs him into little more than a demonstration. But while Oedipus’ despair for past deeds (such as his own killing of a king, his father Laius) features prominently throughout the play’s final act, what we see almost none of is feeling, one way or the other, regarding his existence as a blind man.
This is, after all, not Dryden and Lee’s objective. They mean only to jar us with their “confounding stimuli” (G-T 21), particularly as Oedipus kills himself. “Shout and applaud me with a clap of Thunder” he implores the bystanders (5.1.458)—accepting, as Gloster does, his role as a performer—for he “come[s] / Swift as a falling Meteor” (459-60), “And thus go[es] downwards, to the darker Sky” (461). Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh identify Oedipus’ fall as the kind of “spectacular effect” popular with 1670s audiences increasingly accustomed to “larger inside theatre spaces … and the development of new stage machinery” (7). But I contend that the real spectacle designed to evoke audience members’ abashed awe is the king’s visible sightlessness, which Oedipus’s dramatic positioning upon the vista stage showcases (H&M 18). Indeed, other characters balk less at the plunge itself and more at Oedipus’s body afterwards. Haemon suggests they mourn their fallen leader, but the prophet Tiresias wastes no time in recognizing the affective valence of Oedipus’s wrecked figure—its open-ended potential for definition that might only exacerbate an already doleful sequence of events. “[B]ear his body hence” (464), he entreats, for “The dreadful sight will daunt the drooping Thebans” (465). The king’s stareable corpse, however, claims no obvious classical anecdote since Oedipus dies in neither Seneca’s nor Sophocles’ versions and thus becomes singularly spectacular in this 1679 adaptation. Imagine the gruesomeness of those two gory sockets, oozing and hurtling like a “Meteor,” which signifies (beyond mere negative omen or the synecdoche of Oedipus’s body) his twinned “bleeding rings” (Lear 3.5.84)—Tate’s descriptor for Gloster’s sockets—fiery enough to make the comparison apt. Tiresias ultimately does the work of taming this unwieldy sight: “by these terrible Examples warn’d” (467), he pronounces, “The sacred Fury thus Alarms the World” (468). Oedipus’s body is thus translated into a reminder of divine wrath: the gods have taught them a valuable lesson, which the late king’s figure emboldens into obviously-physical relief.
While Oedipus’s blindness is confined to the play’s final act, Tate consistently amplifies the grim pageantry of Gloster’s impairment throughout Lear’s latter half, transforming the earl into a rhetorical cipher. The audience must bear witness to the extraction of Gloster’s eyes and marvel at their inexorable bloodiness, which eclipse the interiority of a man who might otherwise struggle to accept life-altering disability. In other words, Gloster, like Oedipus, is reduced to embodied savagery that must subsequently be interpreted. Scholars such as C.B. Hardman have admittedly pointed out that the nobleman becomes “a potent warning of the consequences of the wilful disturbance of proper succession that initiated the action in the first place” (913). But I strive here to plumb Tate’s strategies, unacknowledged as of yet, for training us to gaze nonreciprocally at this gory, and signifying, figure (913).
Even before Cornwall extricates the earl’s eyes, Tate fashions Gloster’s blindness into a theatrical event with prescient diction and syntax. To his wife, Cornwall commands, “Regan, see here, a plot upon our state,” highlighting sightedness, in contrast to Gloster’s impending blindness, between two caesuras that presage the twinned excavation of his eyes (3.5.2). This obsession with pairs recurs when Cornwall explains that the earl “has betrayed / His double trust of subject and of host”—parallelism underscoring the concept of “double[d]” evil which soon proves more applicable to Cornwall himself (3-4). In a nearly-anaphoric response, Regan suggests that “double” should thus “be [their] vengeance” for Gloster’s going “to seek the king” (5, 7)—an apophastic reminder that before long the nobleman will be unable to “seek” at all. But of course, given the play’s political context, Cornwall’s reference to plotting proves the most significant of all these details, since it is the villain who obsesses over this conspiracy. Like Titus Oates—the Popish Plot’s inventor who claimed to be saving Charles II but upended the steady course of government with confabulated hysteria, the duke talks of punishing the plotter when in fact he, and his cohorts, are the fractious ones all along.
To evoke even more of an emotional aversion to such contumacious treachery, Tate compounds Gloster’s lamentable helplessness as the imperative mood reigns supreme. On the one hand sit Cornwall’s demands to apprehend the duke: “Bind fast his arms” (3.5.29), reiterating lines later, “Bind him, I say, hard, harder yet,” with polyptoton signaling a shift in the truculence perpetrated against Gloster (32). So too, Cornwall demands of this miscreant nobleman, “Speak, rebel, where has thou sent the king” (34), and Regan compels him to “[s]ay where, and why thou hast concealed him” (37). On the other hand, meanwhile, the victim’s own plaintive imperatives stress his suppliant impotence. When the duke orders him bound, Gloster wonders, “What mean Your Graces?” (30), only after pleading, “do me no foul play” (31), and then, during the deed itself, that someone “[g]ive [him] some help” (46). Nothing, after all, would be particularly spectacular about Gloster’s blinding if he consigned himself to such a fate.
Momentarily, Tate then seems willing to facilitate engagement with Gloster beyond the visage of gouged eyes. All appears “dark and comfortless” (67), the earl bewails, now that his eyes are “[d]ead” (70), though recently they “shot / O’er flowery vales to distant sunny hills” (70-1). But after lamenting that he “No more [can] view the beauty of the spring” (79), the performative gift of his sanguinary face comes to mind: “with these bleedings rings” (84), he “will present [himself] to the pitying crowd, / And with the rhetoric of these dropping beings / Enflame ‘em to revenge their king and me” (85-7). Gloster thus prepares to display himself to presumably-receptive spectators, whom he moves not with speech but with “bleeding rings.” No longer is he a spectacle for audiences alone; this Gloster, as his Shakespearean counterpart never was, also becomes an affective lighting-rod for characters within Lear’s world.
Gloster’s blindness thus fortifies the shoddy pilings of Tate’s plot. In this regard too, he can find a precedent in neither Shakespeare’s Lear nor even Dryden and Lee’s Oedipus. Tate’s play, however, requires the rage of the populace to effect Lear’s eventual restoration, which turns so vitriolic that Goneril admits, “[i]t was great ignorance, Gloster’s eyes being out, / To let him live; where he arrives he moves / All hearts against us” (4.3.1-3). Because of his obvious disability, Gloster now elicits the stares of viewers who readily interpreted him as a portent of Goneril and her sister’s tyranny. One scene earlier, an officer similarly reports to Regan that Gloster made an appearance “[a]t last day’s public festival, to which / The yeoman from all quarters had repaired” (4.1.37-8). This is the man, her subaltern emphasizes, “whom you late deprived of sight / (his veins yet streaming fresh)” and who now “presents himself” and “[p]roclaims your cruelty” (39-41). Though Gloster can no longer see the world, the world sees him better than ever before; he has accepted his status as exhibit, a cipher for the heartlessness and “oppression” of Lear’s children (41). What an effective one he proves to be too, since his sockets continue “streaming fresh.” Not belonging to the syntax proper of the sentence, yet a focus of attention given its liminality, this detail’s punctuation recalls the telling of a tawdry rumor: the servant flinches at the information’s grotesqueness but because of its graphic nature, cannot omit it either. Regan responds that Edmund will destroy this “monster of rebellion” but Gloster is already too monstrous to be stopped (47). The term not only invokes rhetoric long applied to those bearing unnatural traits but more importantly underscores the nobleman’s entire function in Tate’s play. Like Oedipus, the other “monster” of this essay, Gloster finds himself on display because he must demonstrate—a key derivative of monstrare—the high price of interrupting natural lines of succession and enduring the disorder that follows.
Nor does Tate allow the horrified momentum borne from Gloster’s spectacular body to dissipate. In the following scene, the nobleman unknowingly reunites with Edgar in a passage noteworthy for its objectification of Gloster’s eyes. When the fugitive son first sees him, he bemoans his “father poorly led! Deprived of sight! / The precious stones torn from their bleeding rings!” (4.2.5-6). Gloster innovates on the same theme, replying, “Well have I sold my eyes, if the event / Prove happy for the injured king” (12-3). His rejoinder is worthy of explication for two reasons: (1) Tate again elaborates upon the whole point of Gloster’s mutilated semblance, to ensure the happiness of the king—or, concerning Lear’s real-life counterpart Charles II, restore the authority of a ruler undermined by the Exclusion Crisis. And (2) the specific diction of injured harks from the negation of ius, “law” in Latin (L&S). For Tate, injury to the king inevitably means a breakdown in the rule-of-law. What follows are the lurid wounds forced upon Gloster, to which Edgar returns regularly: “I must—blest thy sweet eyes, they bleed,” the son laments, emphasizing the spectacle, rather than sentiment, at hand (45). Gloster himself reiterates to Cordelia and Kent several lines later, “Had I eyes I now / Should weep for joy, but let this trickling blood / Suffice” (81-3). Lear’s loyal daughter sums up the effect when she flinches at the “wretched man” before her (85).
Even so, nothing prepares us for the sight Gloster makes of himself while Regan and Goneril’s forces combat their father’s. In a moment that claims no counterpart in Shakespeare, Gloster bewails that he who “used to head the fray” (5.3.9), now must sit “idle, unarmed, and list’ning to the fight” as a forsaken person both “maimed and blind” (12, 13). When he “hears the rattling war,” then, the earl castigates himself with masochistic antonomasia (14): “No more of shelter, thou blind worm, but forth / To th’open field” (17-8). But Gloster soon realizes the bootlessness of his preparations. So does Edgar when he tersely commands him to leave—“Away, old man, give me your hand, away!” (24)—in the last scene where Gloster plays an appreciable role. The spectacle has served its purpose. Lear’s supporters now defend his realm, and when they ultimately prove victorious, Gloster must make himself scarce. Tate transforms Shakespeare’s tragedy into comedy with a tidy message on the importance of civil order to wrap it all up. Allowing Gloster to survive would only muddy the waters, because the role of disability has been to demonstrate to those who are sighted all that can and has gone wrong as a result of insurgency.
The same cannot be said of the blindness of Milton’s hero, which is no straightforward symbol but an embodied character trait coupled with an emotional complexity that brings his experience of nonnormative physicality into sharp relief. Yet many scholars have understood the “blindly destructive” Samson’s impairment metaphorically, either as indicative of “blind animosity” (Mohamed 327), or the champion’s “past failings and failures of vision” (Wittreich 280). I have contended, on the contrary, that sightlessness in Samson Agonistes is important in and of itself, thereby transforming Milton’s dramatic poem into a significant literary articulation of disability that proves crucial to exposing the intricacies of responding to nonnormative embodiment.
As someone who lives with a spinal cord injury, I have my own knowledge of these intricacies: the ways in which people—my peers—on Princeton’s campus stare at me as I haul my cart from the parking lot to dormitory, because to carry too much risks falling. The points and jeers of inebriated Oxford undergrads—still in their black-tie and sub-fusc from formal dinner—who caught me whizzing past on my mobility scooter when I still lived in the UK. I could share anecdotes about the many strangers who have seen my brace, watched me deftly maneuver my cane—a great art—and inquire, what happened to you, as if all this were the result of a singular event in time, one defining episode after which everything was different, forever and always. That’s partly true, I suppose, and I do find myself talking of “the accident” sometimes. But theirs is a facile, failing way of discussing the complexities of human embodiment. Some of the people who interrogate me are of course genuinely concerned, they want to hear my story for a host of good and bad reasons alike. But others are scared—I see this in their eyes, the dread and disaffection of being reminded that, yes, young people can use canes too. That, yes, this might be their last day of walking normally, just as it was mine almost nine years ago now. They feel entitled to an explanation, then, and set off in search of an interpretive framework, a counterbalance to the “masterpiece of horror” they see before them (which was very nearly what a friend’s mother called me when she insisted by my hospital bed that this SCI of mine was just hor-rible). Despite myself, I give them this framework by explaining that I crossed the street at the wrong moment and was struck down as a result. Road safety. “It’s a serious matter,” they insist with a slanted cock of the head, as if this at all convinces me of their wisdom. They have found their monster, and from it take a moral that keeps them sleeping soundly at night.
But I take hope in the possibility of another way these interactions could go, one of “productive looking” (Recovering 1), which is described by Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood as staring that eschews unilateral “gawking … at the extraordinary” in favor of “interaction in which disability, disability histories, and disability representations stare back” (2). This way is one of not focusing simply on the jarring effect that physical non-normativity exacts upon spectators but of engaging in true forms of mutuality, shared knowledge, and reciprocal storytelling. The ones I have shared here mark my own attempt to forge precisely this kind of bond.
Acknowledgments: many thanks to Prof. Margaret Kean, whose guidance led me to my observations in this essay.
Battigelli, Anna. “Two Dramas of the Return of the Repressed: Dryden and Lee’s Oedipus and the Popish Plot.” Hunting Library Quarterly 75.1 (2012): 1-25.
Bearden, Elizabeth B. “Before Normal, There Was Natural: John Bulwer, Disability, and Natural Signing in Early Modern England and Beyond.” PMLA 132.1 (2017): 33-50.
Chess, Simone. “Performing Blindness: Representing Disability in Early Modern Popular Performance and Print.” Rediscovering Disability in Early Modern England, ed. Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013. 105-22.
Dryden, John, and Nathaniel Lee. Oedipus. The Works of John Dryden, Vol. 13: Plays, eds. Maximilian E. Novak and George Robert Guffey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, 2015.
Fries, Kenny. “From Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out.” Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Ed. Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett, and Michael Northen. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.102-9.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How we Look. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
Hall, Edith, and Fiona Macintosh. Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre: 1660-1914. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
Hardman, C.B. “‘Our Drooping Country Now Erects Her Head’: Nahum Tate’s ‘History of King Lear.’” The Modern Language Review 95.4 (2000): 913-923.
Hobgood, Allison P., and David Houston Wood. “Early Modern Literature and Disability Studies.” The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability Studies. Ed. Clare Barker and Stuart Murray. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017. 32-47.
Hobgood, Allison P., and David Houston Wood. “Introduction: Ethical Staring.” Rediscovering Disability in Early Modern England, ed. Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013. 1-22.
Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary: Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1879.
Maguire, Nancy Klein. “Nahum Tate’s King Lear:‘the king’s blest restoration.’” The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth, ed. Jean I. Marsden. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. 29-42.
Mohamed, Feisal. “Confronting Religious Violence in Milton’s Samson Agonistes.” PMLA 120.2 (2005): 327-40.
Seneca. Oedipus. Trans. A.J. Boyle. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.
Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. Ed. James R. Siemon. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. H.D.F. Kitto. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
Tate, Nahum. The History of King Lear. Ed. James Black. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975.
Wittreich, Joseph. Interpreting Samson Agonistes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.
 For a truly spectacular article on the meanings of, representations of, and technologies of performing blindness on the English Renaissance stage, see Chess.
 For more on the relation of these two Lears, see Hardman and Maguire.
 It is crucial to emphasize that although I often write of “disability” here, not all forms of nonnormative embodiment and mindedness were identically stigmatized in early modern culture. See Hobgood & Wood (both listings in the Works Cited) and Bearden for further context and theoretical foundation.
 The political inflections of Dryden and Lee’s play, see Battigelli.
 A fabulous sample of articles on “crip time” can be found in Samuels and Freeman.
Image: Bénigne Gagneraux, “The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods” (1784), Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Description: at the center of the painting, a blind Oedipus, his face screwed up in anguish, and his right arm extended, is surrounded by his mourning daughters.