The Diminution of Space: Visual Perspective in Shakespeare

In my last post, I suggested that writers rarely use painterly techniques (perspective, scale, loss of detail, etc) to convey visual experience. More often, they defer to words that merely indicate distance—”near,” “far,” and relative visual comparatives—rather than recreate, in language, the actual experience of space and scale.

Since I shared that post, other examples of “literary visual perspective” have come to mind, including a couple from Shakespeare. For example, there’s this passage from King Lear, where Edgar, disguised as “Poor Tom,” describes to the blind Gloucester the view from the cliffs of Dover: 

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumbered idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong. (Lear, 4.6)

This is virtuosic in its rendering of the shifts in scale and the silence of distance, from “the crows…that wing the midway air” to the “unnumbered idle pebbles” on the beach. (It is interesting to note, however, that in the context of the play, it’s not a “real” description: they are nowhere near Dover; Edgar is fabricating this description in order to prevent Gloucester, his father, from committing suicide at the real cliffs).

Here’s another example from Cymbeline. I cite it for the deftness of its description as well as for its fascinating (some would say bizarre) turns of phrase. Quick bit of plot/background: Imogen and Posthumus have secretly married. Cymbeline—king of Britain and Imogen’s father—doesn’t approve of the marriage, so he banishes Posthumus. Posthumus’s servant, Pisano, describes Posthumus’s ship’s departure to Imogen:

…for so long
As he could make me with this eye or ear
Distinguish him from others, he did keep
The deck, with glove, or hat, or handkerchief,
Still waving, as the fits and stirs of ‘s mind
Could best express how slow his soul sailed on,
How swift his ship. (Cymbeline 1.3)

Once again, distance is conveyed via both sight and hearing. Also, Shakespeare captures the blur of distance by refusing to pin down what exactly Posthumus was waving: “with glove, or hat, or handkerchief, / Still waving.”

Imogen then describes how long she would have watched after him, and what she would have seen, had she been there. Keep in mind, she was not there; this is all hypothetical:

Thou shouldst have made him
As little as a crow, or less, ere left
To after-eye him.

Madam, so I did.

I would have broke mine eye-strings; crack’d them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle,
Nay, follow’d him, till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air, and then
Have turn’d mine eye and wept. (Cymbeline 1.3)

Again, there’s a subtle rendering of scale, with Imogen noting how the departing Posthumus appears smaller and smaller—first, “as little as a crow,” then as a gnat, until he disappears altogether, his image, in a sense, melting into her eye.

I’m intrigued by the odd eye-language: how Imogen would “after-eye” him; also how she would have “broke mine eye-strings; crack’d them but / to look upon him.” It’s well documented that with each play, Shakespeare liked to ring the changes on certain words or word clusters, and it’s no accident that both of my examples come from plays that are “eye” and vision heavy. Perhaps these strained but fascinating uses of “eye” are WS’s attempt to up his eye count (which is, by the way, 35 in this play; 55 in Lear)

Finally, I’m especially interested in “till the diminution / Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle.” It’s almost as if WS is describing one-point perspective. This suggests that Shakespeare’s use of perspectival techniques is deliberate and self-conscious…

To be continued, with examples from Milton, Clare, and Dickinson.

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