King Lear Blindness Vs Sight
The theme of blindness and sight in Shakespeare’s King Lear is not a commentary on the physical inability to see, but a literary device utilized by Shakespeare to illustrate how the presence of the mental flaw of lacking insight leads to tragic consequences brought on by poor judgment. The main factor that leads to the tragedy in the play is emotional blindness characterized as a lack of perception or insight. The two main characters King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester are wilfully ignorant and in denial regarding the intentions of their children. They are blind to their responsibilities as parents and lack insight into the nature of their children and are careless in their regard for them. Shakespeare uses both metaphorical and physical blindness and sight to demonstrate the consequences of misinformed and bad decisions which were caused by the inability of King Lear, and Gloucester to use their thoughts and emotions to see the people in their lives for who they truly were.
The main plot revolves around Lear’s emotional blindness to the nature of his three daughters. He impulsively exiles Cordelia, the daughter that truly loves him, in a fit of rage because she refuses to speak largely of her love for him as her sisters Goneril and Regan did. He divides his kingdom between the two remaining daughters Goneril and Regan, who will depose of him. When Cordelia refuses to flatter him like her sisters he commands her to leave his sight and is ready to hand her over to the highest bidder for her hand. The Duke of Burgundy refuses her without her dowry, but the King of France is so impressed with her honesty and loyalty that he immediately tells Lear he will take Cordelia as his wife, and that she herself is enough of a dowry for him:
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon…
Thy dowerless daughter, king, thrown to my chance,
Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France.
This clearly shows Lear’s blindness towards his daughter’s nature and love for him as it compares it to someone, King of France who immediately recognizes that it is Cordelia who is truthful and takes her to be his wife without any doubts or dowry indicated when he said “…queen of us, of ours and our fair France”. King of France recognizes and treasures the quality of truth and honor only found in Cordelia, however Lear does not even recognize Cordelia’s honour.
Lear’s loyal noble the Earl of Kent tries to make him realize he is making a terrible mistake and begs him to “cheque this hideous rashness” in exiling Cordelia and tries to give insight into the wicked intentions of Goneril and Regan by telling him, “What wouldst thou do, old man? / Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak / When power to flattery bows?” / To plainness honor’s bound (Shakespeare 1.1.163-65). Again, people around Lear can see the true nature of Lear’s daughters, yet Lear himself is still blind. Kent tried to reason with Lear by telling that Cordelia’s blunt answer when asked how much she loved her father is a sign of honour and truth as “To plainness honor’s bound” meaning honor obliges one to speak bluntly no matter how hurtful. Yet again Lear is to blind to even listen to his most noble and trustworthy companion Kent.
Lear banishes him also in a fit of rage. Kent is so loyal that he disguises himself as a servant, so that he can still serve Lear and protect him from being overthrown by his two daughters. Lear is so consumed with pride and anger he doesn’t even recognize Kent as a servant and takes him into his service. Lear doesn’t just fail to see the lack of character in Goneril and Regan, his pride makes him blind to Cordelia’s love and Kent’s loyalty. He should have been able to see the truth beneath the flattery of Goneril and Regan and recognize Cordelia’s resistance to speak of her love because words were not enough to convey the depth of her feelings for him, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less” (Shakespeare 1.1.100-02). Instead Lear was to full of himself and did not accept the only honest answer from his daughter.
His lack of perception and ego also causes him to foolishly give away his actual power as King to the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, respectively the husbands of Goneril and Regan, which leaves Lear a king in name only. He foolishly thought that by keeping a hundred knights and dividing his time between Goneril and Regan’s castles he would be able to keep them subservient to him, unaware of Goneril and Regan’s plan to overthrow him and take his power.
He has made himself vulnerable to Goneril and Regan’s collusions to remove him from power and made his subjects vulnerable to attack from forces, both inside and out, by dividing his kingdom. By the second scene of Act 1, Shakespeare has the Earl of Gloucester questioning Lear’s decisions, asking Edmund why Lear had banished Kent, offended the King of France, gave away his power to Cornwall and Albany, and why all on the spur of the moment? Gloucester is clearly at a loss to understand Lear’s motivation for these impulsive decisions. It is Gloucester’s confusion at Lear’s decisions that starts to develop the idea that Lear’s sanity is questionable, even before he goes mad, because no King in his right mind divides his kingdom, especially based on a test of who loves him most. It is the impulsiveness and rashness of these decisions that causes Gloucester to question Lear’s lack of perception. His tragic flaw of lacking insight into the true natures of his three daughters causes his kingdom to be ripped apart by war, the death of his daughter Cordelia, and his own demise.
As King, Lear should have been able to discern good from evil, however his poor judgment destroys his family and his country. When he was finally able to see Goneril and Regan for who they really are as evil, deceiving people and that Cordelia had loved him truly, his inability to deal with this reality drives him mad. He only starts to lose his pride and careless attitude towards his subjects and his daughters when he has lost everything, including his sanity:
Poor naked wretches…
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides…
Defend you from seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
His last coherent thought is the realization that Cordelia’s love was true, and she paid dearly for her love because of his inability to make good decisions. He tries to make light of their fate by telling her they will sing songs and gossip about the courtiers while in prison, but he is still sane enough to know he had wronged her, and asked her to forgive him, “When thou dost ask me blessing / I’ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness” (Shakespeare 5.3.11-12).
Even after all he had done to her, Cordelia still forgave Lear. The knowledge that he had cruelly wronged her, and he was never going to have a chance to make it up to her, is what causes his heart to fail when Cordelia is killed.
In the subplot of the play the Earl of Gloucester is also emotionally blind to the nature of his two sons. His lack of insight into the character of his sons is what binds him and Lear together in the play. This was purposely done to drive home the point that Shakespeare was trying to make about the consequences of bad judgment. In Gloucester’s case, his blindness is perceived as gullibility. Gloucester believes the story that Edmund has concocted to discredit his brother Edgar with only the evidence of a letter that seemed to prove that Edgar was trying to kill his father to inherit his wealth and title. He never once questions Edgar’s motivation for wanting to kill him, or Edmund’s motivation for showing him the letter in the first place. Without any hesitance he immediately assumes Edgar is guilty and wants to be sure he kills Edgar before Edgar can kill him. He turns on his son without even attempting to ask him what his intentions were to find out if this is really true “… Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested / Brutish villain! / …I’ll apprehend him: abominable villain! / Where is he? (Shakespeare 1.2.80-83). In addition, he is so blind to the true nature of his son’s by asking where the villain is, all while the villain is standing right in front of him.
Gloucester’s poor judgment will cause him to be physically blinded by Cornwall and Regan when Edmund turns on him, and to attempt suicide when he finally realizes that Edmund has mislead him. Gloucester’s refusal to see what is before him is so extreme that he doesn’t even recognise his son Edgar disguised as Mad Tom. He blames his gullibility and lack of insight on “these late eclipses of the sun and moon” (Shakespeare 1.2.109) to absolve himself for any responsibility for his actions.
His blindness to the consequences of his actions was not because of his current circumstances. He had sent Edmund away from him as a young boy, out of the country for nine years to hide his sin of adultery and was planning to send him away again. He had turned a blind eye to Edmund’s feelings his entire life, even making fun of his socially unaccepted and basely birth yet was surprised when Edmund betrayed him because he wanted Edgar’s position as son and heir. In King Lear illegitimacy is the characteristic which most pervasively defines Edmund’s life. This means that personal embarrassment and public humiliation are a continual torment for Edmund’s entire life. Given his father’s mocking of him, it can be expected that this was common treatment for illegitimate sons of nobility. Edmund is a sympathetic villain because his motivation is easy to understand. It doesn’t absolve Edmund of his deceitful actions, but you can empathise with his feelings of rejection and his unfair treatment by his father, yet Gloucester is oblivious to the damage he had inflicted on his younger son. He had to lose everything, including his literal sight, before he could gain true sight to finally see that Edgar was his true and faithful son and that Edmund had cruelly betrayed him:
O dear son Edgar…,
The food of thy abused father’s wrath,
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!
When he finally recognizes Edgar, his joy at seeing his son for who he really was, and his grief for his misjudgment of Edgar, causes him to die of heart failure. As wonderful as it was that he realised his mistake with Edgar, there is no acknowledgement how his careless treatment of Edmund set the entire tragedy in motion. Shakespeare leaves this question unanswered to emphasize how flawed Gloucester’s vision was regarding both his sons. Gloucester only partially redeems himself by recognising his shortcomings with Edgar. Edmund dies at his brother’s hand which is tragic enough, however Shakespeare has his father die without ever admitting he was responsible for setting Edmund on the path to destruction, to hone his point that lack of insight just doesn’t affect the person, it also has consequences for the people around him.
Shakespeare used blindness and sight as a literary device in King Lear to portray a direct cause and effect between emotional blindness and deadly consequences, and insight and favorable consequences. Appearances can be deceiving; while physical blindness limits the ability to view the world, it does not limit the ability to perceive the intentions of others. Emotional blindness is a fundamental lack of insight that results in tragedy. Both Lear and Gloucester destroyed their families and lost their lives because of their inability to close their eyes and “see” what was beneath the surface.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009.