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In King Lear, the recurring images of sight and blindness associated with the characters of Lear and Gloucester illustrate the theme of self-knowledge and consciousness that exist in the play.
These classic tropes are inverted in King Lear, producing a situation in which those with healthy eyes are ignorant of what is going on around them, and those without vision appear to “see” the clearest. While Lear’s “blindness” is one which is metaphorical, the blindness of Gloucester, who carries the parallel plot of the play, is literal. Nevertheless, both characters suffer from an inability to see the true nature of their children, an ability only gained once the two patriarchs have plummeted to the utter depths of depravity. Through a close reading of the text, I will argue that Shakespeare employs the plot of Gloucester to explicate Lear’s plot, and, in effect, contextualizes Lear’s metaphorical blindness with Gloucester’s physical loss of vision.
When the audience is first introduced to Lear, he is portrayed as a raging, vain old man who can not see the purity of his daughter Cordelia’s love for him from the insincerity of her sisters Goneril and Regan. In his fiery rage after disowning Cordelia, Lear commands to Kent, “Out of my sight!” (1.1.156). Kent fittingly implores the aging king to “See better, Lear; and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye” (1.1.157-8). Kent recognizes love in its most noble form in the person of Cordelia, and is able to see through the hypocrisy of Lear’s other two daughters. In beseeching Lear to “[s]ee better,” Kent is, in effect, asking Lear to look beyond his vanity and inward pride to see the honesty of Cordelia, who refuses to put her love for her father on show.
From the very first act of the play, then, Shakespeare has set up the theme of consciousness, using the metaphor of sight. Kent’s imperative to “see better” is prompting Lear not to use his faculty of vision, but, metaphorically, to become conscious of what is going on around him; to see the world as it truly is. It is fascinating that, upon Kent’s imperative, Lear swears, “Now, by Apollo-” (1.1.159). As Apollo is the god of the sun whose maxim is to “know thyself,” it is particularly telling that Lear is invoking the god associated with sharpness of vision and light, when he, himself, remains unenlightened. The unrelenting Kent, recognizes Lear’s blindness as well as the futility of invoking the god of self-knowledge, and, despite the king’s growing anger, declares, “Thou swear’st thy gods in vain” (1.1.161).
The theme of consciousness is underscored by the Gloucester plot in King Lear. Gloucester, like Lear, is an aging man who has yet to learn the true nature of his children. In this way, he shares Lear’s metaphorical blindness, but Shakespeare does not stop there; he adds the physical impairment of vision to Gloucester’s character as well. It is mentioned that Gloucester requires the need of “spectacles” in order to read the fabricated letter his son Edmund presents to him. Ironically, even with the use of an instrument to heighten his vision, Gloucester is still unable to see things as they truly are. With no prior provocation, and hardly any “ocular” proof, Gloucester immediately believes that his legitimate son Edgar has formed a conspiracy against him.
Shakespeare heightens Gloucester’s metaphoric blindness by casting him offstage during Lear’s banishment of Cordelia. Thus, in this sense, Gloucester is blind onstage. If he were present, Gloucester would have been able to gain awareness of the insincerity of children, as illustrated by Goneril and Regan, and apply it to his own situation. Lear, who is onstage, lacks this awareness. Even the lord of France comments to Burgundy that “Love’s not love / When it is mingled with regards that stands / Aloof from th’ entire point” (1.1.239-241). France is essentially asserting that love is not love when one is just competing for a piece of land. Lear is onstage to hear these words, but he fails to see how this can be applied to his own situation.
The tragic descent of Lear into blindness begins shortly after transferring his power to his daughters. Lear becomes disoriented as early as Act 1.4 when he questions his identity in terms of sight: “Doth any here know me? This is not Lear. / Doth Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?” (201-2). Lear is beginning to question his identity because he is no longer at the same place he was at the play’s opening. He is beginning to see the true nature of his ungrateful daughters, and, as a result, his self has started to disintegrate, as he gradually delves into madness.
After being turned away yet again by his daughters, as they question his need for a train of knights, Lear exclaims, exasperated, “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s” (2.4.259-262). Here the parallel plot of the Gloucester comes into play, for Edgar, disguised as a beggar and stripped to his barest essentials, becomes emblematic of what Lear is articulating in the above speech. Lear, too, is stripped down: stripped of his sovereignty, his train, and respect from his daughters.
Through his wanderings and his experience on the heath, Lear learns to become a more sympathetic character. He is forced to ruminate upon the daily lives of the poor, commenting,
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (3.4.29-37)
Thus, on the threshold of madness, Lear is able to focus on issues that he neglected as king. The once blind Lear is now gaining a limited sight.
Clearly, poor Tom is the physical character who represents the man Lear realizes he has ignored during his rule. It is also very interesting to note that it is only after Lear cries out in recognition of his ignorance, that he meets Poor Tom. Lear’s humbling experiences have allowed him to truly recognize the human condition, and, in effect, becomes a more self-conscious figure.
Although Lear seems to be redeeming himself through self-awareness, the plot of Gloucester remains one step behind. Unlike Lear, Gloucester does not even begin to question his understanding of the events going on around him until at the end of Act III. Gloucester, although portrayed in this play as a man accompanied with spectacles in Act I, and a torch in Act IV, he is lagging far behind in sight. It is only after Regan reveals that Edmund has betrayed him that he becomes undone. In a moment of recognition, Gloucester cries, “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused,” but not before being robbed of both his eyes (3.7.94). Ironically, Gloucester only begins to “see” once he has lost his vision. However, this awakening to the truth comes too late, for Gloucester’s former blindness to the truth has now been literalized in physical terms.
By the end of the play, Lear and Gloucester have become conscious and self-knowledgeable. Lear is able to “see” through a sympathetic lens, after having exchanged pride for shame, while Gloucester, who willingly admits that “[he] stumbled when [he] saw,” is only able to “see,” though sightless, after he has suffered (4.1.20). Gloucester is able to see how the world goes, “feelingly”; he can now see without eyes. It is through the inverted tropes of sight and blindness that the audience views Gloucester’s and Lear’s development to self-knowledge, as they become conscious of their own condition and that of the world around them. Undeniably, the plots of Lear and Gloucester run similar courses. However, Shakespeare employs Gloucester’s plot to explicate Lear’s plot. Through the physical blinding of Gloucester, Shakespeare provides an analog which contextualizes King Lear’s theme of consciousness and allows Lear’s own metaphorical blindness to be fully grasped.
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