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In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the characters in a position of power are most often the ones who are blindest to the truth. Only after losing that power are they able to gain a clear understanding of the events occurring around them and to realize who their true friends and enemies are. The converse is true as well. Those characters with no power are usually the ones who can see the true motives of other characters. This inverse relationship between power and knowledge is most clearly reflected in four characters: Gloucester, King Lear, the Fool, and Kent.
In Gloucester’s situation, his power can be equated with his vision. A member of the court, Gloucester has the noble title of earl. In this high position, he is not aware of the motivations behind the actions of those around him. His own son, Edmund, deceives him. Angry at being the illegitimate son and greedy for inheritance, Edmund convinces his father that his other son, Edgar, is plotting to kill him. This does not require much effort since Gloucester quickly believes Edmund. Although they plan to meet again to determine whether Edgar really is conspiring against his father, it seems as if Gloucester already believes Edgar to be guilty. This can be seen in the way he refers to Edgar as he instructs Edmund to “find out this villain” (I.2.115). The next time they meet, Gloucester finds Edmund injured. Although he does not see what happens, Gloucester is easily tricked into believing that Edgar attacked him. At this point, Gloucester is mistakenly convinced that Edgar is the evil son and that Edmund is the good son. He then rewards Edmund, telling him, “…and of my land, … I’ll work the means to make thee capable” (II.1.83-85).
Gloucester learns “to see” only in his blindness. Six lines after Cornwall completely blinds Gloucester, Gloucester discovers the truth. When he is injured, Gloucester calls out for Edmund to help, but Cornwall quickly informs him that “it was [Edmund] that made the overture of thy treasons to us” (III.7.89-90). It is here that Gloucester understands what is happening, exclaiming, “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused” (III.7.92). Aside from this realization, Gloucester also gains other knowledge in his state of blindness. For one thing, he is less easily persuaded by others. When Edgar tries to convince his father that they are on a hill, Gloucester states, “Methinks the ground is even” (IV.6.3). His newfound insight is also evident in his encounter with Edgar. When Gloucester could see, he does not recognize his son, asking “What are you there? Your names?” (III.4.127), when he sees Edgar. After he is blinded, however, he connects Tom Bedlam with Edgar saying, “I such a fellow saw… My son came then into my mind” (IV.1.33-35). Now that he is blind and powerless, he is suddenly more perceptive to the world around him.
King Lear experiences a similar exchange between power and knowledge. As ruler of his kingdom, he is first presented in the play as a man with the most power. However, he is also unable to recognize who his friends and enemies are. First, his daughters, Goneril and Regan, easily deceive him. They tell him that they both love him the most, “more than word can wield the matter” (I.1.55). He believes their lies and divides the kingdom between them, while leaving nothing to his other daughter, Cordelia, who truly loves him. Simply because she refuses to flatter him, he was unable to see the reality of Cordelia’s true love for him. As a result, he banishes her from his kingdom with the following words: “…for we have no such daughter, nor shall ever see that face of her again. Therefore be gone without our grace, our love, our benison” (I.1.265-267). King Lear also punishes one of his most loyal followers, Kent. Kent sees Cordelia’s true love for her father, and tries to advise him against making a mistake. Instead, Lear irrationally prefers to believe in Goneril and Regan’s lies and banishes Kent also. Not only is King Lear unable to see the evil in his own personal life, but also that of the kingdom. He neglects the poor and does not even acknowledge the existence of poverty in his land.
Once Lear gives up his kingdom, however, his lower position allows him to see the truth. He descends into a position of total powerlessness once he is locked out of the castle during a tremendous storm. At this point, he has nowhere to go and cannot even keep his train of men. He now realizes how wicked his two eldest daughters really are, referring to them as “pernicious” (III.2.22). During the storm, he also sees the poverty in his kingdom, which he fails to recognize when he is in a position of power. Lear wonders how the “houseless heads and unfed sides defend [the poor] from seasons such as these”. He continues to say, “O, I have ta’en too little care of this!” (III.4.32-35), admitting his neglect toward the poor. More importantly, Lear sees through Cordelia’s lack of flattering and realizes that her love for him is so great that she could not express it in words.
Unlike Gloucester and King Lear, the Fool does not experience a fall from power in order to gain knowledge. Instead, because he is already in a low position, he is able to be intelligent. One of two reasons why he already has knowledge is because of the way the other characters perceive him. Most people are not conscious of him, and when they are, they dismiss his presence as unimportant. When Kent asks who the Fool is, for example, the Gentleman answers, “None but the fool” (III.1.16). They basically see him as a nobody. As a result, the other characters do not pretend to be someone else. They are their true selves around him and thus, the Fool sees the truth. The second reason why his low position allows him to be intelligent stems from the first. Because the other characters do not consider him important, the Fool can say anything he wants and not anger anyone. No one is threatened by him or his statements, as is clear from the King’s actions. The Fool’s statements are usually much harsher than any other characters’ words. It is the other characters, however, who are punished while nothing happens to him. When Kent and Cordelia speak the truth, for example, the king becomes so angry that he banishes them from the kingdom. However, when the Fool criticizes the King with, “The sweet and bitter fool will presently appear, the one in motley here, the other found out there” (I.4.141-144), Lear only replies with, “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” (I.4.144). The Fool is basically calling the King a fool, but the King does not even get angry.
Throughout the play, the Fool provides insight into the actions of the characters. The Fool shows his knowledge through ambiguous statements and clever witticism. The only problem is that no one takes him seriously. When the Fool advises Lear to “speak less than thou knowest” (I.4.116), Kent says, “This is nothing, fool” (I.4.125). The Fool also provides simple and clear reasoning for a one sighted King. The Fool only first appears the fourth scene of act 1, after Cordelia has moved away with the King of France. The Fool knows that Lear has done wrong by giving all his land away to his two evil daughters, and tells him so when he says, “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with” (I.4.146-147). The Fool is supposed to be an idiot, but he is anything but that. The one character in this play who is supposed to be the mad one, is in fact the one person who says things that make sense.
Another character who reflects the inverse relationship between power and intelligence is Kent. He is first presented as an earl, a member of the court with a considerable amount of power. However, he is also knowledgeable since he is able to discern which daughters are good and evil. Because no character in King Lear can have both power and intelligence, Kent is quickly put into a position of no power once Lear banishes him. Throughout the rest of the play, Kent plays the role of Lear’s servant. Because he is in this low position, he can continue to be knowledgeable and take care of the King.
In King Lear, power and knowledge do not go hand in hand. In order to obtain one, the other must be lost. This is clearly seen in our discussion of Gloucester, King Lear, Fool, and Kent. Gloucester and King Lear both have to give up their power in order to see what is going on. It is not coincidental that once they lose their power, they are able to see the truth. The Fool is the most knowledgeable character, but only because he has no power. And Kent is forced to become a powerless figure in order to continue his existence as a knowledgeable character.
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