In Shakespeare’s “King Lear” the issue of sight against blindness is a recurring theme. In Shakespearean terms, being blind does not refer to the physical inability to see. Blindness is here a mental flaw some characters posses, and vision is not derived solely from physical sight.
King Lear and Gloucester are the two prime examples Shakespeare incorporates this theme into. Each of these characters’ lack of vision was the primary cause of the unfortunate decisions they made, decisions that they would eventually come to regret.
The blindest of all was undoubtedly King Lear. Because of his high position in society he is supposed to be able to distinguish good from bad: unfortunately, his lack of insight prevented him to do so.
However, his “vision” is clouded by his lack of insight. Since he cannot see into other people’s characters, he can never identify them for who they truly are. When Lear is
angered by Cordelia, Kent tries to reason with Lear, who is too stubborn to remain open-minded. Lear responds to Kent’s opposition with, “Out of my sight!” to which Kent responds:
“See better, Lear,
and let me still remain”
(Act I, sc I, l. 160).
Kent, once banished, creates a disguise for himself and is eventually hired by Lear as a servant. The king’s vision is so superficial that he is easily deceived by Kent’s changed appearance. He can never see his trusted servant for whom he really is. He only learns of Kent’s noble and honest character just prior to his death, when his vision is cleared. By this time, however, it is too late for an honest relationship to be salvaged.
Lear’s vision is also blurred by his lack of direction in life, and his poor ability to predict the outcome of his actions. This, in addition to his lack of insight into other people, condemns his relationship with his most beloved daughter, Cordelia. When Lear asks his daughters who loves him most, he already thinks that Cordelia has the most love for him. However, when Cordelia says:
“I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less
(Act I, sc. I,ln. 94-95)
Lear cannot see what these words really mean. Goneril and Regan are only putting on an act. Their love for their father is not as great as they say. Cordelia’s words show that she has seen her sisters’ facade, and she does not want to associate her true love with their false love. Lear, however, is fooled by Goneril and Regan into thinking that they love him and Cordelia does not. Kent, who has sufficient insight, is able to see through the dialogue and knows that Cordelia is the only daughter who actually loves Lear. He tries to convince Lear of this, saying
“Answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least”
(Act I, sc I, ln. 153-154).
Lear, however, only sees what is on the surface, and cannot understand the deeper intentions of his daughters’ speeches. As his anger grows from the argument, his foresight diminishes and he becomes increasingly rash and narrow-minded. When Lear disowns Cordelia and banishes her from his kingdom he says
Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see
That face of hers again”
(Act I, scene I, lines 264-266)
Ironically, he later discovers that Cordelia is the only daughter he wants to see, asking her to “forget and forgive” (Act IV, scene VII, line 85). By this time, he has finally started to gain some direction, and his sight is cleared. But it is too late. His lack of precognition had condemned him from the beginning, and actually cost him his and his daughter’s life.
In Lear’s character one sees that physical sight does not necessary guarantee clear sight. Gloucester however shows that physical blindness does not bring about lack of insight into other people’s intentions.
Prior to the loss of his eyes, Gloucester’s vision was very much like Lear’s. He was unable to see what was going on around him. Instead, he only saw what was presented to him on the surface. His blindness denies him the ability to see the goodness of Edgar and the evil of Edmund. Although Edgar was the good and loving son, Gloucester all but disowned him. He was ready to kill the son who would later save his life. Gloucester’s blindness begins when Edmund convinces him by means of a forged letter that Edgar was plotting to kill him. When Edmund shows him the letter that is supposedly from Edgar, it takes very little convincing for Gloucester to believe it. As soon as Edmund mentions that Edgar could be plotting against him, Gloucester calls him an “Abhorred villain, unnatural, detested, brutish villain” (Act I,sc. II,ln 81-82). He does not even stop to consider whether Edgar would do such a thing because he cannot see into Edgar’s character. The idea of Edmund being after the earldom never occurs to him. At this point, Gloucester’s life is headed down a path of damnation similar to Lear’s because of a similar lack of sight.
Near the end of the play, Gloucester finally regained his sight and realized that Edgar saved his life disguised as Poor Tom and loved him all along. He realized that Edmund planned to take over the earldom and that he was the evil son of the two. Gloucester’s famous line: “I stumbled when I saw” (Act IV, Sc I, Ln 20-21) is ironic. His inability to see the realities of his sons occurred when he had his physical sight but was mentally blind; but his ability to see the true nature of his sons occurred after having his eyes plucked out by the Duke of Cornwall. Fortunately, the consequences of Gloucester’s blindness throughout the play was minimal, after all, he was the only one to die as a result of his tragic flaw.
From this point onwards, Gloucester learns to see clearly by using his heart to see instead of his eyes. It is evident that he realizes this when he says:
” I have no way and therefore want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen,
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities.”
(Act IV,sc I,ln 18-21)
In this, he is saying that he has no need for eyes because when he had them, he could not see clearly. He realizes that when he had eyes, he was confident that he could see, while in reality, he could not see until he was physically blind. Afterwards, he sees with his mind instead of his eyes.
Gloucester’s vision can be contrasted with that of Lear. While Lear has the physical sight that Gloucester lost, Gloucester has the clearer vision that Lear will never gain. When Lear and Gloucester meet near the cliffs of Dover, Lear questions Gloucester’s state:
“No eyes in your
head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are
in a heavy case, your purse in a light, yet you
see how this world goes.
Gloucester. I see it feelingly.”
(Act IV, sc.VI, ln 147-151)
Here, Lear cannot relate to Gloucester because his vision is not clear, and he wonders how Gloucester can see without eyes. Although Lear has seen his mistakes, he still believes that sight comes only from the eyes. Gloucester tells him that sight comes from within. Vision is the result of the mind, heart, and emotions put together, not just physical sight. This is a concept that Lear will never understand.
In King Lear, clear vision is an attribute portrayed by the main characters of the two parallel plots. While Lear portrays a lack of vision, Gloucester learns that clear vision does not emanate from the eye. Throughout this play, Shakespeare is saying that the world cannot truly be seen with the eye, but with the heart. The physical world that the eye can detect can accordingly hide its evils with physical attributes, and thus clear vision cannot result from the eye alone. Lear’s downfall was a result of his failure to understand that appearance does not always represent reality. Gloucester avoided a similar demise by learning the relationship between appearance and reality. Had Lear learned to look with more than just his eyes, he might have avoided this tragedy.