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. The leading images are pertaining to those characters in the play that cannot use their sight and insight in order to judge reality. However, in examining the characters that are blind, we definitely also require to examine those who have the intelligibility and perception to see suitably.
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Gloucester and Lear are the characters most gravely afflicted by blindness. It begins as a metaphorical blindness, or lack of wisdom and insight. Not only do these characters not understand, know, or really ‘see’ those around them, but also they barely know or understand themselves. Both Lear and Gloucester make fatal errors in judgment. For example, Gloucester trusts his estranged illegitimate son Edmund over his trustworthy and honorable son Edgar. Similarly, Lear banishes Cordelia (the only daughter whose love for him is untainted be the desire for material gain) and bestows his kingdom on his two dishonest daughters.
Although many parallels can be drawn between the two aged fathers there is one important difference, particularly when considering the theme of blindness: essentially Gloucester is too trusting and in this way is blind to the true nature of his son; conversely Lear chooses to be blind rather than accept his mistakes and examine his own flaws. Both men end up making huge sacrifices by the end of the play in order to gain true vision. Gloucester only learns to see things, as they are when he loses his physical sight. Lear loses all of his kingdom and respect, as well as some of his sanity, before he begins to learn to see. In the end Lear loses his loving daughter as well.
“I loved her most…Hence and avoid my sight!” (I, I ll.122-123)
This is King Lear speaking about Cordelia. The importance of this quote is that he is voluntarily casting her from his sight, and therefore becoming intentionally blind to her quite yet unconditional love. His own pride and childish desire for public flattery blind him, causing him to make the fatal mistake of entrusting his kingdom and power with two women who are not at all as doting as they claim to be.
“See better Lear; and let me still remain the true blank of thine eye.” (I, I ll.158-159)
This quote, said early in the play by Lear’s faithful servant Kent, is a warning. Kent is trying to tell Lear that if he does not ‘open his eyes’ or awaken to the truth of his situation, he will be in serious trouble. The situation of course is that Lear is banishing his one true, good daughter, and embracing her evil and conniving sisters. Not only does it demonstrate Lear’s metaphorical blindness, this quote also contrasts it with Kent’s relative clarity and wisdom. He asks Lear to continue regarding him as a ‘true blank’, which ties into the theme of nothingness.
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“Old fond eyes, beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out, and cast you, with the waters that you loose…”(I, IV ll.191-193)
Here Lear is speaking out in rage and grief, brought about by his daughter Goneril. She has dismissed half his nights and in doing so insulted him. The powerfully gory imagery of plucking out his own eyes seems exaggerated and melodramatic at this point in the play, but as we know is actually foreshadowing Gloucester suffering this very fate. What Lear is saying with this image is that he would rather be blind than witness injustices’ against him by his own daughter. This holds some dramatic irony since we the readers know that he lacks the wisdom to ‘see’ clearly, with or without his physical eyes.
“All that follow their noses are lead by their eyes but blind men; and there’s not a nose among twenty that can smell him that’s stinking.” (II, IV ll.67-68)
Again Lear is receiving a warning from one whose inner eye is clearer than his own. Here the fool warns him about the dangers of taking things at face value, as they appear, rather than getting to the bottom of things and finding out the truth. Although it is said to Lear, Gloucester stands to benefit from this quote since he is also having the ‘wool pulled over his eyes’ by Edmund, someone he trusts unquestioningly.
“‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.” (IV, I ll.46-48)
In this quote Gloucester is talking to Poor Tom, who is really Edgar in disguise, although Gloucester does not know this. Gloucester is commenting on how it is unfortunate when the natural order is reversed, and madmen are leading the nobles. This relates to the fact that King Lear, who is supposed to be the ruler and leader of a great country, has usurped the thrown, discarded his duties and therefore fallen into disgrace. Lear is also being lead by his fool. This ties into the theme of the wise fool; the madmen and fools are treated as the least intelligent characters in the play, however in many cases they are the most insightful and see the most clearly of anyone.
“See’t shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair. Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot. (III, VII ll. 64-65)
This was said right before Gloucester had his eyes plucked out. Cornwall says that Gloucester shall never see again, which is an ironic statement. It is ironic because once Gloucester is blinded and cannot physically see, he finally can “see” all of his mistakes, and where he went wrong with his family. Although Cornwall thinks he is ruining Gloucester’s life by permanently denying him his vision, he is actually aiding it, in a way, because now Gloucester realizes that he had been tricked by Edmund into thinking he was the better son.
“O I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left to see some mischief on him. Oh!” (III, VII ll.77-78)
Cornwall’s loyal servant attacks him in an attempt to prevent him from plucking out Gloucester’s remaining eye. Even Cornwall’s lifetime servant who has a biased view of his master’s actions can see the extreme cruelty of blinding Gloucester solely based on Edward’s word. The servant is putting forth a valiant effort to try and preserve Gloucester’s sight. However, what he does not realize is that Gloucester lacks internal sight, and without that his single remaining eye is relatively useless.
“If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes; I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester (IV, VI l.l172-173)
In this quote, King Lear is talking to Gloucester, and can see that he has no eyes. Lear is offering Gloucester his eyes if he is willing to inherit his problems. Lear always believes that his situation is worse than other characters in the play, and thinks he has a much harder life than everyone. Even with his eyes, he cannot see that he does not have it so bad. This quote is important because it shows Lear’s complete lack of development as a character thus far, and therefore it demonstrates his continued blindness despite the fact that he still has eyes in his head where Gloucester has none.
“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.” (IV, I ll.18-21)
In this quote Gloucester is talking to his son Edgar, although he does not know this because Edgar is in disguise. In the first part of the quote “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes”, Gloucester is talking about the fact that he has lost everything and no longer has a purpose in his life, because of this he no longer wishes to see and experience the world. In the second part of the quote “I stumbled when I saw…” he is admitting that he has made a terrible mistake, when he could see, in outlawing his favorite son solely based on the word of his illegitimate son Edmund. This relates to the fact that even though Gloucester could physically see with his eyes, he was unable to see people for what they really were. He could not tell that he had a loving and noble son in Edgar, and Edmund was a power hungry bitter young man.
“Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there!” (V, III ll.309-310)
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Lear began the play “blind” to the truth, and ends the play still oblivious because he envisions Cordelia to be alive, while she is dead. However, he sees the good in her nothing, which relates to the beginning of the play when she refuses to flatter her father for a piece of land, and says “nothing”, and he responds with “Nothing will come of nothing…” Here he realizes his error of banishing her from the land, and now he regrets treating her the way he did. He now is trying as hard as he can to see if she is alive, because he does not want to lose her, as he did when she was banished.
Blindness and vision are great suggestive themes in King Lear and have many connotative meanings in the play. Shakespeare has used these themes quite implicitly as well as explicitly to promote the action of the play. These themes also help in developing plot and character.