Blindness In King Lear

  • Category: English
  • Words: 1898
  • Grade: 17
Much of the imagery in King Lear's first scene presages what is to come in the play. Often characters refer to senses, particularly sight, whether as a comment on the necessity of sensing consequences before acting (as Lear does not), or as yet another of Shakespeare's comments (most apparent in Hamlet) on "seeming." The destruction of Gloucester's eyes and his subsequent musings ("I stumbled when I saw" (IV.i.19) etc.) are a more graphical presentation of this basic theme which originally appears in Lear's first scene. Goneril declares Lear is "dearer than eyesight" (I.i.56) to her (though she is the one who later suggests putting Gloucester's eyes out for his "treachery"). Regan goes further, proclaiming "I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys / Which the most precious square of sense possesses" (I.i. 72-74). Crossed in his wrath by Kent, Lear cries "Out of my sight!" (I.i.157), only to be reproved with Kent's "See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye." (I.i.158-9).


In Shakespearean terms, blinds means a whole different thing. Blindness can normally be defined as the inability of the eye to see, but according to Shakespeare, blindness is not a physical quality, but a mental flaw some people possess. Shakespeare's most dominant theme in his play King Lear is that of blindness. King Lear, Gloucester, and Albany are three prime examples Shakespeare incorporates this theme into. Each of these character's blindness was the primary cause of the bad decisions they made; decisions which all of them would eventually come to regret.




The blindest bat of all was undoubtedly King Lear. Because of Lear's high position in society, he was supposed to be able to distinguish the good from the bad; unfortunately, his lack of sight prevented him to do so. Lear's first act of blindness came at the beginning of the play. First, he was easily deceived by his two eldest daughters' lies, then, he was unable to see the reality of Cordelia's true love for him, and as a result, banished 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." (Act I, Sc I, Ln 265-267) Lear's blindness also caused him to banish one of his loyal followers, Kent. Kent was able to see Cordelia's true love for her father, and tried to protect her from her blind father's irrationality. After Kent was banished, he created a disguise for himself and was eventually hired by Lear as a servant. Lear's inability to determine his servant's true identity proved once again how blind Lear actually was. As the play progressed, Lear's eyesight reached closer to 20/20 vision. He realized how wicked his two eldest daughters really were after they locked him out of the castle during a tremendous storm. More importantly, Lear saw through Cordelia's lack of flatterings and realized that her love for him was so great that she couldn't express it into words. Unfortunately, Lear's blindness ended up costing Cordelia her life and consequently the life of himself.


Gloucester was another example of a character who suffered from an awful case of blindness. Gloucester's blindness denied him of 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 wanted to kill the son that would later save his life. Gloucester's blindness began when Edmund convinced him by the means of a forged letter that Edgar was plotting to kill him. Gloucester's lack of sight caused him to believe Edmund was the good son and prevented him from pondering the idea of Edmund being after his earldom. 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) was 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.




Lear, Gloucester and Albany are, then, three great examples of how the theme of blindness was used by Shakespeare throughout his play. Undoubtedly, blindness was the most controlling theme of the play and was the basis on which the plot of the story advanced. It caused the characters to make bad decisions, and for two of them, it cost them their lives.




Although Lear can physically see, he is blind in the sense that he lacks insight, understanding, and direction. In contrast, Gloucester becomes physically blind but gains the type of vision that Lear lacks. It is evident from these two characters that clear vision is not derived solely from physical sight. Lear's failure to understand this is the principal cause of his demise, while Gloucester learns to achieve clear vision, and consequently avoids a fate similar to Lear's

Throughout most of King Lear, Lear's 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.


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" (I.i.160). Here, Lear is saying he never wants to see Kent again, but he could never truly see him for who he was. Kent was only trying to do what was best for Lear, but Lear could not see that. Kent's vision is not clouded, as is Lear's, and he knows that he can remain near Lear as long as he is in disguise. Later, Lear's vision is so superficial that he is easily duped by the physical garments and simple disguise that Kent wears.

. He only learns of Kent's noble and honest character just prior to his death, when his vision is cleared.

Lear's vision is also marred by his lack of direction in life, and his poor foresight, his inability to predict the consequences of his actions. He cannot look far enough into the future to see the consequences 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" (I.i.94-95), Lear cannot see what these words really mean. Goneril and Regan are only putting on an act.

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 only sees what is on the surface, and cannot understand the deeper intentions of the daughters' speeches.

Ironically, he later discovers that Cordelia is the only daughter he wants to see, asking her to "forget and forgive" (IV.vii.85). By this time, he has finally started to gain some direction, and his vision is cleared, but it is too late for his life to be saved. His lack of precognition had condemned him from the beginning. Lear depicts Shakespeare's theme of clear vision by demonstrating that physical sight does not guarantee clear sight. Gloucester depicts this theme by demonstrating clear vision, despite the total lack of physical sight. Prior to the loss of his eyes, Gloucester's vision was much like Lear's. He could not see what was truly going on around him. Instead, he only saw what was presented to him on the surface.

When Gloucester loses his physical sight, his vision actually clears, in that he can see what is going on around him. When Gloucester is captured by Cornwall, Gloucester provokes him to pluck out his eyes: But I shall see The wingèd vengeance overtake such children. Cornwall. See't shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair. Upon these eyes of thine I'll set my foot. (III.vii.66-69) When Gloucester is saying this, he still lacks clear vision, and would never have seen vengeance taken upon Cornwall. When Cornwall puts out his eyes, Gloucester's vision becomes clear from this point on, and he later discovers that Cornwall was killed. Ironically, Gloucester does not see vengeance until after he is blinded. In this sense, Cornwall also suffers from clouded vision because his death is a direct result of his blinding of Gloucester, when a servant kills him. As a result, Gloucester is spared and his vision is cleared, while Cornwall is left a victim of his own faulty vision. 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. (IV.i.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 his eyes were removed. 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. (IV.vi.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.
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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. If Lear had learned to look with more than just his eyes, he might have avoided this tragedy.



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