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William Shakespeare never fails to entertain his readers with a dramatic, entertaining story and well thought-out characters. In “King Lear,” Lear decides to split his kingdom among his three daughters, which spirals downward into war and chaos. The story entails deep betrayal from not only two of his daughters, but the Earl of Gloucester’s son as well. Ending in a tragedy of death and sadness, the play showcases the true corrupt motives for each character. The Earl of Gloucester, an old man with two sons, is a nobleman who is loyal to King Lear.
As a mirror character of King Lear himself, Gloucester is surrounded by an obvious theme of blindness as his character evolves throughout the play and ultimately leaves the reader with an incomplete feeling.
In the beginning of the play, Gloucester and his bastard son, Edmund, seem to have a fairly pleasant relationship. However, Edmund is determined to take the inheritance of his father’s power from the rightful successor, his brother Edgar.
He does this by going behind Gloucester’s back to make it seem like Edgar is planning to betray him. Edmund writes a fake letter and tricks his father into reading it. Gloucester yells to Edmund, “To his father, that so tenderly and entirely loves him. -Heaven and earth!-Edmund, seek him out; wind me into him, I pray you:” (Shakespeare I, ii). Gloucester is clearly blinded to the truth, that the son he favors actually has evil intentions and is easily playing him.
He believes and trusts Edmund without asking any questions. Gloucester is even blind to Edgar’s true self when he meets his own son in disguise as Tom, a beggar, and does not recognize him. Throughout the play, Edmund continues to use Gloucester when finally, Gloucester is given insight. Unfortunately for him, Shakespeare decided to use situational irony to reveal the truth. Gloucester gets his eyes brutally gouged out by Cornwall with Regan enthusiastically supporting him. However, despite Gloucester losing his physical eyesight, he finally is able to see the fact that Edgar is the son he should favor. Regan exposes the reality to him by saying, “Out, treacherous villain! Thou call’st on him that hates thee: it was he that made the overture of they treasons to us; who is too good to pity thee” (Shakespeare III, vii). Gloucester is shocked and realizes that Edgar “was abused.” He calls for God to forgive him and help Edgar prosper. Regardless of this epiphany, Gloucester is continuously blind the whole play. However, at first his blindness is metaphorical which then becomes literal once he is given insight.
Gloucester is not the only character with a major theme of blindness. King Lear is in the same situation, blind to the true nature of his children. In fact, one of Gloucester’s roles in the play is to draw parallels to King Lear, as a mirror character. Gloucester, therefore, is also a protagonist in the play. When King Lear’s daughter Cordelia decided against fakely professing her love for him, he impulsively chose to banish her, similar to Gloucester with impulsively believing Edmund. King Lear favors his children who have evil intentions, Regan and Goneril, and disregards the one who is truly loyal and loving, Cordelia, just like Gloucester. Regan and Goneril repeatedly prove their motives by lying to King Lear about how much they love him and locking him outside in a severe storm. In addition, both men lose their lives in the end due to the stress of their loving and loyal children. King Lear dies from devastation over Cordelia’s death and Gloucester dies from being overwhelmed by Edgar revealing himself from his disguise. All in all, the similarities between the two father’s situations throughout the play are incredibly apparent and nearly identical.
As a dynamic character, Gloucester does change by the end of the play. However, his personality and morals are widely characterized by his sons. His whole being is about his connection to Edmund and Edgar. His first line in the play is talking about Edmund’s mother. He says, “Sir, this young fellow’s mother could: whereupon she grew round-womb’d, and had, indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed” (Shakespeare I, i). This shows how careless he is about what he says in front of and about his son. Continuing through the storyline, Edmund indirectly characterizing Gloucester as gullible and weak when easily scamming him into believing his plot against his brother. Edmund is the real powerful one, taking advantage of Gloucester. The readers can see Gloucester’s shift when he starts to feel bad for Tom, who he is not aware is actually Edgar. Gloucester asks, “And bring some covering for this naked soul, which I’ll entreat to lead me” (Shakespeare IV, i). Gloucester realizes that his empathy for the beggar is changing him. Edgar is allowing this shift to happen in Gloucester by not revealing himself sooner.
The anticlimax of Gloucester’s death is just that; very anticlimactic. Shakespeare ended his character appropriately considering he is not a main character, but part of a subplot. However, Shakespeare does get the audience quite attached to him as a character, therefore, having his death off-stage is disappointing. When Edgar, disguised, brings him to a small hill instead of a cliff to jump off of, it foreshadows Gloucester dying because of Edgar, even though it is obvious that Edgar does not want his father to die. This less dramatic way of Gloucester dying gives the readers a reality check, that there is no completely happy ending for any character. Gloucester does deserve a more heartfelt ending, but the purpose of an anticlimax is to essentially disappoint the reader after a great build-up. Gloucester’s death was revealed from Edgar as, “I askt his blessing, and from first to last told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart, alack too weak the conflict to support, ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, burst smilingly” (Shakespeare V, iii).
The Earl of Gloucester is certainly an intricate character. His evolution throughout the play and emphasis on the motif of blindness brings a depth to the play that would be lost without him. He does seem to be a good father, just with somewhat clouded judgement due to him focusing too much on his reputation. Gloucester changes for the better by the end of the play, disregarding his tragic ending.
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