The Theme of Sight in King Lear
The Theme of Sight in King Lear
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, emotional sight is not dependent on physical sight, for many characters are blinded by their own egos and ambitions to see the actual truth. Shakespeare even goes as far as inserting a literal metaphor for sight by making Gloucester finally realize the truth, only when his physical vision is removed. Although this example is most obvious, the theme reoccurs throughout the play. It is not until Lear’s prestige is taken away from him that he can truly see.
Lear’s blunder into honest insanity is the perfect storm to start decaying the walls of Lear’s hubris and lack of insight. However, the King is not the only one blinded by his pride. His two haughty daughters, Goneril and Regan, are chasing after a similarly snobby earl, Edmund. Each member of this power driven trio leads themselves to their own inevitable endings, all because of their inability to communicate honestly with one another due to their conceded ambition to get ahead. King Lear’s lack of insight can be perceived as his mental state of “blindness”.
Because of Lear’s high position in society, he is expected to be able to distinguish the good from the bad; unfortunately, his lack of sight beyond himself prevents him from doing 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 along with his faithful servant Kent. He later cannot even recognize Kent when Kent approaches him in a simple disguise, proving his profound lack of vision.
As the play progresses, King Lear finally finds his philosophical glasses and sees that his two lovely daughters are nothing but manipulative liars taking advantage of his cluelessness. With his 20/20 vision of truth now intact, Lear clearly sees Cordelia’s love for what it always was. Unfortunately for all, the timing is of his revelation is too late, and the recently enlightened King does not have a chance to make his amends, redeem his nobility, and restore order amongst his friends.
Cordelia cannot be saved, and the King is left to wallow in his own grief, bringing him to his coffin of satin with nothing left of him but a royal prefix to his name in the history books. In a parallel subplot, Gloucester also suffers with blindness. Similarly to Lear, Gloucester was unable to see which of his children truly loved him. His blindness led him to believe that Edmund was the more loving of the two, and that Edgar was the evil son plotting to kill him, when in fact, it was the other way around. Edmund forges a letter, supposedly written by Edgar, saying that Edgar is attempting to kill their father.
Gloucester immediately is convinced that the letter was truly written by Edgar and never considered thinking if Edgar would really do such a thing. Unlike Lear, Gloucester’s vision clears up when the Duke of Cornwall plucks his eyes out. From that moment, Gloucester began to see more clearly. Using his heart, Gloucester realizes at the end of the play, that Edgar was in fact the good son and that he saved his life while disguised as Poor Tom.
“I have no way and therefore want no eyes;/I stumbled when I saw” (4. 1. 8-19) was the turning point of Gloucester’s life as his vision finally clears up. Gloucester realizes how blind he was and how he lacked insight when he was physically able to see. He then realizes that although he was physically able to see, he knew he couldn’t really see and that he doesn’t need his eyes to finally see and understand for he can see things more clearly through his mind. King Lear may have been a fool to not know where his daughter’s hearts truly lye, but he does undergo a transformation, and eventually rid himself of his former blindness.
Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, however, are in no position to do such a thing. With each of them plotting to show that they are, in fact, the best, they end up bringing their own endings upon themselves. With heated siblings rivalries between Edmund and Edgar as well as Goneril and Regan, the childish need for proof of superiority sends Edmund to die at his honest brother’s hands, and Goneril and Regan’s hubris brings them to an end of poison, blood, and death, without a wedding or a winner in sight.
In the end, Edgar is the only man left in good health, accompanied by Kent, who is alive but not quite well. These two men have sacrificed their identity to protect their foolish heroes. Kent is attempting to help Lear, while Edgar is doing the same for his father. Both have been “banished” by the very men they protect, yet still, they have always seen the truth for what it is and guide these lost wanderers through the blindness of their pride.
Shakespeare is providing an unforgettable lesson to remember with this work, and that is that those who truly see and understand are left to bear the burden of the fools around them, but in the end, they are the survivors. Therefore, the concept of emotional sight is of much greater importance than simple physical sight, for it is the lack of perspective that leads one to their doom. Those who can still see clearly amongst the cloud of lies and blackened intentions will last, but those that are the producers of this mental and emotional pollution will not prevail.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 January 2017
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