Thesis: King Lear’s intellectual blindness parallels Gloucester’s physical blindness
In William Shakespeare’s King Lear, blindness was the theme occurring in the main plot and subplot of the play. King Lear and Earl of Gloucester portrayed this important theme by being irrational and ignorant towards their children. As a consequence, Gloucester lost his eyesight in order to realise his mistakes, whereas Lear gained full insight when he witnessed the death of his loving daughter Cordelia. Shakespeare’s incorporation of the two plots shows blindness is a mental flaw in a person . After reading and analysing the play, I have come to the conclusion that King Lear’s lack of insight parallels Gloucester’s latter lack of eyesight. I found many critics in different time periods that are aligned with my hypothesis. The three main critics and time periods I have studied are Robert B. Heilman “The Unity of King Lear” (1948), Fintan O’Toole “Shakespeare is Hard But so is Life” (20th Century), and Edward Dowden “From Shakespeare” (1893).
At the beginning of the play, Lear was a man full of authority and power who took his role seriously. He seemed to have an insight into who he was and where he belonged. He declared a division between his three daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia to ensure he could still remain in high power even when he had given up his responsibilities as a king. Lear told them, “Tell me my daughters, which of thee doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend?”(Act 1, Scene 1). Clearly, he disregarded his daughters of special treatment which shows they were just like his subjects. Although it was in his nature to declare orders, he was irrational to measure love between his three daughters. As a father, it was important to equally love them without having the need to prove their love for him. Because he was reliant on appearances, he mistakenly showed that family should be disregarded when you are in the highest rank.
The eldest daughter Goneril made this flaw of Lear obvious when she declared “Sir I doth love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty; Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;” (Act 1, Scene 1) With this statement, Lear was instantly deceived because he was pleased by the flattering words of Goneril. He then gave a part of his kingdom to her.
To further satisfy himself, he asked his second daughter Regan to testify her undying devotion. Regan stated, “And find I am alone felicitate In your dear highness’ love.” (Act 1, Scene 1) Again, he was flattered by the deceptive words she used so he gave another part of his kingdom to her.
Critic Robert B. Heilman (1948, from The Unity of King Lear) stated that “Lear’s tragic flaw is the whole being of Goneril and Regan… In dividing the land, Lear introduces a principle which Goneril and Regan carry on to a logical extreme; they show what happens when an element of him is freed from the restraint imposed by the rest of his personality.” I fully agree because Lear lacked the insight of Regan and Goneril’s greedy intentions at the start of the play. Blindness was an “element” of Lear’s fixation on self-assurance that everybody must be loyal and truthful to him for he was in the highest rank during that time. He recklessly made poor judgements without bearing in mind the consequences in the future. Consequently, the real affection of love their father was not felt by Regan and Goneril, therefore, they became manipulative in order to eliminate Lear from his position so they could take away all his power and possessions. Lear lacked insight that this was the start of his downfall. We could see this mental flaw recurring when he lacked knowledge that his youngest daughter Cordelia was being honest to him when she stated, “..I am sure, my love’s More richer than my tongue.” (Act 1, Scene 1) Readers can see that Cordelia chose to express her love in a silent manner by refusing to participate in the public devotion of love for her father. Lear’s authority was challenged by this refusal, so in order to make things easier for him, he banished her from the kingdom in an inconsiderate manner, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care Propinquity and property of blood.” Even though Cordelia was disowned by her father, she still continued to love him in a way that she knew was truthful. Through Cordelia, we are able to learn that loyalty is not always expressed by the quantity of words but how willing we are to sacrifice our own benefits just for the sake of our loved ones. Heilman (1948) further stated, “in another striking failure of imagination – completely misses the import of Cordelia’s precise metaphor, ‘I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more no less’.” I completely agree with this statement because when a person becomes blinded by his/her power and possessions they begin to destroy family relationships and close friends, thus, we become ignorant of our deepest values and beliefs. In Lear’s perspective, nothing matters to him anymore as long as he could remain powerful despite giving up the kingdom to his daughters.
As the scene progressed, Lear’s intellectual blindness resulted for him to banish his loyal servant Kent. Kent told Lear, “Whom I have ever honored as my king, Loved as my father, as my master followed, As my great patron thought on in my prayers” (Act 1, Scene 1) This line emphasised Lear’s lack of insight as Kent needed to point out how truthful of a servant he was to Lear and that he was willing to sacrifice his own benefits, just like Cordelia. Readers can see that Kent was not afraid to be straightforward when he told Lear it was a tragic decision to surrender the kingdom to the elder daughters. Obviously, Lear became ignorant of the truth because he corrupted his power for his own interests. When Kent confronted him with honest words, it was difficult for him to accept that he himself as a king was lacking wisdom. Therefore, with his pride, he mistakenly banished Kent by telling him, “Out of my sight.” (Act 1, Scene 1). By banishing two people that were honest and faithful to him, we know that it was the start for Lear to become powerless, hence, it will lead to his ultimate downfall in the future. In this scene, Shakespeare taught us that we do not realise how trapped we are inside our own identity when we are excessively attached to our fortune, fame, flattery and/or power. We become ignorant of the truth in front of us when we are afraid of conflicts and change within ourselves. We do not like the feeling of being mentally blinded, therefore, we are only accepting the information that is flattering to our ears. Like Lear, when we are blinded by power, we tend to choose the wrong path just to get everything we want rather than choosing the right path.
The theme of blindness was paralleled in the subplot of the play where Gloucester lacked insight between his wicked son and pure son. In Act 1, Scene 1, Earl of Gloucester introduced his two sons by differentiating, Edgar as “a son by order of law” and Edmund as “whoreson”. His description revealed a character who lacked knowledge of how reckless his use of language was. We further recognise this type of behaviour when he told Kent that, “this young fellow’s mother could, whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed”, knowing that Edmund was standing right next to him. Clearly, he was embarrassed to have an illegitimate son. Similar to Lear, Gloucester was mentally blinded to see that he imposed negativity in Edmund’s heart. Edmund expressed his resentment, “Why “bastard”? Wherefore “base”? When my dimensions are as well compact, My mind as generous, and my shape as true As honest madam’s issue?” With this statement, Edmund felt excluded and unfortunate to be part of the family. He felt disregarded and unfortunate to be part of the family. These feelings were the driving force for Edmund to plot against his own family for his benefit. Hence, we learn that Gloucester’s blindness was the start of his downfall.
Heilman (1948) stated that “Gloucester is the passive man who is too ready to fall in with whatever influences are brought to bear upon him.” Heilman made an accurate point because we can see how Gloucester avoided to solving the problems in the second act of the play. Edmund introduced a letter to his father to convince him of the treachery of his legitimate son. Gloucester angrily stated, “O villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter! Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain—worse than brutish! Go, sirrah, seek him. I’ll apprehend him. Abominable villain!” (Act 2, Scene 1) Like Lear, he became reckless to judge that Edgar was plotting against his life despite the insufficient evidence hinted in Edmund’s lines, “It is his hand, my lord” (Act 2, Scene 1). The deceptive letter of his “bastard” son symbolises Gloucester’s difficulties to handle principles of integrity under pressure, whether he would believe Edmund’s accusations towards Edgar. Because of this mental barrier, he became ignorant to investigate the situation further and took things at face value, which is paralleled to Lear’s “Love Test”. Like Regan and Goneril, Edmund was intelligent enough to take advantage of his father’s mental flaw as he knew Gloucester had superstitious beliefs , “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects”, was the cause of Edgar’s betrayal. Obviously, he was irrational to depend in the influence of the stars and planets on human events. It led him to impute human hardship to their action instead of understanding hardships as the effect of human mistakes and faultiness. For this reason, stars does not define one’s fatal flaw but human beings themselves. Again this paralleled Lear’s own fatal flaw as Gloucester was also ignorant to investigate the allegations of Edmund further. Both Lear and Gloucester lacked the insight of their faithful children, Cordelia and Edgar, and fell under the influences of their wicked children, Regan, Goneril and Edmund. We can see both of their mistakes paralleled in different situations; Lear demonstrated that when we are blinded by power, we become more concerned of our benefit and safety, which can be seen by Gloucester’s actions. This was evident when Gloucester told Edmund, “seek him out, wind me into him, I pray you”, obviously he was stupid to avoid conflict. If only Gloucester chose to hear the other side of Edgar, he would have understood who the real wicked son was. At this point, we can see Edmund’s success in destroying their relationship. Consequently, Gloucester condemned Edgar to death which resulted in Edgar being stripped of his identity and was forced to disguise himself as the beggar “Poor Tom.”
Overall, Gloucester was emotionally blinded because he lacked the insight of the people around him. In our real world, Shakespeare teaches us when we do not have insight in life, we tend to believe what is being whispered to our ears, thus, we unconsciously fail to show empathy towards the people that are close to us, especially to our family. Also, when we do act passively, it becomes harder for us to conquer our fears in life and our listening skills becomes poor, therefore, we form a negative outlook in life. Moreover, Shakespeare shows us how cruel and manipulative the human nature can be when we are lacking knowledge of the people around us. Shakespeare further emphasises this idea with the way Lear and Gloucester deal with their greedy children in the next part of the play.
As the play progressed, we can now see more consequences of Lear’s poor judgement towards his daughters. When his two daughters successfully pleased Lear’s thirst for love and loyalty, they neglected him of his superficial needs and show ungraciousness to Lear. Certainly, Regan and Goneril were in a higher position for Lear stated, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is to have a thankless child?”. Lear chose to walk out into the storm to take out all his anger and therefore, he started to acknowledge the huge mistake of surrendering the kingdom to his elder daughters. Critic Edward Doden (1893) elaborates, “he has found that instead of being a master, at whose nod all things must bow, he is weak and helpless, a sport event of the wind and the rain.” I fully agree because the cruel nature of the storm symbolises the disorder in Lear’s mind. The violent noise of the storm reinforced his understanding of Regan and Goneril’s greedy intentions from which he was able to realise the consequences of being irrational in the beginning. Also, he began to gain an understanding that Kent and Cordelia were truly honest and loyal to him when he acknowledged, “the art of our necessities is strange/That can make vile things precious” (Act 3, Scene 2). Through the storm, Lear had gone through the reality of life as a common human and he admitted this reduction in his status as he stated, “Here I stand you slave – a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.” He came to an understanding that he didn’t show any compassion and sympathy because he had “ta’en too little care of” Cordelia and Kent as he was more focused in his own pleasures as a king. Lear further emphasised this change in him when he met “Poor Tom”, he realised that “Unaccommodated man as we are such but a poor, barefooted animal,” showing that we are nothing more than animals, we are all equal underneath all these items of clothings we wear. Moreover, he was gradually finding humility in himself. Shakespeare shows we are all just like Lear, due to his pride he was blinded from the truth. For us to be able to see or change ourselves we have to let pride go. We have to understand that we can never please and force everybody to remain loyal and truthful to us in the lowest point of our lives. However, we only realise this when we are put into situations out of our comfort zone and when our identity is questioned.
In the same sequence of events, Gloucester paid for his lack of insight and trust in Edmund in the most tragic way. Gloucester stated, “These injuries the king now bears will be revenged home; there’s part of a power already footed. We must incline to the king. ” (Act 3, Scene 3). Gloucester appears to have a true allegiance to Lear because he disobeyed Regan and Cornwall’s orders in order to provide shelter for Lear from being out in the storm. Meanwhile, Critic Heilman (1948) argued that “He does pity Lear, but is equally true that to be pro-Lear may be a good thing” I fully agree with Hielman because Gloucester clearly showed an act of pity when he was willing to sacrifice his own life despite knowing that Regan and Cornwall will seize his life. This was clearly evident when Gloucester stated that”Though I die for it—as no less is threatened me—the king my old master must be relieved.” However, I find it hard to agree that it was a “good thing” for Gloucester to be “pro-Lear” because Edmund was quick to realise that Lear was more valuable in Gloucester’s heart than him as his child. Consequently, “This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the duke Instantly know, and of that letter too”, an opportunity Edmund found to betray his father by informing Goneril and Regan about Gloucester’s loyalty to Lear. Heilman (1948) further stated that “the man who accepts too easily is punished at his one moment of high affirmation.” I do agree because Gloucester was able to gain insight into Edmund’s treachery when his eyes were taken out by Cornwall. Here, we learn that his gullibility at the start of the play was replaced with full clarity. Cornwall further emphasised this dark moment, “Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.” At this point, Shakespeare portrays a great message that gaining self-understanding is not always an easy road. When we constantly move life without vision, we are forced to undergo pain and hardships in life. This way, we become stronger human beings who can conquer the world without any fears. As Gloucester stated, “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw.” Clearly, he learnt that insight was better than having eyesight. Also, we see that it took him a lot of courage to admit that “Edgar was abused” and it was a mistake to trust Edmund. Readers can see the development of Gloucester’s character. Therefore, this links back to the similar situation of King Lear.
We see a full change of Lear when he admitted his wrongdoings. After all the suffering he went through, he finally ‘sees’ the truth. Lear found his humility after he ‘reconciles’ with his daughter, Cordelia. When they were reunited, Lear asked for forgiveness. “We too alone sing like birds in the cage. When thou dost ask for blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask thee for forgiveness. So we’ll live and pray, and sing and tell old tales and laugh at gilded butterflies.” He realised that the only person that made him truly happy and full is Cordelia. Since Lear only knew authority his whole life and standing strong, when he was faced in vulnerable situations, his identity had been questioned. Going through all these sufferings made Lear realise that life is not easy or fair on anyone. He realised that he doesn’t truly know himself by the way people were treating him and only, in the end, he gained a better understanding that having power is nothing but compared to having someone who truly cares and loves you.
Critic Fintan O’Toole (20th Century) stated that “Gloucester and Lear can overlook the human suffering around them, can ‘not see because he does not feel.’ Having put his feet on the ground that the common people walk in Gloucester says to Lear he can ‘see…feelingly.” I fully agree because both of them gained insight after being stripped bare, without their power and knights, they are just a normal person. In my opinion, the blindness of Gloucester and Lear to their children portrayed a great lesson to many readers. The greed for power and position in the kingdom of their children was the fruit of their lack of insight towards them. I believe the evil children wouldn’t have turned out to be wicked if only Lear and Gloucester acknowledged each one of them equally in their eyes. For Lear, he didn’t have to declare a “Love Test” just to understand who was the most devoted daughter to him. For Gloucester, he shouldn’t have described Edmund as “bastard” and “whoreson” for this caused Edmund to change his perception of him by creating a letter that described Edgar as the villain son. As a result of their lack of insight of their children, they had to undergo traumatic events in the play in order to gain full insight. Shakespeare purposely made Lear walk out into the storm so that Lear could gain a deep understanding of the true personalities of his daughters. This also resulted in Lear to realise that a luxurious lifestyle didn’t provide everything he needed as he, who was at the top of the great chain of being was manipulated by his own daughters. Through this realisation, he was also able to realise his own flaws at the beginning of the play. This is similar to Gloucester’s blindness as it was evident how nobility who appeared to be enjoying a good life could still have imperfections and lessons for them which need to be understood. Through Gloucester, it portrayed the importance of full insight set up by Lear because it was evident that this imperfection didn’t only happen in Lear but could also occur in many events and various kinds of people.
After studying and analysing the play and the critics, I have concluded that Lear’s intellectual blindness parallels Gloucester. Shakespeare’s combination of the main plot and the subplot helps to reinforce the message through the theme of blindness. Like Lear and Gloucester, we are clouded by our own lack of judgement and sometimes unable to identify if our actions are moral or immoral. Each one of us has flaws and mistakes but Shakespeare taught us that we can be better than our own perception when we examine the situation and to seek the truth first before accusing something or someone. Thus, we do not become ignorant by what we believe is right. We should learn that sometimes we have to open our minds to other people’s opinion because we can still learn many things from them whether they are in a higher or lower rank than us. We should be accepting of different opinions and beliefs at all times so that we wouldn’t end up regretting the judgements we intend to make because it is our nature as humans to choose the wrong path even though we know the difference between right and wrong. Overall, Shakespeare wrote the play to teach us that having an insight in life is essential for this will help us conquer our fears wherever we go and whoever we interact with. For with intellectual blindness, it is the same of being visionless as blind faith in someone may probably result in one’s downfall as portrayed by Lear and Gloucester. Therefore, full insight is highly important for us to see the reality and create wise decisions.