One of the recurring themes in Shakespeare s tragedy King Lear is that of sight and the relevance of clear vision. Through different types of characters, Shakespeare points out that neither the lack or the possession of clear vision can protect anybody from anything.
Shakespeare makes use of several characters to bring across his point. The five characters I find to be the most important to the theme include two characters that were initially blind and three characters with clear vision. The two blind characters are King Lear himself and the Earl of Gloucester. The three important characters who have clear vision through the entire play include Lear s adviser, the Earl of Kent, Lear s daughter, Cordelia and the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund. The capability or incapability of each of these characters to see doesn t necessarily make him or her good or evil. Granted, the blindness of King Lear and Gloucester are the eventual cause of the deaths in the play, but Shakespeare never portrays either Lear nor Gloucester as particularly villainous characters.
King Lear remains blind for the majority of the play. His lack of perception, understanding and direction cause him to make several poor choices, one of which is banishing his only honest daughter, Cordelia, from his kingdom. Lear s blindness also makes him susceptible to manipulation by his two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan. While Lear can physically see, his inability to judge character demonstrates his figurative inability to see.
In contrast, Gloucester becomes physically blind, but acquires the type of vision that Lear lacks. Like Lear, Gloucester s blindness makes him vulnerable to manipulation. Gloucester s illegitimate son, Edmund, convinces him that his legitimate son, Edgar, is plotting his own father s murder. Although untrue, Gloucester immediately accepts it as fact. Ironically, Gloucester s blindness costs him his physical eyesight. Upon Gloucester s awareness of his former mistakes, he cries, I stumbled when I saw (Act IV, Scene I, Lines 20-21). I think Shakespeare was trying to demonstrate through Lear and Gloucester that one who has eyes can still be blind, while one without eyes can still see.
In addition, I think Shakespeare wanted to point out that perception is not a quality that only honorable people possess. The clear villain in the play, Edmund, is able to use his judgment of character for his evil purposes. He can see that his father is gullible and, motivated by greed, deceives his father, his brother and anyone willing to listen.
Among those almost never deceived throughout the play are Cordelia and Kent. Cordelia can see that her sisters are deceptive and greedy, and she wants no part in tricking her beloved father. She wrestles with herself in the beginning about how she should describe her love for her father. Eventually, her honesty prevails. Her description of her love as According to my bond, no more nor less enrages the king. By simply lying, she could have easily avoided her circumstances. Despite her awareness and understanding of the world around her, her father s blindness causes her death in the end of the play.
In addition, Kent is aware of Lear s fault in banishing Cordelia from England. Kent sees Cordelia s true, honest nature and attempts to convince Lear of his mistake. Rather than take this as friendly advice, Lear blindly mistakes it for a personal attack and responds with a stubborn, Out of my sight! to which Kent responds, See better, Lear, and let me still remain (Act I, Scene I, Line 160). By using the obvious reference to sight, Kent demonstrates his awareness of Lear s blindness.
In another ironic twist, both Cordelia and Kent, the only two honest people aware of King Lear s fatal flaw, are banished from the country. I think they are significant because despite their honesty, neither ends up happy in the end. Cordelia dies in the end.
I think the prevailing view of the world in Shakespeare s King Lear is that the world cannot be seen with the eye, but with the heart. The material world the eye detects can hide its evils with physical attributes, and thus the eye cannot achieve clear vision. If Lear had been able to look with more than just his eyes, he may have avoided this great tragedy.