Seeing and blindness

Literal and metaphorical vision

Seeing and blindness is one of King Lear’s most prominent themes – perhaps not surprising in a play which includes the gouging out, on stage, of the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes.
Throughout the text there are many references both to literal and metaphorical vision and blindness. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to fathers seeing (or rather not seeing) the true worth of their children. Huge suffering results from Lear’s inability to ‘see’ Cordelia’s integrity and ‘see through’ her sisters’ hypocrisy, and from Gloucester’s blindness to Edmund’s lies, as a result of which he instantly makes an outcast of his loving, loyal son, Edgar.

Thematic prominence

Shakespeare hammers home references to vision and its loss throughout the opening scenes of King Lear:
  • When Lear expels Cordelia he orders her ‘out of his sight’
  • Kent tries to offer the King wise advice: ‘See better, Lear’, indignant that Lear cannot see what is staring him in the face: i.e. Cordelia’s truthfulness and Goneril and Regan’s falsehood.
Yet Lear’s ‘blindness’ or lack of understanding/judgement is clear from the start. Fundamentally, he does not discern how ill-judged is his staging of the public love-test as a basis on which the division of his kingdom will occur.
Meanwhile, Gloucester is so blind to the truth that he immediately believes the lies of a son who ‘hath been out nine years’ against one whose honesty and loyalty he has witnessed every day. ‘Credulous’ is how Edmund describes the father who instantly falls into his treacherous trap.

Blindness and understanding

When Edmund turns his father over to Cornwall as a traitor, the Earl suffers the appalling cruelty of losing his eyes. This suffering leads to his understanding his grievous errors. Gloucester admits to an old servant: 
      I have no way, and therefore want no eyes.
I stumbled when I saw. (Act 4 Scene 1)     
It is dramatically and symbolically appropriate that Gloucester fails to recognise Edgar when he is in his ‘Poor Tom’ disguise. Although he has declared his desire to ‘see [Edgar] in [his] touch’ (Act 4 Scene 1), he is on a slow path to realisation. He has clearly never been alert to his son’s innate qualities, and it is only when he has learnt to rely no longer on outward appearances that the real Edgar is revealed to him, both metaphorically and literally. 

Grim humour

Shakespeare plays with the blind and wretched Gloucester when, in Act 4 Scene 6, he believes he ‘sees’ the churning depths of the sea from the top of a cliff and throws himself off. It is merely a stage pratfall, flat on his face. His ‘vision’ has failed him.
When the insane king meets him shortly after there are grimly comic allusions to his state:
  • ‘When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.’
  • ‘I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me?’
  • ‘… blind Cupid .. / Read thou this challenge; mark .. it.’
  • ‘Your eyes are in a heavy case .. yet you see how this world goes.’
  • ‘Look with thine ears;’
  • Get thee glass eyes; / And .. seem / To see the things thou dost not.
In these overt jibes Lear also highlights the theme of the abuse of power and how appearances may belie reality. We see that Gloucester’s blindness has much in common with Lear’s insanity. In both cases, disability leads to greater insight into their own failings as well as into human nature.
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