The motif of seeing and blindness in Shakespeare´s "King Lear"

Essay, 2017

6 Pages, Grade: 1,7



The motif of seeing and blindness in Shakespeare´s King Lear

“It is only with the heart, that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye“.

Emile de Saint-Exupery

In the time period of the English Renaissance the population experiences a transformation that is also visible in literature. Shakespeare uses the family tragedy King Lear, written in the early 17th century, to express morality and other relevant themes. The motif of seeing and blindness is of the utmost significance in this play, for the lack of seeing is responsible for the tragedy. In total, those “eye-related terms” occur in 142 speeches of the play (Walthall), so even if somebody is reading the play for the first time, he probably suggests that the motif of seeing determines the plot. Emile de Saint-Exupery’s quotation expresses the rhetorical used blindness perfectly. The main characters King Lear and Gloucester both suffer from blindness, mental as well as physical. As a result they are unable to see the love of their children who stay true to them – they are unable to see rightly with their heart. This missing awareness of the heart finally leads to Gloucester´s physical blindness. In terms of Lear, this literally expressed blindness causes his loss of Cordelia and at least his own obliteration. Nevertheless, the both get the ability to ‘see’ clearly again when they are at their lowest. In the following I want to show how the motif of seeing and blindness leads through the plot and how those expressions forecast the end of the play.

King Lear, for whom only spoken words matter, is blind to the true motifs and love of his daughters. When we examine the topic of blindness, in terms of King Lear, Shakespeare refers to the rhetorical blindness. The reason why King Lear is unable to see the truth is, that for him only spoken words matter and only verbalized feelings are true to him. This makes it impossible for Lear to see what really matters and who really loves him. Shakespeare uses Act I to reveal the “tone of the drama” by the dialogues Lear, as well as Gloucester, conduct (Kreider 123). The King does not scrutinize the sweet words of his two elder daughters, who certainly haven´t pure motifs. Ironically, Goneril states that she “love[s him] more than words can wield the matter; / Dearer than eye-sight” (I, i, 58-60). Since the play contains a typical ‘Shakespearean opening’, all the major themes of the drama are revealed in the very beginning. So Goneril who firstly uses the image of sight is forecasting the major issue of the play – seeing and blindness. At the same time she is totally aware of her father´s blindness, of which she takes advantage by telling her father what he wants to hear. Cordelia looked through the masquerade of her sisters, but as she truly loves her father she doesn´t want to compete to the deceptive words her sisters said. Lear´s inability to see the truth - also caused by his obsession of words – is also shown as he tells Cordelia, who has no proper words to describe how much she loves her father, to “mend [her] speech a / little” (I, i, 95-96). He only believes in what he hears. Moreover, the theme of seeing shows up when Lear commands Kent, a loyal adviser of the King, to go “out of [his] sight !” (I, i, 126). Even though Kent was banished, he appears later in the play again without showing who he really is and even without Lear recognizing him – another proof for his blindness. When Lear finally decides to banish Cordelia for he doesn´t consider her as her daughter anymore, he proclaims: “nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (I, i, 266-67). All these statements introduce the topic of blindness at the outset of the play. Besides, the continuant repetition of those key words about seeing or not seeing emphasize the major theme (Kreider 122). One good example for those numerous of echoes in this play is when Gloucester wants to see Edgar in his touch when he already is literally blind (IV, i, 25). This repetition is visible later on, when Lear is clarified about Gloucester´s plucked out eyes:

Lear: A man may see how the world goes. (IV, vi, 151) Gloucester: I see it feelingly. (IV, vi, 149) Nevertheless, Lear decides not to see, even though Kent, who objectively sees the truth, reminds him to “See better” (I, i, 159). In response Lear repeats the injunction: “out of my sight !” (I, i, 126,159) twice. Due to his stubbornness Lear acts without thinking about the responsibility he has as father and King as well as the consequences to come. Jefferson Humphries relates to that aptly as “a blindness to which the sufferer is blind” (31). This means that Lear doesn´t see or at least doesn´t want to see his own blindness. His lack of seeing the truth at last is responsible for a whole family tragedy. Lear´s egoism is also shown in his central role in the play, but on closer look one can see that the subplot of the brothers Edgar and Edmund rivals the position of Lear. Figuratively, this could be considered as image of Lear´s selfishness that seems to be central, but on closer look slowly fades away.

Gloucester is emotionally blind and so fails to see that he is deceived by his illegitimate son Edmund as well as he cannot see the goodness of Edgar. There are indeed some parallels between Gloucester and King Lear: both of them are blind to the ones who are true to them. The difference between the mental blindness of Lear and Gloucester is that Lear is not betrayed by his daughter Cordelia, for she tells him the truth. So Lear actually betrays himself. In contrast, Gloucester is deceived by Edmund of whom he thinks that he is loyal to him (Humphries 32). But still there are some similarities: both family tragedies are caused by a simple “Nothing, my lord”. It is the answer of Cordelia when her father asks her what she could say about how much she loves him (I, i, 90). Plus, it is the answer of Edmund when Gloucester asks him what he is reading (I, ii, 29-30) immediately before Edmund asserts that Edgar wants to kill his father. In response both, King Lear and Gloucester, banish their children whereas the latter even wants to kill Edgar who later becomes his guide. The juxtaposition of these two passages perfectly shows the “emptiness of words” (Humphries 33) in this drama, for words do neither imply truth nor untruth. Ironically, Gloucester says to Edmund: “Let´s see; Come, if it be / nothing, I shall not need spectacles.” (I, ii, 35-6). This play on words on the one hand foreshadows that he´d better looked on Edmund and Edgar more closely. However, if we relate this to Gloucester´s plucked out eyes, he prophecies his own fate. Indeed, the Earl will never need spectacles again. The moment when mental blindness started to overcome Gloucester was when he had contact with Edmund´s mother, as Edgar says in the final battle scene: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes” (V, iii, 173-74). So through his bastard son Edmund Gloucester lost his mental sense to see, the only way to ‘see’ again is in Edgar (Echeruo 46). Later on this literally becomes true when Edgar alias Poor Tom guides the physically blind Gloucester. He ironically confesses with the words: “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes: / I stumbled when I saw” (IV, i, 18-9) that he didn´t see clearly in a mental way when actually had the physical ability to see. When Gloucester faces death – even though simultaneously – he is totally aware of the error he made.

The moment when Lear starts to change and slightly sees is the storm scene in Act III. After Lear is sent away from his two ungrateful daughters Regan and Goneril, he, Kent and the Fool get into a wind storm. Since Lear is at his lowest point, he starts getting mad for he is disappointed because of his daughters. Overwhelmed by emotions, Lear commands the wind to blow and punish him, whereas the natural element of the storm is a simile to the King´s human madness (Humphries 37). Driven by that, Lear desperately asks who could tell him who he really is (I, iv, 233) and finally realises that in fact he is “A poor, infirm, weak, and despis´d old man” (III, ii, 20). This behaviour is significant for his change, because he firstly has to accept that he is not worth more than every other simple man. From this point of view Lear is able to change, which happens a few lines later when he admits his “wits begin to turn.” (III, ii, 68). Carolyn S. French states that: “the typical […] theologian of Elizabethan England stresses the curious fact that man must be ‘convicted of folly’ in order to become aware of spiritual truth.” (525). This summarises the situation of Lear adequately, whereas the reference to Elizabethan England could explain Shakespeare`s intention on including those images. More important in this scene is that Lear starts caring about the Fool who still remains faithful to him. The role of the Fool always implies significance, for those “puncture the pride of their masters by telling them the bitter truth about their actions” (French 526) and so does the Fool in King Lear. From the beginning on, he tells Lear the truth about his circumstances but as he ‘only’ is the Fool, Lear does not pay much attention to it right away. That changes in Act III where Lear starts caring about others. Even though the King is cold himself, he cares for the “Poor fool and knave” and “[has] one part in [his] heart / That´s sorry yet for [the Fool]” (III, ii, 73-4). Lear´s selfishness seems to fade as he cares about the Fool and kindness arises for the first time. This “return of love” ,as E. Catherine Dunn names it (333), relating to Lear´s love to the Fool and Cordelia´s return from France produce an even more tragic effect on the drama, for it seems like Lear learned from his errors, but still there is no happy ending.

And my poor fool is hang´d! No, no, no life!

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?

Thou´lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never!

Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there! Dies (V, iii, 304-12) The change of King Lear is shown best in the very last scene and in his very last words before he dies. Lear is mourning about the death of his beloved – now slain - daughter Cordelia and the Fool. In doing so, he realizes how much he loved them and is overwhelmed by regret. By his comparison to why simple animals – even rats that are one of the lowest – should have life but his daughter and the Fool shouldn´t, he expresses how precious they actually were to them. Yet Lear realizes that he can´t change the past anymore, even if he regrets his behaviour, his beloved ones are gone and won´t “come no more” (V, iii, 307-8). Again it is Kent with whom Lear has his last conversation that is about sight. This conversation builds a literary framework, for the first person cautioning Lear to see better was Kent. In the end when Lear admits his “eyes are not o´ the best” (V, iii, 279), it is Kent again who is by his side. Due to his opened eyes Lear now is able to recognize the disguised Kent. His radical change is also visible in how politely he “prays” to undo his button and how thankful he is in response (V, iii, 310). The last words of a dying person always are of particular importance. In this play, Shakespeare uses Lear´s last words to emphasize the answer to the key term of blindness, which is also determined by his “imperfect vision” (Echeruo 46) not only in terms of his daughters, but also about himself. When Lear appeals to “Look there” (V, iii, 312), he starts to look away from selfishness and turns his gaze onto others. Contrary to Act I, when he was not able to see the heart of Cordelia, he apparently seems to see unspoken words on her lips. The “nothing” that once caused a tragedy now has a completely different relevancy to Lear.


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The motif of seeing and blindness in Shakespeare´s "King Lear"
University of Stuttgart
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shakespeare´s, king, lear
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Anonymous, 2017, The motif of seeing and blindness in Shakespeare´s "King Lear", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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