Expectations and Blindness in King Lear

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Shakespeare, with his brilliant portrayal of Lear's conflict with two opposing forces: aesthetics and reality, continues to draw both readers and audiences with Lear's many meanings and interpretations. The main character, King Lear, is the object of universal identification with his obliviousness as to who people truly are, and the discovery of truth. It is this identification that exceeds the Elizabethan period, making King Lear a play for all times. With his world about to be shattered, Lear will realize that the world he was living in as King, is not so nice as it seems.

King Lear is the story of how a man “once obsessed with image and power”(Hamilton 175) is forced to see that those around him are not who he believes they are. The issue of vision and insight, and the absence of it, is a major theme in Lear. This theme is portrayed through the characters of King Lear, Gloucester and Edgar. The lack of insight, or “blindness”, is very symbolic. Blindness is defined as “unable to see; lacking the sense of sight;”(Dictionary). For Lear, blindness was not physical; it was his flaw. Lear's blindness to see who a person really was, based on their character and personality, was obvious at the beginning of the play regarding Cordelia and Kent. Gloucester, on the other hand, was originally blind because he also had a flaw against seeing the truth. He is physically blinded by Cornwall, but after he gains the vision that Lear lacks. Lear's understanding that vision is not only physical came too late, and is the cause of his downfall.

Lear knows absolutely that he is not only a King, but the father of the family unit, the patriarchal figurehead. He believes these titles makes him better than everybody else, that everyone else bows to him. Because of this, he demands high levels of public affection, that he wholly expects to receive. Lear emphasizes his expectations at the start of the play, repeatedly referring to nature and “offices of nature”(2.4.194-202) to which he thinks everyone must listen to because it would be “unnatural” to ignore them.(2.4.320) Lear thinks it is his right for others, especially his family, to bestow pure and unlimited love and devotion on him; it is this belief that causes him to split the Kingdom – which to the Elizabethan audience would be something only crazy people would do. Lear's oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, as trained, exaggerate their feelings by proclaiming their love for their father exceeds all others, and they are rewarded for their expressions “...with wealth but with the power to dictate the conditions of public life, the power to make a new kingdom in the shell of the old, to become the new Lears.” (Basney 18) Sharon Hamilton compares Baptista (The Taming of the Shrew) and Lear, explaining their behaviour: “In both plays, the fathers show preference to the hypocritical daughters and set down, by direct statement and implication, the public role that they want them to play. Both Baptista and Lear flatter themselves on being good fathers, and both see as the test of their effectiveness the daughter's compliance with her prescribed role. Above all, each man values reputation and status and eschews any word or act that reflects badly on his public image. The shallowness of their outlook is revealed by the presence of a sister who is the.... daughter's temperamental opposite”(Hamilton 93).

Lear then turns to Cordelia, and knowing she loves him he demands the same thing: to speak her love for him to recieve a portion of the kingdom. However, unlike her sisters, Cordelia is not going to follow her father's expectations.

Cordelia “raises the issue of obligation itself in an unprotected.....way. She states the moral framework”(Basney 18) of how she can't love Lear all forever; her love will be split when she is married - like how her sisters should have been. Of course, Lear is outraged by the thought that his expectations, that Cordelia fawn over him and flaunt her love for him...
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