William Shakespeare's King Lear incorporates many themes, some which are even a recurring pattern throughout the play. The matter of vision and insight, or even the lack of it, is an important theme in this play. This theme is elegantly rendered through the characters of King Lear and Gloucester. The lack of insight or blindness in this play is quite symbolic. Blindness is most often defined as physically lacking deficient in the ability to see. In the case of King Lear, blindness and the lack of vision and insight has a different meaning. For King Lear, blindness was not a physical problem; instead it was a flaw that he possessed. His blindness to see the truth in a person’s personality and character was clear in the beginning of the play with Cordelia and later on with Kent. Gloucester, on the other hand, was initially blinded also because of his personal flaw to see what is really there. He eventually did become physically blind, but later attains vision in a different way, vision that Lear does not see or ever attain until it is too late.
From the very beginning of the play, Lear’s lack of insight is evident. His sight to see other people’s true character is clearly blurred. Lear has trouble telling apart between the truth and lies. In Act I, Lear asks his three daughters who loves him the most. He is unable to see the truth in Goneril and Regan because they cover their true feelings with a disguise, fooling Lear to think they love him the most. Lear knows in his heart that Cordelia loves him dearly, but his lack of insight fails to see Cordelia’s true feelings as she responds,
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth, I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less. (1.1.93-95)
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To Lear, Cordelia is not telling him that she loves him. Lear does not understand Cordelia’s words; he misunderstands her and is unable to see the love she has for him because of the flattery he has received from Goneril and Regan and because of his lack of insight and understanding. He does not see that Cordelia’s love for him is not as false as her sisters. And with his misunderstanding of her love, he disowns her and gives her no share of his kingdom.
Soon after Lear decides to disown Cordelia, his blindness causes him, once again, to act irrational by banishing Kent, one of his most loyal followers. Kent, possessing better insight than Lear, realizes what a rash decision Lear has made disowning Cordelia. Unlike Lear, Kent is able to see the true love that Cordelia has for her father. Trying to help Cordelia, Kent attempts to reason Lear and help him see better by telling him he is making the wrong decision and that he is seeing Cordelia’s love for him in the wrong way. To Lear’s opposition response, “Out of my sight!” (1.1.159), Kent quickly replies, “See better, Lear, and let me still remain/The true blank of thine eye.” (1.1.160-161). Here, Kent tries to make Lear understand and to have Lear listen to him when he is advising him to reconsider and to see better and clearer about the situation with Cordelia. Unfortunately, with all the anger and the lack of insight, Lear refuses to listen to Kent and banishes him from the kingdom. Lear, unfortunately, is unable to see how right Kent is and how Kent has a better and clearer vision of the situation. Lear was unable to see that Kent was only trying to help Lear and to do what was best for him. Kent is to Lear, the window to see clearly. He is Lear’s eyes that see all. Since Lear banished Kent, he no longer has any way of seeing or understanding, and therefore becomes blinder than ever.
In a parallel subplot, Gloucester also suffers with blindness. Similarily to Lear, Gloucester was unable to see which of his children truly loved him. His blindness led him to believe that Edmund was the more loving of the two, and that Edgar was the evil son plotting to kill him. When in fact, it was the other way around. As Edmund forges a letter, supposedly written by Edgar, saying that Edgar is attempting to kill his father. Gloucester immediately is convinced that the letter was truly written by Edgar and never considered thinking if Edgar would really do such a thing. Unlike Lear, Gloucester’s vision clears up when the Duke of Cornwall plucks his eyes out. From that moment, Gloucester began to see more clearly. Using his heart, Gloucester realizes at the end of the play, that Edgar was in fact the good son and that he saved his life while disguised as Poor Tom. “I have no way and therefore want no eyes;/I stumbled when I saw” (4.1.18-19) was the turning point of Gloucester’s life as his vision finally clears up. Gloucester realizes how blind he was and how he lacked insight when he was physically able to see. He then realizes that although he was physically able to see, he knew he couldn’t really see and that he doesn’t need his eyes to finally see and understand for he can see things more clearly through his mind.
In the end, Lear’s vision never cleared up and he fell, dying, to his flaw of blindness and not seeing through more than the physical appearance or through more than what is put and presented in front of him. Gloucester learned that vision is not just through the eyes, that it is rather through the heart and mind. Had Lear learned to see more through his heart, he might have avoided his death.
Blindness is a major flaw in everyone as we all see what we wish to believe. Throughout this play, it is evident that we need to look beyond what we see through our eyes and pay more attention to what is really being presented to us. We must avoid the inevitable, that is, seeing what we should not see, and not seeing what we should see. We must be able to see blinded and not be blinded by sight.