Often in literature, symbolism is used to represent ideas or meanings in a metaphorical sense. However, in Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, the symbolism of blindness is used both in a metaphorical and literal way. This symbolism can first be seen in the metaphorical blindness of Lear, and then Gloucester, which then leads to the literal blindness of Gloucester later on in the play. These examples of blindness are an important part of King Lear because they help the reader to better understand the themes that Shakespeare wanted to convey through his work.
The symbol of blindness can be found in the very first scene of the play, when Lear is demanding praise from his daughters to decide who will receive the better part of the land when he gives up his throne. He is metaphorically blinded by his pride and arrogance when his eldest daughter, Cordelia, replies by saying nothing. Lear is enraged, “Nothing will come of nothing…Here I disclaim all my paternal care…And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this forever” (I. i. 89-114), and he foolishly banishes the only daughter who truly loves him. He cannot see that through Cordelia’s silence, she is actually saying much more than her sisters, who were deceiving their father in order to receive power. Through the example of Lear’s actions, the theme that pride and arrogance can blind you is presented to the reader and continues on to evolve into a major theme of the play.
Another theme that is introduced through the symbol of blindness is that people are easily deceived by others. This theme is apparent when Gloucester is deceived by his bastard son, Edmund. His plan is to deceive his father in order to “if not by birth, have lands by wit.” (I. ii. 164). He is so desperate for power that he goes to the extreme of putting his brother in danger due the fake letter he gave to Gloucester, making him believe Edgar had turned against him. Gloucester is blinded by Edmund’s trickery and lies to the point where he orders for Edgar to be killed. Through his example of metaphorical blindness, Gloucester becomes an example of the theme that blindness leads to people being easily deceived by others.
Gloucester is also an example of the literal symbolism of blindness that Shakespeare uses in King Lear. In the third act, comes the bloodiest part of the tragedy; Gloucester is literally blinded by Cornwall for helping Lear escape to Dover. After having both of his eyes plucked out, Gloucester asks to see his son Edmund, whom he believes is there to protect him. Regan reveals the truth to him, “Thou call’st on him that hates thee. It was he That made the overture of thy treason to us, Who is too good to pity thee,” (III. vii. 88-90), and Gloucester then realizes he has been deceived by Edmund and wronged his son Edgar. By not seeing Edmund’s treachery until he was blind, Gloucester presents another theme, blindness can lead to truth. By saying, “I stumbled when I saw,” (IV. i. 19) Gloucester helps the reader to understand that seeing can blind us from the truth.
Through the symbol of blindness, whether metaphorical or literal, the meaning of the play is greatly enhanced by the themes the symbol presents. The reader can better understand the meanings and ideas that Shakespeare intended to portray through his characters. Lear and Gloucester, through their metaphorical and literal examples, allow the symbol to be used as an important part of the play.