A Consideration of the way Shakespeare presents and develops the theme of blindness in 'King Lear'

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Ailsa Bulloch        English Coursework        Alton Convent School

A Consideration of the way Shakespeare presents and develops the theme of blindness in ‘King Lear’

  Throughout ‘King Lear’, Shakespeare uses the play’s characters to make judgements on society using blindness as a metaphor that runs through the play. He does this in a number of ways portraying characters that can be fooled by others’ flattery, or are easily manipulated or deceived, or simply have a lack of wisdom. As well as the horrific physical blinding of Gloucester, blindness is used as a metaphor for characters’ lack of insight, moral blindness, and a lack of perception into others’ needs and feelings. Shakespeare illustrates the importance of seeing yourself and the world around you clearly and shows how seeing clearly is linked to an understanding of what the world is really like. As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, ‘King Lear’ is used to highlight the hypocrisy of social order, whether it is the royal court, the legal system, or simply the family structure.

   The most obvious example of Shakespeare’s use of blindness as a metaphor is in his presentation of Lear as blind and irresponsible both as father and ruler. He is preoccupied with appearances, and he wishes to retain the trappings of majesty without the ‘cares and business’, of ruling. Lear attempts to do this by dividing power from responsibility. It is possible, with modern day values and judgement to see the division of his kingdom as a kind gesture, however in the period at which Shakespeare was writing, it would have been seen as extremely arrogant, as kingship was seen as a divine gift. There was a strong sense of destiny, and to interfere with one’s fate and the divine right of kings would be seen as ominous, and forebode tension and disaster.  On deeper examination of Lear we realise how false his values are, and his desire to rely on Cordelia’s ‘kind nursery’ is purely selfish. In the first act, the audience views Lear as a tyrannical patriarch and a demanding child, who requires constant assurance of his daughters’ love. This is necessary, as later in the play we will see his character develop, and Shakespeare will reveal his better qualities, when he gains self knowledge, and learns to acknowledge his blindness and ask for forgiveness. This will allow us to sympathise with him, making the play more tragic.

   It is Lear’s interaction with those characters who lead him to ‘sight, in which we see his more tolerant, caring nature. Kent is integral to the development of Lear’s understanding and insight, as is the Fool. Both characters push Lear towards the truth, the fool tries to ‘out-jest’ Lear’s inquiries, whilst Kent loyally motivates him, and only speaks up when he sees the king acting with ‘hideous rashness’. To reach full understanding, Lear must go through a learning process. Lear must suffer as ‘the natural fool of fortune’; in his madness to improve his understanding of himself and the society in which he lives. He realises;

 ‘ I am not in my perfect mind.’

 Only then can he understand his wrongdoing, and ask Cordelia and the gods for ‘forgiveness: so we’ll live and pray and sing,’ During his time on the heath, Lear considers those things which he selfishly paid little attention to whilst he had power. These things are still relevant today, and relate to the wretched condition of the poor, the corrupt justice system and true necessity. His new- found sympathy is illustrated in the lines:

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‘Poor naked wretches, whersoe’er you are

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm

…O I have ta’en

Too little care of this’

  Shakespeare seems to suggest that it is man’s fate to suffer: Lear says:

 ‘When we are born we cry that we are come

 To this great stage of fools’.

  Lear emerges from his torment not only able to see more clearly but a more humble, loving, self-critical character. He learns, through his madness, how to distinguish between appearance and reality. He gains self-insight. Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear’s inner conflict, and his blindness to reality, ...

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