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The play King Lear mainly focuses on the journey of Lear from an arrogant dismissal of true knowledge to a hard-earned wisdom. The sight pattern of imagery reinforces the central theme as it shows Lear progressing from an unwillingness to see to an anguished enlightenment. The metaphor of vision is found both in the pattern of sight imagery as well in the underlying symbolism. It drives both the plot and the subplot and unites them in the common theme of suffering. The two plots of King Lear complement each other on the theme of suffering. Bridget W. Lloyns comments:
"Lear's sufferings are heroic because they cannot be accommodated by traditional formulas, moral or literary, and the subplot partly establishes the fact."(The subplot as simplification,18).
Images of sight and blindness abound in the play and serves as the key to the character: :"heavenly eyes," "washed eyes," "old fond eyes," eyes that "do comfort and not burn," eyes "asquint," "scornful," "fierce," "sweet," the "eye's anguish," "eyes of vile jelly," "glass eyes", love "dearer than eyesight", "side-piercing sight", "eye discerning" ,"eye-less rage" of the storm- eyes that have sight and cannot see and eyes that see though they are blind and those that make others blind through their evil schemes. These plethora of imagery serves almost as a chorus to the play's essential dynamics where Lear is forced to "see better" and know himself and the world around him.
The world of Lear is a dark, sinister one where there is a gross inversion of values. Most of the action occurs either in the darkness of the night or in the dark tumult of the storm or in the figurative darkness of Gloucester's blindness. Even the locale of the play, either in the castles of Lear, Albany, Cornwall or Gloucester indicates a similar gloomy world bereft of human warmth, trust and love. In a world shrouded with the superfluities of authority, pomp and reputation, Lear's insanity and Gloucester's blindness become the only means to achieve the truth.
The main plot revolves around King Lear who wants to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: "to shake all cares and business from our age."
This very act of abdication reveals Lear's lack of insight, as he is ignorant that power mechanisms in monarchic societies are based on the possession of a large amount of land and without this he will be reduced to nothing.
Lear seems to be a wily, ego-centric old man who wants to display this outward show of love to assert his own supremacy and pomp of authority. As Harriet Dye says, "Lear wants to be loved, to be bathed in an adoration excited by the promise of material reward".
Thus, Lear cannot comprehend love in its true essence complete in the fulfillment of love and responsibility.
"Which of you shall we say doth love
us most, / That we our largest bounty
may extend / Where nature doth with
merit challenge." (I, i, 31-33)
Significantly, Cordelia remains silent when her sisters declare their love for the father in the most eloquent terms. Her silence accompanied by the language of the eye becomes the clearest voice proclaiming the love of the heart:
"O, learn to read what silent love hath writ,
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit. "(Sonnet 23)
Thus, the eyes in King Lear become instruments of feeling rather than that of knowledge. As Foucault says, "the gaze will be fulfilled in its own truth and will have access to the truth of things if it rests on them in silence, if everything keeps silent around what it sees(132).
When she finally speaks, we, she gives an honest and sincere answer:
"I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less." (I.i. 92-93)
She tries to restore truth to Lear's language by bringing it from the materialistic realm to the domainsof love. Love for her is "no-thing" to be bought or sold. But Lear sees her objectively and fails to understand the meaning of her words.As Foucault says, "How rare is the accomplished observer who knows how to await in the silence of the imagination,in the calm of the mind and before forming his judgement, the relation of a sense actually being exercised."(132)
Lear disowns her in the most violent manner:
"Here I do disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever." [I.i.113-116]
And subsequently banishes her: "Hence and avoid my sight!"[I.i.124]
Kent, the faithful follower expresses his dissent and urges him to "check this hideous rashness". However, he too is banished, and in the same image of seeing:
"Out of my sight!"[I.i.157]
To which Kent replies:
"See better Lear and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye."[I.i.158-159]
Bereft of his true eyes, Cordelia and Kent, the fool from now on becomes Lear's conscience. He torments Lear to reject the false notion he has of himself. His first ditty in Act 1 speaks of his practical wisdom:
"Have more than thou showest
Speak less than thou knowest."(I.iv.118-119)
His apparent jest, "So,out went the candle and we were left darkling"(I.iv.237) anticipates Kent's comments at the end of the play, "All cheerless,dark and deadly"(V.iii.290).
On facing Goneril and Regan's ingratitude, he begins to regain his lost vision:
"Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Who is it that can tell me who I am?"[I.iii.226-230]
The Fool rightly replies:
He truly says: "thou should'st not have been old till thou had'st been wise".[I.v.44]
Lear is advanced only in years but old age has not given him any wisdom. So there is practically no difference between him and the fool as:
"All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with." (I.iv.148-150)
Deprived of everything, Lear breaks into a torment of agony:
"No, you unnatural hags ,
I will have revenges on you both
You think i'llweep
No I'll not weep"(II.iv.278-283)
But while Lear can show some tragic strength and fiery passion in the face of such misery,his counterpart in the subplot is bewildered. in Act 1 scene 2,we find him disturbed at the chaotic and inverted world:
"Kent banish'd thus?and France in choler parted?
And the King gone to-night?Prescrib'd his pow'r,
Confin'd t exhibition?All this done
Upon the gad?"[I.ii.23-25]
In such a state of confusion, Edmund confronts him with the forged letter directed at him. He judges it to be dangerous of what happened to the king and is at a loss of words:
"My son Edgar! Had he a hand to write this?
A heart and a brain to breed it in?"[I.ii.56-57]
Wilson knight judges this device of forgery to be "crude and absurd" but Gloucester declares the handwriting to be that of Edgar though he did not have his spectacle about him.(I.ii.35). It is an act of foolishness on part of him to believe a son who "hath been out nine years,and away he shall again"(I.i.33) and express his rage at a son who had been with him all along:
"Abhorred villain! Unnatural,detested,brutish
Villain!worse than brutish!"[I.ii.76-77]
We see his lack of judgment and unperceptive worldliness when he desists on directly confronting Edgar with the charge of conspiracy only because Edmund persuades him not to do so. Edmund points out to the moral weakness of Gloucester in his soliloquy:
"lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star"[I.ii.127-128]
Edgar is also one such character who pays dearly to gain true insight about himself and the world around him. He is a weak and gullible character, as he becomes a victim to his brother's treachery. Edmund rightfully retorts:
"A credulous father and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms"[I.ii.179-180]
Lear explodes against this universal injustice and anarchy in the storm scene (Act III). Driven out in the storm by his ungrateful daughters Lear seeks refuge in the heath. The storm becomes a symbol of the elemental forces of nature as opposed to the artificial institutions of the society such as castles and towns. The storm seems to unite all those characters who have suffered the cruel injustice of life. The storm seems to be the external manifestation of lear's own torment.
"I tax not you,you elements,with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom,call'd ou children;
You owe me no subscription.
Here I stand your slave,
A poor,infirm,weak and despis'd old man"[III.ii.16-18]
He realizes that he is no different from any other member of the tormented race of mankind.
"O, I have ta'en
To little care of this! Take physic,pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just".
This is further established when the king is shocked at the raggedness of poor tom's clothing and at the abject wretchedness of his misery. He pities the beggar's condition more than his own suffering. Finally, he realizes that it is necessary to be humbled to achieve essential humanity
"Is man no more than this?
Unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor,bare,fork'd
Animal as thou art."[III.iv.102-108]
The storm scene not only gives Lear the vital insight into the true nature of his daughters, whom he "gave all" but also of the love of Cordelia and the faithful service of Kent and Gloucester, who come to his aid when he has 'nothing'.
Gloucester too, on the other hand gradually realizes the "unnatural dealing" meted out towards the king and decides to take a stance, "we must incline towards the king" (III.iii.14). He rises to be a tragic figure when he shows his loyalty towards Lear. Though this would mean an end to his political career but it is necessary for the salvation of his soul.
His being blinded is an ironic completion of his career (III.vii). But this lack of sight is tragically compensated by a unique insight like that of the blinded Tiresias and Oedipus. So, when the old man says, "you cannot see your way"(IV.ii.19)
"I have no eyes and therefore want no eyes
I stumbled when I saw"[IV.ii.20-21]
The blinding episode of Gloucester gains its horror from the terrible spectacle of Gloucester's gourged out bleeding eyes. This loss of sight brings with it loss of power and physical helplessness. Goneril's brutal exclamation-"pluck out his eyes" [III.vii.5] establishes the vision metaphor in the scene. Gloucester picks up the imagery of vision after her and breaks out in desperate defiance of her tormentors. He would rather not:
" not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh boarish fangs" [III.vii.56-58]
And predicts using the same sight imagery:
"I shall see
The winged venegeance overtake such children"[III.vii.65-66]
The blinding of Gloucester perverts the social emotion around blindness. Cornwall is brutally direct and renders the physical blindness with symbolic meaning:
"See't shalt thou never
Upon these eyes of thine i'll set my foot."[III.vii.67-68]
By depriving Gloucester of his sight, he puts an end to the limited perception of his visual organ.his ironic retort:
"out vile jelly!
Where is thy luster now?"[III.vii.83-4]
He fails to realize that the loss of outward sight would be compensated with a new inward vision. Gloucester now "dark and comfortless"(85) begs Edmund, his "loyal and natural boy"(II.i.84) to "enkindle all the sparks of nature"(86) to avenge him. Regan initiates the process of enlightenment and informs him, that it was Edmund who "made the overture" of his supposed treason before them. Gloucester finally gets to see the real nature of both the sons:
"O, my follies! Then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods forgive me that, and prosper him!"[III.vii.91-92]
Now that he gains this knowledge, he begins his journey towards self-knowledge and reconciliation with his son. He says,
"O dear son Edgar,
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I'd say I had eyes again."[IV.i.21-4]
Edgar thus becomes a symbol of understanding for him. The sudden appearance of his father "with his bleeding rings " is also a lesson in stoicism for Edgar. He asks:
"but who comes here? My father poorly led?
World, World, O World!"[IV.i.9-10]
Gloucester is reduced to someone "poorly led", as R.A Foakes defines the adverb both "in a way unworthy of his rank, and by a poor man." His past sight has misled him more than his current blindness. His lack of judgment has "Cost him his eyes"[V.iii.173]
Even now, the wisdom gained is not complete. Earlier when he had met Edgar in the heath, he refers to himself:
"Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly."(70-72)
Now, he himself kneels to pray in the "sights" of the Gods to shake patiently his "great affliction off".
Edgar becomes his father's new guide, leads his father, and shows his benediction:
""Bless thy sweet eyes, they bleed"(IV.i.54)
As he describes the dizzying heights of the cliffs of Dover, Gloucester shows his fear of vertigo:
"I'll look no more,
Lest my brain turn, and deficient sight
Topple down headlong"(IV.vi.22-24)
The illusion of death that Edgar persuades his father to believe will actually lead to his acceptance of reality and put a end to his torment. Edgar advises his father to: "Bear free and patient thoughts".[IV.i.79]. Bridget W.Lyons says:
"Gloucester's blindness pictorialises sin and his folly because of the significance of the eyeless man's presence in the stage is clarified for us, by himself and Edgar in a moralized language."(The subplot as simplification,29)
Immediately after the fall, Edgar tells him, "Do but look up"[IV.vi.59]. Gloucester replies,"Alack, I have no eyes"[IV.vi.60]. He still has to learn the art to "see feelingly". Lear helps him on this journey:
"A man may see how this
World goes with no eyes.
Look with thine ears; see
How yond justice rails upon yond simple thief."(IV.vi.150-52)
He offers him his own eyes and mocks him to "Get thee glass eyes"(170). We are reminded of Sidney's old king who referred to his good son's kindness as "a glass even to my blind eyes". Similarly, the real glass to Gloucester's eyes is his own son, Edgar.
There is a constant devaluation of the senses, especially that of sight as a means of understanding. The passionate plea of the beloved "to hear with eyes" is given a bitter twist in Lear's words to the blind Gloucester: "look with thine ears".
Gloucester too overlooks his own condition and grieves at lear's condition:
"how stiff is my vild sense
That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows!"[IV.vii.279-281]
Next, we find Cordelia using the sight imagery as a symbol of benediction. She wishes to bring the "unpublish'd virtues of the earth" and her tears to heal the tormented psyche of her father to "close the eye of anguish"IV.iv.14]. Stripped of his regal powers, Lear prays for benediction from her:
"Pray do not mock me,
I am a very foolish fond man,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind."[IV.vii.58-62]
For the first time he addresses her as "my child" and feels her pain:
"Be your tears wet? yes, faith!" I pray you weep not."(IV.vii.72)
Lear accepts he is "old and foolish". He has sacrificed his pride, no longer needs flattery, and is no longer arrogant. His retribution ends in reconciliation with his beloved daughter Cordelia. Lear has no need for revenge:
"No,no,no,no! Come,let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds I'the cage" (V.iii.8-17)
But he is ultimately deprived of that pleasure. In Act v he enters with Cordelia in his arms:
"Howl,howl,howl! O,you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack." (V.iii.258-261)
There is a initial denial of truth, "this feather stirs-she lives!" (V.iii.265)
Kent in his determination to uphold the natural order offers lear a glimpse of the truth. He recognizes Kent: "this is a dull sight. are you not Kent?" (V.iii.283)
As Lear learns to see,he loses the "object of his sight", Cordelia. It is evident that Lear has paid dearly for the glimpse of reality, but at the end, he is again deceived by illusion. He believes Cordelia to be alive when in reality she is dead:
"Look on her! Look her lips,
Look there, look there!" [He dies] [V.iii.311]
This remains a grim reversal of his powerful conviction expressed earlier:
Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see
That face of hers again." [I.i.265-7]
The blinding flash of the truth of Edgar's identity also puts an end to Gloucester's quest for life.As Edgar says:
"But his flaw'd heart
Alack too weak the conflict to support!
'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief
Thus, the idea of vision that emerges is one of moral vision.Gloucester, Edgar and Lear all reflect the conventional association of seeing and blindness in their language. It is remarkable that, age or hierarchy do not assure the power of insight, as in King Lear where the characters of lower social status are more insightful than the rest. The power to see feelingly which Lear and Gloucester finally achieve becomes the means of their redemption.