King Lear is a tragedy play that has been hailed as one of the great works of Shakespeare. The play has been modified in many ways with different famous actors playing the role of King Lear. Its plot revolves around the life of an aging king of England who is about to retire but lacks a son to inherite his position. All his children are girls with Goneril being the eldest followed by Regan and Cordelia. In as much as King Lear is a nobleman he is blinded by the lies of his daughters and fails to distinguish right from wrong. The blindness portrayed in the play is not physical blindness but an emotional flaw in character portrayed in King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester and Albany.
The play commences with the aging king of England declaring his retirement from the throne. He decides to share his wealth amongst his three daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The King does not have son of his own and therefore gets a hard time dividing his wealth. He comes up with a trick, which he uses to determine who among his daughter loves him most and therefore more deserving of the biggest share of his wealth. The elder daughter Goneril and Regan profess their unconditional love to their father. They answer with flattery when in reality they despise him. Their motive is to inherit the King’s wealth and then disgrace him later.
Their flattery infuriates the youngest daughter Cordelia as she knows that they are all lying and only after their father’s wealth. When her time comes to confess her love to him, Cordelia states that she has no words to express how much she loves her him. She states “I love you more than word can wield the matter; dearer than eyesight, space and liberty…rich or rare; no less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor…beyond all matter of so much I love you” (Shakespeare I, i, 55-61). The confession infuriates King Lear who stomps out and disowns Cordelia by declaring, “Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower…by the sacred radiance of the sun, of Hecate and the night…I disclaim all my paternal care…a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this for ever.” (Shakespeare I, i, 110-115). He decides to share his realm with his two daughters and send Cordelia out of his kingdom. The King of France whisks her away and marries her.
Shakespeare clearly portrays the theme of blindness through King Lear. He cannot see the truth as he is blinded by the false love and affection that his two daughters show him. Among the three daughters Cordelia is sincere, unselfish and honest. She cannot flatter her father. This fact is demonstrated when she wonders how Goneril and Regan manage to love their father that much and still have more love for their husbands. She is wiser than her father and quickly comprehends that Goneril and Regan are lying to their father.
As noble old man King Lear was supposed to be wise enough more than Cordelia and Kent who is blunt and honest. Kent tries to explain to the king about the flattery of his eldest daughters. King Lear disagrees with him and decides to expel him from his kingdom together with Cordelia. Having ruled a vast kingdom like England he was supposed to be wise and knowledgeable enough to distinguish truth from lies. This proves how blind King Lear is. He chose to listen to the lies rather than hear the truth. He possesses a flaw within him that cannot be prevented even when the truth is right in front of him.
As the play progress, the true characters of his two daughters are revealed. As soon as the king has divided his wealth among them, they reveal their true identity to their father. They mistreat their father badly to an extent of locking him out of the palace amidst a heavy storm. They are out to revenge the love and affection their father shared with Cordelia. It is clear from the play that King Lear was very fond of Cordelia. He was always praising her in front of the other sisters. This brought envy which made Goneril and Regan despised their youngest sister. They plotted to disgrace her and their father (Anderson 88). Eventually, Lear is enlightened and he realizes his mistakes but it is too late to correct them. He cannot reverse anything and the frustration drives him to madness.
Shakespeare is quick to portray the theme of blindness in the subplot. Here, he brings yet another royal family with similar traits like King Lear’s family. The King of Gloucester has two sons of whom one is legitimate and the other is an adopted one. The Edgar is the heir to the throne after his father’s death as he is the legitimate son of the Earl of England. His other son Edmund inherits little depending on his father’s wish because he is not the real son of the Earl (Anderson 92).
The Earl of Gloucester raises his two sons just as the society expects him to. He demonstrates more love to his legitimate son with little affection extended to Edmund. The division of love drives Edmund to resent Edgar and his father. The fact that the Earl of Gloucester addresses Edmond as a bastard creates more strife between them. To win the Earl of Gloucester’s favor, Edmund plots a way of separating father and son. He comes with a plan that could see them separate for good in order to take the place of Edgar.
Edmund is driven by the resentment he feels for Edgar and his father. He goes ahead and writes a letter which implicates Edgar of plotting to kill their father. In the letter Edmund asks Edgar to help him kill their father then share the wealth amongst them. He presents the letter to the Earl who becomes very disappointed. He is very infuriated by his son. He becomes enraged realizing that his beloved son can be ungrateful enough to plot his death. He does not confront Edgar to confirm the allegations but goes ahead and declare him an outlaw.
Edmund is able to manipulate the Earl of Gloucester. He is now able to avenge the resentment that the Earl felt for him. He is overjoyed when the Earl shout looking for Edgar “O villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter! Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! Worse than brutish! Go, sirrah, seek him. I?ll apprehend him. Abominable villain! Where is he?” (Shakespeare I, ii, 75-78). The Earl of Gloucester becomes blinded by the lies told to him by Edmund. Just like King Lear the Earl could had been wise enough to understand that his beloved son could not plot his death knowing very well he was the heir of his kingdom. He fails to see the truth that Edmund cannot be good to him after all the resentment he showed him.
The Earl of Gloucester blindness causes him to lose his favorite son. He fails to see the best in his son Edgar but blindly follows what he is told by his other son knowing well enough he has not been good to him. It is just before the end of the play that the Earl of Gloucester sight is restored when his legitimate son Edgar saves him from Edmund. After separating the Earl and his son, Edmund plans to kill the Earl. Edgar discovers that his father is in danger and comes to rescue him disguised as a poor Tom. It is here that the Earl realized how much he had been fooled. He comes to see the truth after he has lost his physical sight (Anderson 88).
Blindness in the play is demonstrated by Albany who is the husband of Goneril. Albany blindness was brought by the love he felt for his wife. He was consumed by an overwhelmed affection that he failed to see that Goneril was using him for her own advantage. In the play it is evident that Albany did not agree with Goneril ideas. This is seen when Goneril was misleading her father on the matter of the number of soldiers to be located in the palace. Goneril intention was to ensure that her husband gets a place in the palace hence the plot to create space for them. Albany did not agree with her but protested “I cannot be so partial, Goneril, to the great love I bear you” (Shakespeare I, iv, 309-310).
Despite his disagreement Albany is blinded by his love for Goneril and goes a head with the wicked plan of Goneril. He witnesses as Goneril manipulate his father and later throw him out of the palace. Knowing very well that Goneril acts are inhuman he compromise with and let her have her way. As a husband he fails to control his wife and follow suit to whatever he is told to even though he knows it is wrong.
The affection he feels for his wife makes Albany to fail to realize that Goneril is having an affair with Edmund. It takes the intervention of Edgar to realize what kind of woman Goneril was. Edgar finds a letter in which Goneril is plotting to kill Albany. It is through the letter that Albany’s sight is restored. He cannot comprehend how much he had been fooled by Goneril. He is seen lamenting “O Goneril, You are not worth the dust which the rude wind blows in your face!” (Shakespeare IV, ii, 29-31).
Among the three Albany’s blindness is restored quickly before more harm is done to him unlike King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester. We see king Lear’s pain and suffering after his elder daughters of whom he had shared his wealth between throwing him out of his palace. The go a head and plots his death. His blindness brings more pain and sorrow. It costs him the death of Cordelia after she was attacked trying to help her father. Lear at the end dies but only after getting his sight back and realizing who was the best daughter and the worst daughters. The Earl of Gloucester loses his physical sight after his eyes are plucked out in one of Edmunds plots to kill him. He later retains his emotional sight where he discovers that Edgar was not really the villain son but Edmund.
Blindness is an emotional flaw that has been possessed by all the leading characters. Shakespeare ironically has been able to use the noble men who are least expected to possess flaws be the one easily manipulated. The noble men makes small mistakes that they can easily see are wrong and later regret their own actions. The major thing that the character fails to do is to distinguish the right from wrong. They choose to believe the bad which is disguised as good and later suffer the consequences.
Anderson, H. Judith. The Conspiracy of Realism: Impasse and Vision in King Lear. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. 86-99.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Foakes, R. A. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997. 87-95.