, Research Paper
The two works King Lear by William Shakespeare and Oedipus the King by Sophocles share similar themes. One such theme is sight versus blindness. In Shakespeare’s King Lear the issue of sight versus blindness is a recurring theme. In Shakespearean terms, as well as in Sohpocles’ Oedipus the King, being blind does not only refer to the physical inability to see. Blindness is used in these two works to show a mental flaw some of the characters possess and vision is not derived solely from physical sight. In King Lear, Gloucester and Lear are two prime examples Shakespeare incorporates into this theme, as well as Oedipus in Oedipus the King. Blindness is the cause of the downfall of the tragic hero Oedipus. Not only does his blindness appear physically but also egotistically, like Lear.
In both plays, Lear and Oedipus similarly hold a high position in their respective countries. Lear is the King of Britain and Oedipus is the King of Thebes. Both kings, because of their high position in society are supposed to be able to distinguish the good from the bad. Unfortunately, their lack of insight prevents them from doing so. Gloucester is a prime example of a character, like Lear and Oedipus, who lacks insight but regains it when he is blinded physically. Gloucester is the aging Earl, a good man with a long run of bad luck. His problems are with his two sons, Edgar and Edmund. Gloucester’s vision is very much like Lear’s and Oedipus’. These three characters are unable to see what is going on around them.
Lear’s lack of insight is seen through his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The “love test” at the beginning of Act 1, scene I sets the tone for this extremely complicated play. Lear demands that his daughters prove how much they love him. Rather than being a true test of their love for him, the test seems to invite or even demand flattery. Lear states, “Tell me, my daughters/ Since now we will divest us both of rule,/ Interest of territory, cares of state-/ Which of you shall we say doth love us must,/ That we our largest bounty may extent/ Where nature doth with merit challenge?” (I, i, 48-53). Goneril and Regan, by their speeches flatter their father. Goneril states, “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;/ Dearer than eyesight, space, and Liberty;/ Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,/ No less than life; with grace, health, beauty, honour ” (I, i, 55-61). Regan also replies to her father ” I find she names my very deed of love (I, i, 71). However, when Cordelia says “I love your majesty/ According to my bond, no more nor less” (I, i, 92-93), Lear cannot see what these words really mean. Goneril and Regan are putting on an act when they declare their love for Lear. When Cordelia states her love for Lear she does not want to associate her true love for her father with her sisters false love. He sees the fa ade that her sisters’ put on which is why she states her love in this manner. Goneril and Regan, however, fool Lear; into thinking that they love him while Cordelia does not. Kent who has sufficient insight, unlike Lear, is able to see through the dialogue and knows that Cordelia is the only daughter who actually loves Lear. Kent tries to convince Lear of this by saying “Answer my life my judgment,/ Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,/ Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds/ Revert no hollowness” (I, i, 150-154). Lear however, lacks the insight that Kent has. He only sees what is on the surface and cannot understand the deeper intentions of the daughters’ speeches. As Lear’s anger grows from the argument, his foresight diminishes as he becomes increasingly irrational and narrow-minded. When Lear disowns Cordelia, he says, “Thou hast her France. Let her be thine, for we/ Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see/ That face of hers again” (I, i, 262-264). Ironically, he later discovers that Cordelia is the only daughter he wants to see, asking her to forgive and forget. Lear states “When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down/ And ask thee forgiveness; so we’ll live,/ And pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh, “(V, iii, 10-12). By this time, he has finally started to gain some discretion, but it is too late. His lack of precognition has condemned him from the beginning, and actually cost him his and his daughter’s life.
In Lear’s character, one sees that physical sight does not necessarily guarantee clear sight. Gloucester also shows us that prior to the loss of his eyes that his vision was very much like Lear’s. Gloucester’s lack of insight also keeps him from seeing what is going on around him. Instead, he only sees what is presented to him on the surface. His blindness psychologically denies him the ability to see the goodness of Edgar and the evil of Edmund, his two sons. Although Edgar is the good and loving son, Gloucester disowns him, like Lear disowns his daughter Cordelia. Gloucester is ready to kill his son Edgar, who would later save his life. Gloucester’s blindness begins when Edmund convinces him by means of a forged letter that Edgar is plotting to kill him to gain Earldom. When Edmund shows him the letter that is supposedly from Edgar, it takes very little convincing for Gloucester to believe it. This shows that Gloucester’s character is easily manipulated because of the love he has for Edmund. Gloucester exclaims, “O villain, villain-his very opinion in the letter/ Abhorred villain, unnatural, detested, brutish villain-worse than brutish!”(78-79). He does not even question if Edgar would do something like this because he fails to see Edgar as the good son. The idea of Edmund being after the earldom never occurs to him. At this point, Gloucester’s life is headed toward the path of damnation, similar to Lear, because of lack of insight.
Near the end of the play, Gloucester finally regains his sight and realizes that Edgar had saved his life disguised as PoorTom, a beggar. He realizes that Edmund is the evil son and had planned to take over the earldom. Gloucester states, “I stumbled when I saw full oft ’tis seen/ Our means secure us, and our mere defects/ Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,/ The food of thy abused father’s wrath-/ Might I but live to see thee in my touch/ I’d say I had eyes again” (IV, i, 18-24). This is ironic because his inability to see the realities of his sons occurred when he had physical sight but was mentally blind; but his ability to see the true nature of his sons occurred after having his eyes plucked out by the Duke of Cornwall, causing him blindness. From this point onwards, Gloucester learns to see clearly by using his heart to see instead of his eyes.
Oedipus, in Oedipus the King, like Gloucester and Lear in King Lear, also lacked insight. Oedipus was fated from birth to kill his father and marry his mother. Excessive pride fuels his inability to believe the prophecy. Oedipus does solve the riddle of the sphinx and marry. He does not, however, know that he has fulfilled the prophecy.
Oedipus is so blinded by his own egotistical self that he believes that since he was the only one who was able to solve the riddle of the sphinx that he is the only one capable of finding out the killer of King Laius. Oedipus states, “No, I’ll start again-I’ll bring it all to light myself! Apollo is right, and so are you, Creon, to turn our attention back to the murdered man. Now you have me to fight for you, you’ll see! I am the land’s avenger by all rights, and Apollo’s champion to” (149-155). Oedipus makes it his duty and ambition to seek out the murderer of King Laius. Ironically, when Tiresias, a blind prophet claims “you with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those you live with-who are your parents? Do you know? All knowing you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood ” (470-474), Oedipus does not believe him. He believes he speaks nonsense. Oedipus does not even give it a second thought that maybe this is true or to the fact that he did kill a man on his way to Thebes. Oedipus, compared to Gloucester and his sons, believes that Tiresias is plotting against him along with his brother-in-law Creon.
After several testimonies, Oedipus opens his eyes and accepts the blame. In order to deliver justice for his wrongs in killing his father and marrying his mother, Oedipus chooses to blind himself. Unlike Lear and Gloucester, Oedipus took matters into his own hands for his failure to open his eyes to see the truth. Just before Oedipus blinds himself he realizes what he has done. Oedipus states, “O god-all come true, all burst to light! O light-now let me look my last on you! I stand revealed at last-cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage, cursed in lives I cut down with these hands!” Oedipus has now exposed his quilt. His life, like Lear and Gloucester’s is proven to be a lie because of his symbolical blindness and his false knowledge.
As you have seen, the characters that suffer the most in the plays King Lear and Oedipus the King are Lear, Gloucester, and Oedipus. Their stories are similar in many ways; however, while Lear slowly goes mad, Gloucester and Oedipus are blinded but remain sane, to a certain extent. Oedipus, Lear and Gloucester seem to be able to perceive certain tings more clearly after they lose their sight or sanity. Lear realizes only as he begins to go mad that Cordelia loves him and that Goneril and Regan are flatters; he comes to understand the weakness of human nature, the emptiness of royal claims to power, and the similarity of all human beings as he rambles in his insanity. Gloucester, for his part, comes to understand which son is really good and which is bad at the moment of his blinding. Like Gloucester, Oedipus sees his mistakes as he is about to blind himself. Unlike Oedipus, both Lear and Gloucester sink into despair before their deaths. It is also interesting to note that Lear’s eyesight fails in the moments just before he dies, while Gloucester whishes himself insane so he could more easily bear his misery. Oedipus, unlike Lear and Gloucester, takes a whole different route and exiles himself so the he does not have to live with his shame.