Ironically, it is not until King Lear is mad and Gloucester blind that the characters are allowed some clarity as to the true nature of their errant ways.
Although Gloucester and King Lear acquire different maladies during the play, Shakespeare parallels both difficulties as guides to greater insight. In what follows, I will examine the correspondence between King Lear’s decline into madness and Gloucester’s blindness. The onset of King Lear’s mental instability brings a series of revelations, and similarly the moment Gloucester loses his eyesight he recognizes what error he has made in the judgment of his sons.
While King Lear loses sanity, he gains insight into his status as a king. Although it is questionable whether he is firmly sane at the start if the play, as he forces his beloved daughter Cordelia and his trusted counsel Kent to leave after they have insulted his judgment, by Act 4 his mental instability is unmistakable. In Act 1, Scene 1 Goneril and Regan speak of his senility and their plans to exploit it, but King Lear doesn’t outwardly question himself until the Fool appears and the king considers what he has to say.
King Lear asks if he calls him a fool and the Fool answers, “All thy titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with” (1.4.145-146). Comments of this sort contribute to the corrosion of King Lear’s sanity, as he allows the Fool to say such things with no rebuke which implies that he is considering these statements as possibly legitimate.
Although King Lear has been cruel to Kent and Cordelia because of their assertion of principles, the Fool’s comments such as “I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing” (1.4.187-188) do not cause the same reaction. Shakespeare uses the Fool as King Lear’s conscience, constantly questioning past actions and saying things that a king should be too proud to say about himself. Lear’s own thoughts of self-doubt are vocalized, made real, by the Fool and the concept of majesty fades as a result. King Lear is being reduced to simply Lear, and while he first resists the Fool’s declarations, there comes a point where he no longer refers to himself in the royal “we.”
It finally reaches the point where he calls himself a “poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (3.2.19-20) – this, also, is the point where his madness is clear, as he is yelling at the weather. In Act 3, Scene 4, as Lear starts ripping off his clothes – “thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal..” (103-104) – he is beginning to see his status as a king in a new light: instead of a legitimate basis for privilege and extravagance, as a social construct.
Shakespeare seems to be saying through King Lear that flattery is to language what royalty is to humanity: embellished reality. Lear sees that when meaningless compliments are put aside, language is trimmed to its true significance and that likewise without his crown he is the genuine Lear. As Shakespeare strips Lear of the title “King,” Lear begins to understand his rightful value – a human being equal to all others – and simultaneously sees the value of Cordelia’s statement of “nothing” (1.1:87). During his gradual shift to psychosis he also gains clarity regarding the love his other daughters, Goneril and Regan. Though the two sisters speak to King Lear at the start of the play in kind and loving words, the deceitfulness and the greed which drive them to patronize their affection-starved father in late-life-crisis come to light upon Lear’s division of the land.
The flowery language used by the sisters in this first scene is later echoed in Lear’s language during his plea to Regan to take him in (2.4.168-179). In both instances, one uses flattery as a means of gaining something from the other. In the case of Goneril and Regan making appeals to their father, a large fortune is at stake. For King Lear speaking to Regan, it is his dignity and self-worth that are in jeopardy (he also simply needs a place to stay). While the flattery works on King Lear in the beginning, it does not work on Regan. The sisters had been using flattery for greed; Lear, for self-preservation. Lear does not yet see the worthlessness is flattery, but by Act 4 he says of his daughters, “they flattered me like a dog” (4.6:97) – this statement made following a short nonsensical rant involving toasted cheese. Here, his perception of the environment is quite skewed; but he has a precise awareness of the devotion his daughters have to him.
Shakespeare has Edgar substantiate the notion that outward appearance does not determine one’s identity when he explains to Gloucester, “In nothing am I changed but in my garments” (4.6:9). Besides this association between the plights of Gloucester and Lear, Shakespeare alludes to the concepts of vision and blindness – the focus of the subplot of Gloucester – several times in the main plot.
For example, Goneril says that she holds her father “dearer than eyesight” (1.1.55). While this love quickly turns questionable, the love between parent and child is likened again to the importance of eyesight after Gloucester has been blinded by Cornwall. He declares that if he “sees” his son Edgar again through touch, he will feel as if he has eyes again (3.7:23-24). Gloucester realizes that vision is a sensation, but that emotions and memories tinge the images the eyes send to the brain. What he formerly considered “seeing” is now, to him, much more than a simple physical sense. Gloucester later says that his vision was useless, and that he stumbled when he saw (4.1.20).
With the close of the play, it is evident that Shakespeare has approached the two characters, Gloucester and Lear, similarly, for some purpose. The situational irony throughout the play serves to further Shakespeare’s implicit tenet: that it is only through adversity and loss that characters as arrogant and esteemed as the two aforementioned are able to understand and accept the truths associated with their children.