A major and recurring theme of the play, "King Lear," is embodied in the relationship between blindness and sight. We notice three things about this relationship: First, it is an ?inverted? relationship. Secondly, it operates on both the literal and the figurative levels, carrying with it a particular depth and richness of meaning. And finally, it is a relationship that is intricately woven into the very fabric of the play--one repeatedly reinforced by the varied experiences of several of the play's major characters--and for this reason, its message comes across far more powerfully than it otherwise would.
Gloucester gives voice to the inverted nature of this relationship when he laments, after being mercilessly blinded by Cornwall, "I stumbled when I saw." This simple yet profound statement is itself an example of the hard-won philosophical insight acquired by Gloucester as a direct result of his physical blinding. It also stands as a sad commentary on the ?blind faith? he so innocently displays, early in the play, toward his evil, conniving son, Edmund, whose cunning blinds his father (figuratively)--not only to his own evil, but also to the goodness of his loyal brother, Edgar--long before it causes his literal blindness. Gloucester, then, while still in possession of his sight, functions in a state of ?blindness,? and it isn't until he loses his sight that he is truly able to ?see.? This is one of the great paradoxes of the play: that Edmund, through causing his father's blindness, gives to him his ?sight.?
Edgar, like his father, suffers a great deal through a ?blindness? brought about by his own honest, naive, and unsuspicious nature. Early in the play, Edmund is able to manipulate Edgar as easily and thoroughly as he manipulates Gloucester, and Edgar can no more ?see? his brother's true intent than his father can. In his talk with Edmund, Edgar partially ?sees,? but his brother?s manipulative skills are far too great for his limited ?vision? to penetrate. After hearing of his father?s anger toward him, Edgar accurately concludes, ?Some villain hath done me wrong.? But his lack of experience with evil prevents him from realizing that the villain is his own ?dear? brother. His nature is such that he never even entertains the thought.
King Lear, the play's central character, unwittingly creates the circumstances that lead to his own undoing. He, more than being merely the pawn of manipulative offspring, is ?blinded? by his own foolishness, pride, obstinacy, and rashness. This is not to imply that he is innately evil or unkind, for he possesses many good qualities, as well: He is benevolent, honest, trusting, unselfish, and devoted to his daughters. Unfortunately, these finer traits are not enough to shield him from the tragic consequences of his actions; and his virtues, in fact, actually contribute to his future woes, as Edgar?s and Gloucester's do also.
Lear's ?blindness? is revealed when he allows himself to be manipulated by the flattery of his evil daughters, Goneril and Regan. They paint their supposed filial affection in such flowery and superlative language, that his proud and vulnerable father's heart succumbs to their practiced wiles. Like Edgar and Gloucester in their early dealings with Edmund, Lear never thinks for a moment to question his daughters' sincerity. Knowing that his youngest daughter, Cordelia, loves him most--and because he loves her most--Lear unrealistically expects her vocalization of daughterly devotion to outdo the others'. He is, of course, disappointed?not merely because Regan's overblown discourse has left nothing greater to be said, but also?because Cordelia is too honest to resort to flattery as a means of expressing her deep love for her father and winning her portion of the kingdom. Lear becomes enraged at her refusal to participate in her sisters' charade, which he doesn't recognize as such. He impulsively disowns her.
After ?blindly? divesting himself of wealth, power, and authority, and impulsively giving all these to Regan and Goneril--naively trusting them to care for him and allow him to retain his entourage and maintain his kingly dignity--Lear realizes, too late for any remedy, that something is seriously amiss in his daughters' professed devotion. It is a very hard and bitter road that Lear must travel in his journey toward the truth, both literally and figuratively. When finally he ?sees? Goneril and Regan for what they are, and they turn him out into the storm on the heath, he must contend with the harshness of the elements--though in his tortured mind, the roaring tempest cannot compare to the hard coldness of his daughters' hearts or their relentlessly humiliating treatment of him.
This is insight dearly bought! Lear's horrendous ordeal and its resulting insight present us with another of the play's great paradoxes: The king, through losing all (materially), gains all (spiritually.) "King Lear" is a stirring dramatization--not only of the eternal battle between good and evil, but--of the intricacy and complexity of the interrelated concepts of ?blindness? and ?sight,? and of the arduous, and often agonizing, pilgrimage from the one to the other.