King Lear: The Good, the Bad and the Blind
Lear Eye for the Blind Guy
Three evil mice watch gleefully from a shadowy corner as three noble, yet blind mice stumble into a bar. The evil mice whisper enticingly for the blind mice to join them at their table. "First round's on us," the evil mice menacingly coo. From beneath the bar's lone light a third group shudder helplessly, these morally upright mice (each with perfect vision) whisper in warning to the blind mice: "In thy best consideration check this hideous rashness!" The blind mice ignore them, stumbling ever closer to the evil three, a crazed look in their vacant eyes...
Shakespeare's King Lear uses the metaphor of sight to follow three sets of distinguishable characters who play off one another with disastrous results; thereby setting a stage as grim and seemingly hopeless as a bar teeming with morally opposed mice. The characters of Regan, Goneril, and Edmund are representative of evil: inherently villainous characters, blinded by ambition, void of mercy and willing to use their sight as an advantage over the blind. In contrast, King Lear, Glouster and Edgar are the representation of good: inherently noble characters who are unfortunately, initially blind to those that would seek to destroy and supplant them. The third distinct character set is Cordelia, Kent and Lear's Fool, the only characters in the play that from the start, possess both an innate goodness and the vision to recognize evil. The presence and interaction of these three distinct "visual" characterizations bolster the gravitas and hopelessness of the play's grim dramatic irony. In King Lear, Shakespeare repeatedly and effectively uses this juxtaposition of blindness and sight amongst the play's characters in order to create his darkest tragedy.
Regan, Goneril and Edmund each prey on the weakness of their respective fathers, wielding deception as a means to satiate their ruthless ambition. Aside from Edmund's realization and repentance at the play's end all three character's actions are thoroughly evil. Their lust for power blinds them from compassion, even when faced with those of their own blood. With each reprehensible action, they breed sympathy for those they wrong and forfeit any right to empathy. As villains they are easily dislikable, providing no mercy to their victims.
King Lear: Act 4, scene 6 (L. Olivier)
King Lear, Glouster and Edgar remain blind for almost the entire play, completely unaware of Regan, Goneril and Edmund's wicked motives. Only madness can ultimately allow Lear to see his mistakes and the wrongs that have been bestowed upon him. Once Lear can see, he is intent on exacting revenge on the daughters who betrayed him. For Glouster he is only afforded sight once his eyes are physically taken from him. Glouster becomes despondent, and is only delivered from suicide by the hope that his son, Edgar, provides him. Despite being surrounded by despair, Edgar is the play's sole provider of hope. Edgar remains blindly optimistic throughout the play despite the fact that for every hopeful step forward two steps backward soon follow. When faced with the deception of Edmund, Edgar offers forgiveness. In contrast to Regan, Goneril and Edmund, these three characters command respect and sympathy, further adding to the weight of the tragic closing.
The dramatic irony of King Lear, Glouster and Edgar's blindness is made all the more sympathetic because of Cordelia, Kent and the Fool's awareness. Each of these characters can see what is happening and yet they are powerless to stop it. In Cordelia's case, King Lear is blind to her heartfelt, but quiet love for him. He instead chooses to be swayed by Regan and Goneril's openly professed, yet completely dishonest love. As insanity envelops the King he begins to finally see his mistake, shedding his blindness only to have madness quickly take its place. Kent and the Fool display a devout loyalty to the king throughout the play, constantly attempting to help Lear see the truth. In these three characters Shakespeare has created a dramatic bridge for the audience to identify with, in effect thus drawing the reader closer to each sympathetic character. With each bit of advice ignored or overlooked, sense of urgency arises, until the reader has only a prayer that somehow there is still hope left.
Shakespeare adds a powerfully dark and dramatic weight to the tragedy of King Lear by repelling us from the evil that embodies Regan, Goneril and Edmund, drawing us towards the sympathetic characters of Lear, Glouster and Edgar, and allowing the audience the clarity of seeing through the cognizant, yet powerless eyes of Cordelia, Kent and the Fool. The contrasting interaction between sight and blindness, good and evil ill prepares the reader for the tragic ending. The ending comes as a violent blow; an unexpected expulsion of what little hope for resolution remained with the reader. Shakespeare's expert distinction in characterization ends King Lear on a dramatically dark note, leaving us to ponder whether there is any hope left to see.