King Lear


William Shakespeare

Cover of William Shakespeare


I. King Lear is optimistic.

King Lear is a play as profound as it is puzzling. It seems to be uncompromising in its attitude to the nature of things. Either its last scene is a powerful continuation of the theme of self delusion or it is an intimation of immortality.
The story of Lear is the story of how a king can become a man. Every action, every word of the last scene functions as an onslaught on all fundamental negations of human dignity; and, therefore, the central thrust of the play is positive and creative.1 One of the main critical problems arises in attempting to understand the “blinding” scene, which is one of the most cruel and vicious scenes in the history of dramatic literature. Many brilliant critics have argued that the scene should be cut; that it is fit for reading only, but should never be shown on stage. Coleridge says: “I will not disguise my conviction that in this one point the tragic in this play has been urged beyond the outermost mark and ne plus ultra of the dramatic.”2 There is no doubt that the scene is cruel and vicious, but Shakespeare knew well what he was about, and has not gone over the edge in this scene. He is very much in control, and the play requires that the scene not only be left in, but that it not even be played down. All the horror and pity that is implicit in Cornwall’s blinding of Gloucester must be displayed on the stage.

1 It is in this way that Camus and Shakespeare are alike: they are both opposed to any kind of nihilistic approach to life. Nothing has meaning complains the nihilist. Life has meaning assert both Camus and Shakespeare.
2 here from Furness’Variorum Edition of King Lear, page 224.


That this scene is the central point toward which all of the “eye” imagery of the preceding acts moves is extremely clear even to the most careless reader. Gloucester is blind long before he is blinded. He learned to see only after he no longer has eyes. Shakespeare has prepared the audience carefully for this cruel scene and its meaning can only be understood in the light of the careful preparation. When Lear speaks of his “darker purpose” in the first scene of Act I, he introduces the series of references to the eyes which becomes a cluster of images supplying much of the meaning of the play. Lear, of course, means “more secret” but there is also the meaning of “darker” in the sense that it can not be seen through. When trying to heap up analogies and show the limitless boundaries of her “love” for her father, Goneril naturally turns first to the importance of the eyes, “Dearer than eyesight” she says, and although we learn not to trust Goneril we agree at the moment that nothing is more important than eyesight. Lear banishes Kent saying, “Hence, and avoid my sight.” When Kent is slow to leave he shouts: “out of my sight!” “Eyes”, “seeing”, “piercing”, “perceiving”–very few lines go by without a reference to some part of the seeing process. And every time that Lear is on stage the words of Kent echo in our minds:
See better, Lear and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye. (I.i. 158-159)
“See better, Lear”, for your sake. “See better” becomes the cry of man and the gods directed towards King Lear as he walks toward his grave in blindness and madness.
Gloucester, whose story is a sub-plot repeating and echoing the story of Lear, also talks of eyes and darkness with a frequency that is obvious. Edmund, trying to “hide” the letter, responds finally to Gloucester’s importuning “Let’s see, let’s see!” He sees the letter, of course, but it is not until he is blind that he really sees what machinations were involved in the letter and the many other actions of Edmund. Gloucester is aware only after being blinded that Edmund not Edgar is the traitor, and can finally say:

I have no way and therefore want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen,
our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. Oh, 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. 18ff)
“I stumbled when I saw”, “See better, Lear”–these become the central comments applying both to Lear and to Gloucester, and it is only after each of them realizes the sin of his “stumbling” that he can “see better”. The idea of “seeing” is summed up in this speech of Lear’s:
Does any here know me! this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notions weakens, his discernings
Are lethargies–Ha! waking? ‘tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? (I. iv. 74ff)

Lear verbalizes a poignant human question: who am I? What is the basic nature of humankind? That is what Lear must see, must discover.

A few more examples of Shakespeare’s references to “eyes” prior to the blinding of Gloucester should be sufficient to give an idea of the skill and foreshadowing that Shakespeare employed. Lear, talking to Albany after Goneril has reduced her father’s followers by half, cries:
…old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out
And cast you with the waters that you lose,
To temper clay. (I. iv. 295ff)
Albany, talking to Goneril just after Lear has gone, gives an indication that he can be trusted to see certain truths when he says:
How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell;
Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.
(I. iv. 340-1)
The fool tells us that “All who follow their noses are led by their eyes but blind men” when Lear and his party arrive at Gloucester’s castle. Lear asks the skies to attack Goneril crying: “You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding
flames fIn to her scornful eyes!”, but then decides to go with Goneril because she will allow him fifty followers instead of the twenty-five that Regan has insisted upon. He says:
I’ll go with thee.
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.
“See better, Lear”, but no, he still wants to measure love as one would measure wheat or butter. He will not see. He is still spiritually blind. Gloucester, himself, just before his eyes are pushed out of his head and stamped upon the floor, explains that he has assisted the king in making his way up to Dover:
Because I would not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs.
(III. vii.55fl)
All of these examples plus many more too numerous to list here lead inevitably to the blinding of Gloucester. Shakespeare is very conscious of the horror of that scene, and the horror is even furthered when he has a servant rise against his master, the Duke of Cornwall, because he too cannot stand the intensity of the horror elicited by the cruel blinding of Gloucester. Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan are indeed preying on human flesh and reveling in the cruelty “like monsters of the deep.” The blinding of Gloucester carries us to the extreme of human cruelty and is the stage image which represents the ultimate pessimistic comment on the human condition. Shakespeare’s optimistic statement, if as I argue there is one, must overpower this cruel and powerful stage image with a positive thrust which instead of being destructive is creative.3
Camus, in The Plague, deals with exactly the same kind of optimism in that he never gives up the belief in the value of human life including suffering, exile, and freedom. it is through Dr. Rieux in The Plague that we discover the highest moral statement of the story. Rieux tells us that men have only three things in common: love, exile and suffering. And it follows that we should lesson from each. From exile we learn freedom, from suffering comes understanding, and from love comes redemption.

II. Man and the gods.
Edmund is corrupt and he is completely aware that he is corrupt. It is because of his awareness that he can repent at the end of the play. His discussion of human weakness is lucid:
This is the excellent foppeiy of the world, that when we are sick in fortune,.,often the surfeit of our own behavior,..we make guilty of our disaster the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves and treachers, by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and
adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goutish disposition to the charge of a star! (I.ii. 112ff)
Edmund understands the propensity humankind has to blame all misfortune on the stars, on the gods, on anything but himself. His speech shows that, implies that, humans have free will and can choose good or evil. Humans are responsible–not the stars. Thus when Gloucester says: ‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind,” it is obvious that the plague of the time is caused by humans and not by the gods. Human errors, human blindness are responsible for the evil in the world, and Lear learns that to care for another human being, to be concerned for another human life is much closer to being god-like than is the authority of the crown. Mercy, love, and concern ate the lessons which Lear learns on his journey from king to man. When he gives his fool a wrap and insists that the fool go into the hovel before him, he has for the first time shown human concern for another human being. If there is anything exclusively Christian about the play one can see in an overall view, it is to be found in Lear’s development. At the beginning he is the God of the Old Testament, the powerful father figure: jealous, tyrannical, impenetrable, absolute in his power, and a bit foolish at times.4
Lear wants his daughters to sing their praises for rewards and when challenged by Cordelia’s pride and honesty takes away her reward. The Lord refused to allow Moses to enter the promised land because Moses in an angry and disgusted mood had struck a stone instead of speaking to it. They are the same sort of authority figures.

His pride is hurt by Cordelia’s insistence on honesty instead of flattery and he responds by using his authority to banish both Cordelia and Kent. As Lear is stretched out on the rack of life he responds differently. He is, by the end, no longer the powerful father figure, even though when he dies he is the king again, for now he has learned the power of love, the power of concern for his fellow human beings.5
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superfiex to them
And show the heavens more just. (III. iv. 28ff.)
Lear has become concerned, and he has also become aware of his errors, his blindness, and a powerful sense of guilt keep him from seeing his daughter even after he has arrived in Dover. Kent tells us:
A sovereign shame so elbows him; his own unkindness
That stripp’d her from his benediction, turn’d her
To foreign casualities, gave her dear rights
To his dog-hearted daughters; these things sting
His mind so venomously that burning shame
Detains him from Cordelia. (IV. iv. 43ff)
Lear knows he is guilty and asks forgiveness–an important first step in becoming a man.6
“Love” is a basic theme in Shakespeare as it is in Camus and they are not talking about possessive love. Both are asserting a responsibility to create a world where “love” and “help” are not bywords of greed and exploitation; a world of human reality, human community, human dimensions, in a world on the verge of total annihilation by socially condoned anti-human agents of destruction.
Camus is well aware of the sting of guilt man has. Since god is dead, we have no original sin, but we still have a sense of original guilt. It is the “guilt” that Freud said would become too much of a burden for 20th century humans.

Gloucester’s famous lines:
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
are often taken as Shakespeare’s final statement about the relationship between man and the gods. They are not. For one thing, Gloucester is not as strong as Lear; Gloucester attempts suicide, Lear never for a moment thinks of giving up the suffering and pain of his life. When Gloucester speaks these lines we are to remember the speech made by Edmund, for Gloucester is doing exactly what Edmund said: blaming the gods for his own human failings. Further, in the staging of the play Gloucester should deliver these lines with a gesture to the gods which would be repeated by Edgar when he gives specific answer to Gloucester’s lines later in the play. Edgar says to Edmund:
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.
This is a direct answer to Gloucester’s lines, and must be played so that there can be no doubt in the minds of the audience that Shakespeare intended it to be so. Edgar can echo the gesture of Gloucester as well as deliver the lines from the same spot on stage, so that all will know that this is the son’s answer to the father. And Shakespeare’s answer to his critics.
III. The madman and the blindman.
Immediately before Shakespeare brings the madman and the blindman together he has Gloucester attempt suicide from Dover Cliff. Gloucester has renounced the world and chosen suicide over life:
Oh you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great afifiction off;
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, oh bless him! (IV. vi. 34ff)

Gloucester is painfully aware of his mortality and wants to shake off the “affliction” of the flesh, to turn away from the suffering of the world, and to find peace in death. He is going to commit suicide because he finds the world absurd and meaningless, for to paraphrase the thought of the last four lines he can not allow his life to “burn itself out” at its given pace because he feels forced against the wall of the inflexible rule of the gods, and instead of continuing to be beaten he will submit by taking his own life. In this speech Gloucester is continuing the same line of thought that began with his speech comparing the gods to “wanton boys”. to escape from the terrors infficted by the gods he will remove himself from the arena by taking his own life.7 Edgar convinces Gloucester that he has indeed fallen from a high cliff and been protected by the gods. Edgar’s ‘Thy life’s a miracle” convinces by trickery but at the same time rings as a triumphant cry about life itself. Immediately before Lear enters dressed in wild flowers, Edgar calms his father by telling him to “Bear free and patient thoughts” and in so doing a certain calm has been established between father and son which is immediately broken by the entrance of mad Lear. Gloucester recognizes the king’s voice, but Lear, filled with his madness and bitterness thinks that Gloucester is Goneril “with a white beard”. Lear realizes at this point that he is a mortal human being and not a god and yet can still say in reply to Gloucester’s question ‘Ày, every inch a king.” Lear holds another imagined trial at this point and roils in dreadful images at the corruption of women and the evil of sex. The animal imagery used in this speech explicitly compares women to “soiled horses” and “fitchews” and condemns them as absolutely corrupt. These words tumble from the mad mind of Lear and bring down upon the heads of his two daughters the most horrible curse that a father could utter. Shakespeare has Lear give a most violent and revolting description of the evil and corruption of women to make sure that we know the power of the destructive force which is working against Lear and against mankind. The evil of the two corrupt sisters will be changed by the love of the honest Cordelia. Only by showing the violent reaction of Lear to Goneril and Regan will the power of Cordelia’s love become clear. Lear is now filled with guilt and the bitterness is boiling over in a maddening
7The idea of suicide is discussed by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus which begins, ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Camus looks at Sisyphus as the absurd hero par excellence because he scorns the gods, hates death, and has a passion for life which earns him the unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing.

In an outpour of words; he first mistook Gloucester for Goneril with a beard and now what irony as he mistakes him for blind Cupid saying:
No, do thy worst, blind Cupid; I’ll not love,
and the themes of blindness and vision become explicit in the scene. Lear finally recognizes, with some pity, that Gloucester has no eyes and in his mad logic realizes that the lack of sight is their common plight crying “Oh ho, are you there with me?” “I see it feelingly” replies Gloucester and he has indeed had to substitute the sense of touch for the sense of sight, but he also has learned by suffering that no senses are to be trusted unless they are backed human sympathy. Lear carries on this theme in his discussion of justice and authority especially in:
Through tatter’d clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say, none; I’ll able ‘em;
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
to seal th’ accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes,
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. (IV. vi. 163ff)
Sight imagery functions in this speech as it has throughout the play to support the idea that man may have eyes and not “see”, that appearances often cloud reality and must be pierced before human can be aware of their condition. Lear then offers Gloucester his eyes, and echoing Edgar’s advice to his father tells Gloucester “thou must be patient; we came crying hither” the second half of which anticipates Edgar’s “Men must endure Their going hence even as their coming hither; Ripeness is all.”8 A common consciousness is thus established between Lear and Edgar as they insist on patience, endurance, and ripeness.
“Ripeness” means a filling out to full proportions, or, in this case, to become a complete human being aware of both the potentials and limits implied by the human condition.

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Lear begins to preach a sermon to Gloucester, but is interrupted by an imagined or a real hat and he turns his thoughts back to war and violence ending his speech by yelling “Kill kill, kill, kill, kill, kill” in his infernal madness. The madman and the blindman have met and neither will be the same again. Lear’s madness has vented itself and Gloucester has learned patience, as witnessed by his first speech after Lear’s departure:
You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me;
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please. (IV. vi. 216ff)
Cordelia’s gentlemen bring Lear to her tent in the French camp after the meeting between Lear and Gloucester, and Lear’s cure is imminent.
IV. The miracle.
For a brief moment Lear and Cordelia are united in prison. The ecstatic happiness that Lear knows because of this reunion, because of, as it were, his second chance to show his love for Cordelia, is apparent in the poetry that Shakespeare gives him:
Come, let’s away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask my blessing, I’ll kneel down.
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies… (V. iii. 8ff)
Cordelia can finally soothe her poor old father in his suffering. Cordelia, who has been in the play for only two or three scenes, has been, somehow, present throughout. She is like a spirit, who has no substance (through most of the play) but is yet real. She has been in Kent’s mind, and in the Fool’s mind, and in Lear’s mind, and thus Shakespeare has not allowed us to forget her. The love that she represents–honest and real–has been in the atmosphere of the play like an electrical charge, just waiting for Lear to purge his wrath and regain his eyesight. “See better, Lear” finally happens, and Lear walks off to prison arm in arm with his daughter.

The sight imagery reaches a crescendo in the final scene. Edgar tells Albany and Edmund of Gloucester’s death and relates how he had disguised himself as a madman so that he would not be discovered. The whole notion of disguise is an echo of the pattern of sight imagery. Banished, both Kent and Edgar can serve their masters only by hiding their identity until their masters learn to see well enough so the disguises can be cast aside. Gloucester’s heart “burst smilingly” when he discovered that his son was still alive and in fact had accompanied him on his “pilgrimage”. Gloucester finds the death that he had so yearned for, but at the gods’ time and not his own.
Goneril murders Regan and commits suicide. In these actions the idea of humanity preying on itself in its evil condition is brought to its frightening conclusion. The sisters do indeed prey on each other and devour the small bit of humanity which they contain. Edmund is finally able to see the error of his ways, and attempts to do some good before dying, but his repentance comes too late and Lear comes on stage carrying the body of Cordelia.
Lear: Howl, howl, howl! Oh, you are men of stones! Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack! She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives. She’s dead as earth! Lend me a looking-glass; If that her breath will mist or stain the
stone, / Why then she Lives!
Kent: Is this the promised end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
Albany: Fall and cease. (V. iii. 258ff)
On stage, with bodies surrounding them, and Lear crying over Cordelia’s body, Kent Edgar, and Albany are that the end of the world is upon them. Albany delivers his line with an imploring cry to the heavens, calling upon them to fall and bring to an end the calamity of suffering that exists in the situation. Lear has not heard the others at all, and is still trying to find life in Cordelia. The girl whom he had banished and disowned at the beginning of the play is now the only concern he has as he struggles to keep her with him.

Lear: This feather stirs! She lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt. (V. iii. 266ff.)
At this point Lear is interrupted by Kent, who can no longer stand the pain that Lear is experiencing and cries out “0 my good Master!”. Lear cries “Prithee, away!” and Edgar explains that “‘Tis noble Kent, your friend.” Lear thinks that Edgar and Kent have interrupted him at the crucial moment; he had just seen the feather stir and now he yells at them:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her! now she’s gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! Stay a little. Ha!
and now Lear hears her speak:
What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft, Gentle and low, and excellent thing in woman. I kifl’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.
At this point the captain verifies that Lear killed Cordelia’s murderer, and Lear hears him and answers him directly. He then looks around at the other men and says to Kent: “who are you? Mine eyes are not of the best” and the sight imagery has come full circle from Kent’s “See better, Lear” to Lear’s confession that his eyes are not of the best. Kent tells Lear of his daughters’ death saying that they are desperately dead and Lear answers “Ay, so I think. A captain enters to bring the news that Edmund is dead and the characters turn away from Lear for a moment as Albany speaks. While Albany is talking Lear has moved back to Cordelia’s body and is embracing her again. Albany sees this and stops his speech with ‘oh see, see!’ and all attention is focused on Lear.
And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

Lear’s fool has been hanged as well as Cordelia. The two people whom he loved, now dead. Lear’s love for the fool had been his first unselfish act. The love and forgiveness that Cordelia had given him allowed him to become a man.
The pattern of sight imagery ends, as it began, on the lips of King Lear:
Look on her,..look,…her lips,..
Look there! Look there!
and he sees life in the death of Cordelia. His heart, too, can now “burst smilingly”, for he has learned to see.

From king to man- Lear’s journey has been difficult, but at last he has found a safe harbor.

8 thoughts on “King Lear

  1. Great essay, Bob. I think Lear is seeing things (things he wants to see) at the end and not seeing to an afterlife. But I’m not sure that I am disagreeing with you when I say that.

    The play is certainly rich with eye imagery!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed reading your essay. It helps me “see” what is going on in King Lear. I am amazed by Cordelia and Edgar’s power of forgiveness. When parents despise their children like Lear and Gloucester did, forgiveness seems impossible. In Act I both, King Lear and Gloucester show anger or despise for their own children. King Lear to Cordelia:

    Let it be so. Thy truth then be thy dower.
    For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
    The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
    By all the operation of the orbs
    From whom we do exist and cease to be—
    Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
    Propinquity, and property of blood,
    And as a stranger to my heart and me
    Hold thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
    Or he that makes his generation messes
    To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
    Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved
    As thou my sometime daughter.

    And then the way Gloucester refers to Edmund’s come into existence:

    Sir, this young fellow’s mother could, whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?

    Nasty. And yet, the play ends showing both Cordelia and Edgar defeating that hatred in the most dramatic way.

    I am not sure this often happens in real life. I hear many stories of parents and children who break up and never mend their relationship. But I am sure Shakespeare knew that. There is something for us to “see” in Cordelia and Edgar’s power of love and understanding.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for the comment, Laura. And ucsbalum.

    “King Lear is a play as profound as it is puzzling. It seems to be uncompromising in its attitude to the nature of things. Either its last scene is a powerful continuation of the theme of self delusion or it is an intimation of immortality.”

    I still agree with the first two statements. But, I wonder now about that disjunction. There may be other possibilities (he said, modestly)!

    How do you read the final Lear/Cordelia scene?
    How would your Mother read it?


    • Oh, Bob, my mom would cry. How sweet for Lear to say:

      We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
      When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
      And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
      And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
      At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
      Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
      Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
      And take upon ’s the mystery of things
      As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
      In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
      That ebb and flow by the moon.

      Wow!! My mom and I are best friends and we laugh together and we tell old tales and talk about life and philosophy. It is the best thing in the world. Lear and Cordelia in their cage being friends and flying in the world of happinness, being really free, that is Lear’s plan. But all goes to hell. It is trully pure madness.

      I said before that Cornelia’s kind of forgiveness does not seem to exist. But perhaps because of that, because it is so difficult to erase our faults, our insults, our hatred, we should be so careful with thoughts and words and actions, lest we have a tragical end and a hard awakening like Lear’s.

      I am not sure I see self-delusion in the last scene. Edgar and Edmund make peace and realice one is no more noble than the other, Lear can see the mistake he made with Kent, and as a result of all this realization there is a storm of death and sadness. As Cornelia said it:

      We are not the first
      Who with best meaning have incurred the worst.

      Even after realizing, seeing, repenting, forgiving, luck is not on their side.

      Liked by 1 person

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