The sense of sight is quite interesting in that people have a sense of control over it. Sounds exist and we can block them out or not. You are constantly feeling everything you interact with. To not smell is to avoid breathing; to not taste is to deter the intake of nourishment. Sight however is constant and yet we have the ability constantly alter our focus and intended objects of perception. We as people decide to do a quick look, a casual glance, a deep observation, or even a Luigi death stare as we will our eyes to see our surroundings. It’s no wonder why the symbolism of sight is so powerful in literature, specifically William Shakespeare’s King Lear. While the character of Gloucester is more prevalent in this theme, I wish to also analyze how the eponymous monarch also fails at perceiving the world around him.
King Lear’s trajectory as a protagonist is one that follows a reverse “rags to riches” story. At the twilight of his life, he has achieved success in all facets of his life. A warrior king who has made it to old age is rare in this time as war, betrayal, and even disease could easily cut down a ruler in his prime. This widower has found love, power, and glory and so wishes to pass on these honors down to the next generation; thus, further assuring the survival of his legacy. The problem being that Lear is blinded by the accolades of his past and fails to see possibilities of how such a transfer of power could cause more harm than good. To put it simply, Lear believes his own hype and can’t believe that Cordelia wouldn’t follow suit in the praise off he had orchestrated. Blind with rage at Cordelia’s refusal, the old King banishes her, not knowing that he has inadvertently knocked the first domino in a series of events that will spell the fall of House Lear.
Secondly, we have Gloucester, a man who has undying loyalty for his king but whose values towards his sons change at the drop of a hat. Gloucester remains stalwart to the past rulership but becomes easily confused towards the future whenever conflicting information arises. While he takes preference towards Edgar when it comes to status and legitimacy, the moment Edgar starts with his fake news tactics the title of favored son changes hands. While we as readers witness how the revelation of truth comes at the cost of his actual sight, Gloucester continues to be gullible as Edgar uses fake voices and trickery to keep him alive and well. The truth remains elusive and only two things remain constant for the Gloucester family: we must remain loyal to Lear and Edgar was the nice one all along. Both sons take advantage of this to further their own causes and implement their own visions of the future. Since their father has no foresight, he resembles Aaron Burr’s convictions of standing for nothing and falling for everything.
Both versions of sight for these characters revolve around misrepresenting the past as reflections of the future. This brings to mind how we look “forward to the future” and “back to the past” but that is not the case for the whole world. Laura Spinney reports on how the Aymara Native American group living in the Andes mountainscape see the future as behind us and the past in front of us. The logic behind it simple, we know the past, hence we have seen it; the future is unseen, hence beyond our line of sight (aka behind us). On the other hand, Anil Ananthaswamy explores how a tribe in Papua New Guinea refers to the past based on their geography. For the Yupno people, they see the world much like their island in that they see the source of life as the river and its origin lies in the top of the mountain. Hence, regardless of where they are on the island, to speak of the future revolves around referring to the coast and the past is always seen as the central mountain. Both of these perspectives in regards to the past and future can be applied to these two lords.
Lear confuses the past and future, assuming that the world as it was should continue. With each daughter’s apparent betrayal, his notions of the space-time continuum become altered and slowly unrecognizable. For Gloucester, the past remains in the origins (the mountain) of loyalty to the King and that at least one kid should love him. As murky and winding as the future may be, he looks back upon these truths to maintain some form of stability. The problem lies in that these perspectives blind towards the reality that the readers and the rest of the characters see so clearly. Kent and the Fool clearly notice that something is amiss while Goneril and Regan figure out that Edmund has sinister plans for all in his way. It is not until they lose everything that Lear and Gloucester can understand the precariousness of their situation and barely make amends for their mistakes by the end of the story. By placing their past in front of them, they were blocking their own sight of what would come to be and ultimately permit/push along their downfalls.