If you had to give up on one of your sensory faculties, what would it be? Sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch – take your pick. Go on.
Out of the five, I’d imagine losing my sight to be the scariest (although losing any would be a grave inconvenience).
That’s because blindness isn’t just a physical deficiency; it’s a psychological nightmare, a dystopian mission to wander in a pathless labyrinth, where one never truly knows what to expect with each step.
The ironic thing, though, is that most of us perfectly healthy souls are afflicted with ‘blindness’. It’s just not blindness in the visual sense.
The ‘blindness’ that we carry around is a cognitive sort of bias, which manifests itself in different forms when activated in different scenarios.
Bias, by the way, isn’t a negative thing per se – it’s part of human subjectivity, and therefore, an inherent trait that we all possess.
In my post on Merchant of Venice, I discuss how Shakespeare portrays racial bias through the struggle between Shylock, the Jewish usurer, and the rest of Venetian society.
In another one of his plays, King Lear, the Bard examines the ills of confirmation bias, and specifically, the dangers of giving into this sort of bias too often.
What is King Lear really about?
In this tragedy, the eponymous character fails to see true loyalty and devotion in his youngest child Cordelia, and instead falls for the flattery and sycophancy of his elder daughters Regan and Goneril.
At the start of the play, he is affronted by Cordelia’s reluctance to say that she loves him and takes for face value his other daughters’ words of affection.
He quickly sees the errors of his ways, however, as Regan and Goneril show their true colours upon usurping their father’s power.
Another character, the nobleman Gloucester, makes a similar misstep in judgement, as he buys into his illegitimate (and bitter) son Edmund’s lie about his legitimate son Edgar plotting a patricide.
What has troubled many readers over the years is the irrational promptness with which both Lear and Gloucester denounced their children. Surely, as fathers, you’d know your children’s personality well enough to know what they will or won’t say and do, right?
As with all Shakespearean drama, though, it’s important that we don’t evaluate the characters as if they were real people. They are, above all, condensed dramatic creations that offer us clearer insight into the hidden caverns of our inner selves.
To understand why we tend to fall victim to our own biases, let’s examine several key moments in this play:
- Act 1 Scene 4, when Lear explodes in anger over Goneril’s disrespect and order that he reduce his troops
- Act 3 Scene 7, when Regan and Cornwall gouge out Gloucester’s eyes to punish him for helping Lear escape to Dover
- Act 4 Scene 6, when the blind Gloucester is ‘pranked’ by his son Edgar into believing that he has miraculously survived a fall, after which the two run across a mentally deranged Lear, driven mad and sad by his own tragic follies.
Act 1 Scene 4 – With false flattery comes true colours – “Where are his eyes?”
Upon gaining power, Goneril sees no need to hide her disdain for Lear. Recognising “how full of changes [Lear’s] age is” and “what poor judgment” has overcome him, Goneril hijacks the operations of Lear’s court and cuts his retinue by half.
Naturally, the king is outraged. Once he sees Goneril for who she really is, he expresses anguished regret over having been so blind to Goneril’s wickedness and expects Regan to vindicate him.
This, of course, is a great example of dramatic irony, as the audience knows from the two sisters’ conspiring dialogue at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 that Regan will do nothing of the sort for her grossly misguided father.
In expressing his outrage over having trusted Goneril, he cries –
Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied – Ha! Waking? Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
I would learn that. For by the marks
Of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason,
I should be false persuaded I had daughters.
Lear’s reference to himself in the third person is telling: it severs Lear the character into two ‘Lears’, one with eyes and the other without.
Clarity of sight, then, is what determines a king from a dupe.
And yet, despite Lear’s attempt at externalising his misguided ‘doppleganger’, we see that king and dupe are really the same person after all.
This leveraging of third-person externalisation is reminiscent of Hamlet’s words to Laertes upon finding out Ophelia’s death in Act 5 of the eponymous play, where we see the Prince ‘bifurcating’ himself into the real ‘I’ and another ‘Hamlet’ that he wishes to distance himself from.
Lear’s string of self-interrogative questions conveys at once the remorse and indignation he feels over misplacing his trust in Goneril, but the point here is how closely he associates the ability to see clearly with a strong sense of self-identity: with no “eyes”, there is no “I”.
With no eyes, there is no ‘I’.
The problem with Lear, however, is his overweening trust in the “marks of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason” as king, when we know that kingship itself does not vaccinate one against the follies of bias and misjudgement.
Indeed, royal station tends to fuel such tendencies all the more with its natural affinity for attracting obsequiousness, which almost always clouds one’s judgment and leads to unsound decisions.
Lear is certainly right in recognising that he “should be false persuaded [he] had daughters”, but is grossly misguided in his expectation that Goneril’s waywardness will be compensated in any way by Regan’s obedience, which we soon find out is not the case.
The scene ends with the pathos of filial disappointment, as Lear chastises Goneril with the incredible grief of a father who’s been spurned –
Life and death! I am ashamed
That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus;
That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
Should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon thee!
The untented woundings of a father’s curse
Pierce every sense about thee! Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out,
And cast you, with the waters that you lose,
To temper clay.
The king, who supposes himself to be this figure of steely manhood, is reduced to tears by a daughter’s disrespect.
The merism of “Life and death!” shows the extremity in both Lear’s emotion and judgement, the latter which is the root of his sadness.
Had he tempered his disposition a little when adjudicating between Cordelia, Regan and Goneril’s love in the first Act, and took on board Kent’s advice for him to “see better”, perhaps there would be no need for “these hot tears” now.
Lear’s hyperbolic reference to “plucking out” his “old fond eyes” is also foreboding, as Gloucester, his loyal nobleman, will have his violently eyes plucked out by his other daughter, Regan (and son-in-law, Cornwall), as punishment for protecting the king.
Act 3 Scene 7 – With blindness comes insight – “Pluck out his poor old eyes”
Why is Gloucester blinded in King Lear?
In Act 3 Scene 7, Regan and Cornwall gouge out Gloucester’s eyes, enraged as they are that he had helped Lear escape ahead of their planned coup.
Gloucester, however, won’t give in to the pair’s brutal abuse without delivering a snub –
Wherefore to Dover? Let him first answer that.
I am tied to the stake, and I must stand the course.
Wherefore to Dover, sir?
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.
The sea, with such a storm as his bare head
In hell-black night endures, would have buoyed up,
And quenched the stelled fires:
Yet, poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain.
If wolves had at thy gate howled that stren time,
Thou shouldst have said ‘Good porter, turn the key,’
All cruels else subscribed: but I shall see
The winged vengeance overtake such children.
See’t shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair.
Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.
He that will think to live till he be old,
Give me some help! O cruel! O you gods!
It’s interesting that Gloucester, as a third-party witness to Lear’s downfall, should see so clearly the king’s situation but be so blind to his own. He is deeply aware of how Goneril and Regan’s evil has caused Lear great suffering, and yet remains oblivious to how Edmund’s villainy has led to his own plight.
Valiant though he is in refusing to “see thy [Regan’s] cruel nails/Pluck out [Lear’s] poor old eyes”, Gloucester must now become the scapegoat for his master’s “poor old” sight, as he sacrifices his real eyes for Lear’s lack of insight.
It’s worth paying attention to the homophones of “sea” and “see” in Gloucester’s response to Regan’s interrogation –
“Because I would not see thy cruel nails/Pluck out his poor old eyes”
“The sea, with such a storm as his bare head/In hell-black night endures,”
What is the relationship between “see” and “sea” in these lines?
The sea alluded to here is a stormy one that’s dark, turbulent, not easily navigable but easy to get lost in. In such a sea, one would be at pains to see anything clearly.
By using the sea metaphor to reinforce the severity of suffering that Regan and Co. have imposed on their father (‘you’ve conjured up a storm so great that sea waves would have risen up to extinguish the stars’ fires’), Gloucester conjures up the image of one being lost at sea, of floating without either a sense of direction or clarity of sight to re-orientate oneself onto the right path.
This sense of loss applies aptly to Lear’s situation, but also anticipates Act 3 Scene 7, when a blind Gloucester is portrayed at the spiritual nadir of his life, only to be ‘saved’ by the ‘leap of faith’ that his disowned son encourages him to take.
What’s most ironic about this scene, however, is the fact that Gloucester immediately finds out about his misjudgement of Edgar and misplacement of trust in Edmund only after he loses his sight –
All dark and comfortless. Where’s my son Edmund?
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature,
To quit this horrid act.
Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call’st on him that hates thee: it was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us;
Who is too good to pity thee.
O my follies! Then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!
One thing’s for sure: Gloucester is no sceptic. He’s so very quick to change his mind, and bizarrely trustful of whatever he’s told on the spot.
Just as he had believed in Edmund’s accusation of Edgar without batting so much as an eyelid in Act 1 Scene 2, he is similarly quick to revise his opinion of Edgar upon hearing Regan’s remarks about Edmund’s betrayal (“O my follies! Then Edgar was abused.”).
This suggests that Gloucester is as deeply distrustful about his own ability to judge as he is rashly trustful towards the words of others.
Notwithstanding his noble ranking as an earl, Gloucester is plagued with insecurity and a lack of self-conviction.
His confirmation bias, then, is rooted in a lack of belief in his own judgement. Meanwhile, his foolhardy readiness to believe in others makes him a victim to poisonous untruths.
Act 4 Scene 6 – With no eyes comes the ability to see – “I see it feelingly”
In the famous ‘Fields near Dover’ scene, a disguised Edgar pushes the limits of his blind father’s imagination by having him ‘fake’ a suicide fall. By instigating a prank miracle, Edgar demonstrates the ultimate filial gesture, one that results in redemption for an old man with a broken soul.
Unable to see anything, Gloucester is forced to rely not only on his other sensory faculties, but most importantly, on what he’s always lacked – his faith in himself.
Edgar, disguised in this scene as a peasant, guides his father on this spiritual journey by first telling him that he’s walking towards the edge of a real promontory –
Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumbered idle peddles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.
This is a vivid tableau for what, in reality, is blankness.
But Edgar’s imagination enables him to imbue the environment with depth and perspective, from which he can fake the fear and anxiety that comes with “the deficient sight” of looking from “so high”.
We see the details of one man seeming like “no bigger than his head” from the ‘height’ of where they stand, of fishermen “appear[ing] like mice”, and of the incremental zooming-out from a “tall anchoring bark/Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy/Almost too small for sight”.
Note, by the way, how the anadiplosis of “her cock; her cock” reinforces the fluidity of Edgar’s imagined perspective. These are observations which don’t just communicate the terror that comes with altitude, but also the insight that results from re-orienting one’s perspective.
From Edgar’s speech, we realise that the business of seeing isn’t a straightforward affair – depending on where one stands, one’s vantage could be radically different.
In that sense, literal blindness isn’t that much different from perfect eyesight, because the latter doesn’t entail clear inner vision or ‘truth’ (and indeed, blindness seems to be the better way to achieve this, as in Gloucester’s case).
Paradoxically, Gloucester’s fall is made blackly comic by its tragic quality. After he falls forward (and assumes himself dead), he ‘double-checks’ with Edgar whether he has really fallen (and if he really is, well, dead). In response, Edgar tells him that he has ‘survived’ a miraculous fall, and strangely enough, asks his blind father to “do but look up” –
From the dread summit of this chalky bourn.
Look up a-height; the shrill-gorged lark so far
Cannot be seen or heard: do but look up.
Alack, I have no eyes.
Is wretchedness deprived that benefit,
To end itself by death? Twas yet some comfort,
When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage,
And frustrate his proud will.
Why, despite knowing full well that his father is blind, does Edgar still tell Gloucester to “look up” – twice? Gloucester’s matter-of-fact response (“Alack, I have no eyes”) misunderstands his son’s words.
This is evident from the paradox of Edgar’s comment – “the shrill-gorged lark so far/Cannot be seen or heard: do but look up”: if the lark can’t be seen, then what is there to see if one were to look up?
Perhaps what Edgar means isn’t looking up to actually see, but rather, look up to feel – from the cock of one’s neck – the kinaesthetic awareness of still being alive.
The emphasis here isn’t on sight, but sensation, which is something that Gloucester later recognises in his response to Lear’s taunting command for him to read the letter: “I see it feelingly.”
Later, Gloucester “feels” Lear’s ruined state just by listening to the king’s raving speech –
O ruined piece of nature! This great world
Shall so wear out to nought. Dost thou know me?
I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny
at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid! I’ll not
love. Read thou this challenge; mark but the
penning of it.
Were all the letters suns, I could not see one.
I would not take this from report; it is,
And my heart breaks at it.
I see it feelingly.
What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes
with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond
justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in
thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which
is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen
a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
It is both poignant and remarkable that Lear, after experiencing the disillusionment of filial betrayal, should acquire such sharpness of insight that he so lacked at the start of the play.
Yet, the irony of his advice to “look with thine ears” is unmissable.
His tragic downfall is precisely caused by ‘looking with his ears’ – buying into Regan and Goneril’s flattering, but disingenuous, rhetoric, but not seeing the value of what he didn’t hear – Cordelia’s refusal to say that she loves him, despite the fact that she really does.
Clearly, this approach to “look with thine ears” didn’t work out too well for him.
What’s true, though, is that both Lear and Gloucester are only able to see the world for what it truly is after they lose some of their physical capabilities – the former, his sanity; the latter, his sight.
In any case, this is such a heartrending scene, and its tragic intensity is compounded by the hypothetical metaphor and internal rhyme in Gloucester’s response to Lear’s absurd request for him to read – “were all the letters suns, I could not see one”.
No amount of light, not even the strongest source in the whole of the universe, can ever revive Gloucester’s sight, and this unchangeable fact is sealed, as it were, in the static couplet of “suns/one”.
In 1667, about 60 years after the first performance of King Lear, a blind poet by the name of John Milton published an epic work about the Christological origins of man.
Titled Paradise Lost, it is the ‘backstory’ to the famous narrative of Adam and Eve’s fall.
In Book 3 of this epic poem, the poet alludes to his own blindness as the source of his deep insight into human nature and the inspiration for his ambitious ‘preface’ to the Bible:
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
With a “Celestial light” that “shine inward” in the mind, Milton is able to “see and tell/Of things invisible to mortal sight”.
And we see this played out no less poignantly in Gloucester’s case.