Sunday, August 28, 2011

William Shakespeare, King Lear (1607)

The most powerful of human senses is vision. For this reason, it is perhaps not surprising that that some of the most powerful stories of the human condition conceived by human storytellers involve tales of blindness. King Lear is such a story.

Ironically, one of the greatest fictional stories of the human condition -- the Genesis story (chs. 1-3) --- connects The Fall, not to blindness, but to sightedness. As Robert Alter explains in his translation of Genesis, succumbing to desire and "lust," the primordial humans, Adam and Eve, ate the fruit of a tree ('that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at") in the Garden of Eden, "[a]nd the eyes of the two [Adam and Eve] were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and they made themselves loincloths." Through sightedness, they acquired knowledge: by the word of the serpent, knowledge of good and evil. But that is not the entire story. Sightedness is a consequence of failing to observe a god's commandment ("You shall not eat from it, and you shall not touch it lest you die.") With their condition of sightedness, Adam and Eve are expelled from a world of perfection and forced to till the soil to survive in a world of imperfection and scarce resources. Generations of jealousy, murder, and deception ensue. Hence, The Fall.

King Lear flips the Genesis story. Lear is, like much of mankind, fallen. Among his catalogue of failings, he solicits flattery. One who flatters offers insincere praise. One who solicits flattery is arguably involved in a pleasing form of self-deception. And self-deception is a form of blindness, the condition of which Lear suffers. Soliciting flattery from his two eldest daughters, Lear is pleased, and rewards them with a share of his kingdom as he prepares to withdraw from ruling. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, offers him only a sincere expression of her undying love, but not flattery. Lear cannot see her genuine love. Because of Lear's blindness, Cordelia is expelled from Lear's kingdom and flees to France. We have Genesis inverted: Man expelled from god's kingdom because he failed to observe the commandment of a "superior" and consequently, he "sees"; generations of deception ensue his failure to please his superior; by contrast, in Lear, we have a man who controls a human kingdom suffers a blinding, deceptive condition in the form of self-flattery, and expels his daughter, who seems wiser in her young years than her elder father, from his kingdom because she fails to please her father.

The Earl of Kent endeavors to salvage the relationship before it is too late, but Lear tells Kent, "Out of my sight," and Kent responds, "See better Lear, and let me still remain the true blank of thine eye." But Lear cannot distinguish genuine love from insincere forms of adulation. Oblivious to the conspiracy of his family and others around him, murder and suicide follow. In Genesis, blindness is a blessing; in King Lear, it is a curse.

The parallel story within the story of the Earl of Gloucester features a father who cares for his bastard son and is deceived by his true son, Edmund, to believe that the bastard Edgar is out to kill him. Gloucester takes up the cause of Lear and is declared a traitor by Lear's eldest daughters and their husbands. One husband, the Duke of Cornwall, gouges out both of Gloucester's eyes, leaving him completely blind. Where King Lear is the blind victim of self-deception, Gloucester is the blind victim of another's deception.

For both of these "blind" elders, Shakespeare awakens them with their other senses. Gloucester is offered assistance by a man who has been a tenant on his properties. Gloucester rejects the aid, and the tenant explains, "You cannot see your way." Gloucester replies, "I have no way and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw." We never heard a similar admission from Adam in Genesis. Remorseful that he mistakenly believed his bastard son Edgar intended him harm, Gloucester adds, "O dear son Edgar, the food of thy abused father's wrath! Might I but live to see in thy touch, I'd say I had eyes again."

Lear later says to Gloucester, "Read," and Gloucester responds, "With the case of eyes?." Lear: "Oho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light, yet you see how this world goes." Gloucester: "I see it feelingly." Lear: "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. . . . Get these glass eyes, And like a scurvy politician seem to see things thou dost not."

Sightedness leads the human condition to blindness, and to recover, survive and find justice we are compelled to rely on other senses -- touch, hearing, and feeling. Despite our blindness, we can still "see how this world goes." Gloucester dies, as do Lear's daughters, including Cordelia, one son-in-law, Cornwall, and Gloucester's son Edmund, and ultimately Lear succumbs. The survivors include Gloucester's bastard son Edgar, and the Earl of Kent, who successfully concealed himself from Lear and others in order to survive. There is no happy resolution here, but the decent characters who suffered not from blindness or self-deception do live to tell the tale.

So which is an affliction: sightedness or blindness? In Jose Saramago's novel Blindness, it is blindness that is an affliction and it is sightedness that is able influence justice and offer hope. The answer to the question will depend on the story an author wants to tell. For Shakespeare, blindness is likewise the affliction, but it is our other senses that enable us to see when our sight cannot. It should be no surprise that our greatest stories revolve around an appreciation and explication of the senses and feelings, which are at the core of our self. (See April 8, 2011 post (Damasio) and February 27, 2011 post (Hume)).

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