Written for the University of South Florida, December, 2017
Lear is a unique play amongst other Shakespearean classics due to the fact that it addresses impairment through the medical aspect unlike other tragedies such as Hamlet and Richard III where the cultural and social aspect in treatment of Hamlet and Richard are stressed. As such, I will be examining blindness and loss of sight in Gloucester through the medical approach whilst talking about the loss of mind in Lear as both these two conditions, the losing of the sight and the psyche can result from old age.
Right from the start, Gloucester shows signs of loss of ability to see things rationally. For example, he is unable to notice Edmund’s true character, i.e a self serving personality who eventually decides to overthrow him and Edgar. Moreover, in Act 3, Gloucester’s loss of sight reaches its crescendo when Shakespeare decides to literally blind him. As such, in Performing Blindness, Chess contends that although blindness is used symbolically to convey ideas and messages, it is also monumentally vital to comprehend blindness as a real life practical and medical experience that it really is. In Lear, Gloucester’s blindness is not only indicative of his inability to see Edgar as the noble son and Edmund for the villain he is, but more importantly it is an experience of inconvenience that impairs him to perform daily actions such as walking, “let him smell his way to Dover” (3.7) indicating that Gloucester, instead of seeing, must smell his way. The blindness also causes immense discomfort and pain “All dark and comfortless!” (3.7.104). Similarly, Shakespeare is brilliant in making Gloucester blind, (who, by the way has lost his sight long before losing his eyes) one amongst the only two leading old characters in the play. By doing this, he alludes to the universal fact that the loss of sight in Gloucester results not only because his eyes have been literally gouged out, but also because he is now old and like Lear, is quite unable to differentiate between right and wrong.
Furthermore, Chess in approaching blindness through the medical aspect provides us with a blind individual called Isaac who is helped by Mido to navigate in the real world. Mido like Edgar, not only acts as a guide, but also makes the previously disadvantaged life of Isaac (Gloucester from Lear) more convenient and functioning. In fact, Shakespeare affirms Chess’s claim that those suffering from blindness are not doomed to live in darkness as they are often portrayed in metaphorical texts. That is why; Gloucester is saved by Edgar’s guidance whilst he dies not from blindness, but from the shock of knowing the true identity of Edgar. In addition, Chess also contends that the loss of sight is something that everyone experiences at varying degrees as they age just like Gloucester from Lear who unfortunately has lost sight, both from the inside and the outside.
Moving on, there is no argument in which we mention Gloucester without talking about Lear as both of their impairments result from them nearing old age. Bali in Mechanics of Madness in Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear affirms, “Lear’s mind begins to fail with age is apparent in the first scene itself wherein he lets his emotions simply overrule his reason” (89). In Act 1, scene 1, Lear by deciding to split his kingdom amongst his daughters in return for them to prove their love,“Tell me, my daughters/Which of you shall we say doth love us most” (11), depicts signs of an unstable mind that reaches its crescendo at Dover where he completely loses his mind and blames Poor Tom, “Has his daughters brought him to this pass?/ Death traitor!” (3.4 139). Moreover, actors like Sir Ian Mckellen who portrays Lear confirms his unstable psyche that worsens with age. Sir Mckellen states that playing a forgetful and remorseful Lear proved easy due to the fact that he himself was at an age in which it was ordinary for people to experience and suffer from those sorts of emotions (“Shakespeare Uncovered”).
In parallel with the medical aspect, Lear’s madness although initially resulting from old age is catalyzed by the physical strain and stress that he partakes in. For example, the short tempered and old Lear makes an arduous journey on a cold night to only witness an unforeseen event in which both his daughters, Regan and Goneril refuses to talk to him, “Deny to speak with me? They are sick? They are weary?” (2.4.103). This leaves him with a sense of mental and physical exhaustion that results in his total meltdown compared to the pretend madness of Edgar (Bali, 90). Therefore, in this manner, Lear’s unstable psyche just like Gloucester’s blindness are not only merely metaphorical representations of loss of judgment with old age, but also physical experiences that the two undergo as the play advances.
Thus, it is here in King Lear as Synder from the modern perspective writes, “And indeed, when we turn our attention to Lear and Gloucester at the very center of the dramatic action, the forces that propel these characters to Dover seen more comprehensible than willed” (294). It is through Lear and Gloucester that Shakespeare miraculously depicts the medical aspect of the loss of sight and the psyche, both resulting from old age, physical trauma and stress that ultimately reaches its climax at Dover.
Bali, Shweta. “Mechanics of Madness in Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.” The IUP Journal of English Studies, 4th ser., vol. IX, 2014, pp. 8291. Internet Resource
Hobgood, A. P. & Wood, D. H..Recovering Disability in Early Modern England. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2013. Project MUSE, “Shakespeare Uncovered.” Directed by Nicola Stockley. King Lear with Christopher Plummer, produced by Nicola Stockley, PBS, 2015. PBS, www.pbs.org/videshakespeareuncoveredkinglearchristopherplummer/. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
“Shakespeare Uncovered.” Directed by Nicola Stockley. King Lear with Christopher Plummer, produced by Nicola Stockley, PBS, 2015. PBS, www.pbs.org/videshakespeareuncoveredkinglearchristopherplummer/. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear . Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015. Print