King Lear

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Blindness and Insight Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in King Lear, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon

The tragic errors that King Lear and Gloucester make in misjudging their children constitute a form of figurative blindness—a lack of insight into the true characters of those around them. Reminding the audience of this fact, the language of the play resounds with references to eyes and seeing from the very beginning. Cornwall and Regan make these images and metaphors of (failed) vision brutally literal when they blind Gloucester in 3.7. For the remainder of the play, Gloucester serves as a kind of walking reminder of the tragic errors of blindness that he and Lear have committed. Yet, Gloucester's greater insight into the character of his two sons after he is blinded reflects an irony: literal blindness ironically produces insight. Only when Gloucester is blind can he see things for what they are.

Throughout the play, characters allude to, and call upon, the gods and the heavens watching over them. As noted above, the gods and heavens suggest order and eventual justice. However, as watchers of the action of the play, the gods also become a kind of audience, and like the audience they both see the story of what is happening more completely than the individual characters on stage and can't seem to do anything to stop it.

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Blindness and Insight Quotes in King Lear

Below you will find the important quotes in King Lear related to the theme of Blindness and Insight.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
"I want that glib and oily art
To speak and purpose not."
Related Characters: Cordelia (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.258-259
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear announces to France and Burgundy that Cordelia has lost her dowry. Pleading, she observes that she is unskilled at the flattery practiced by her sisters.

Though contemporary readers might interpret “I want” here to mean that Cordelia desires the art of speech, in Shakespearean English it means something closer to “I lack.” This distinction is relevant to making sense of Cordelia’s character: she does not wish to abandon her principles, but rather affirms that she cannot deviate from them. Describing speech as “glib” highlights how it is superficial and insincere, while “oily” connotes a slimy or over-flattering type of language. Though she does not directly criticize her sisters, Cordelia implies that their language is “glib and oily” in a way that hers cannot be. Intriguingly, Cordelia’s words are themselves quite eloquent here. They may not be obsequious, but they are concise and effective—thus showing that she possesses linguistic skill, but simply not the art of flattery.

More broadly, Cordelia differentiates between speech and intention when she juxtaposes “to speak” with “purpose not.” Unlike Lear, who assumes that the “nothing” of her speech implies a “nothing” of emotional attachment, Cordelia is able to recognize the difference between words and things. This insight, however, does not necessarily aid her in the play—for while it may grant her an effective moral compass, it also denies her inheritance and leaves her open to others’ manipulative behaviors.

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"Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself."
Related Characters: Regan (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.1.339-340
Explanation and Analysis:

As Scene One draws to a close, Regan and Goneril discuss their father’s dwindling mental capacities. Here, Regan comments that this is no new development, for Lear has historically lacked personal insight.

This conversation predicts the way Regan and Goneril will deny their father’s authority and install themselves with increasing power over him. To do so, however, they must justify their actions not only to others but also to themselves. One of their main strategies to do so is to take aim at Lear’s old age—and to argue that he is unfit to rule or even make personal decisions. Here, Regan takes an even more aggressive tactic, to note that Lear’s mental decline is in fact characteristic of his more general sensibility. That he has “but slenderly known himself” at any point in his life would imply that his commands cannot be trusted to conform to his actual wishes and desires.

More than a manipulative tactic, however, this sentence introduces the theme of introspection and self-knowledge. This question predominates King Lear, as many of the characters battle to harness their emotions and to make rational decisions that correlate with their actual needs. Regan’s point here is to take the example of aging and extrapolate it to a broader phenomenon: how many lack the thoughtfulness necessary to identify their wishes and inner nature.

Act 3, scene 7 Quotes
"Out, vile jelly!"
Related Characters: Cornwall (speaker), Gloucester
Page Number: 3.7.101
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester helps Lear escape, Goneril demands that his eyes be removed. Cornwall makes this odd pronouncement as he follows her order.

This command speaks to the evil inherent in Cornwall and Goneril’s characters. Despite Gloucester’s genuine intentions, Cornwall and Goneril not only torture and punish him but also verbally ridicule him as they do so. “Jelly” refers, here, to the physical substance of Gloucester’s eye, so Cornwall has claimed it is “vile” because of Gloucester’s misdeeds. In a sense to call his eyesight vile is correct, for Gloucester has repeatedly been blind to the behaviors of Edgar and Edmund—first metaphorically for believing that Edgar was plotting against him, and then literally for not being able to recognize Edgar as Poor Tom. Yet calling Gloucester “vile” is also highly ironic on Cornwall’s part, considering that his very action in the moment is even more despicable. Shakespeare thus presents a cycle of violence and retribution, in which metaphorical blindness becomes increasingly literal—but in which the agents of poetic justice are themselves even more hateful than those they're punishing.

Act 4, scene 6 Quotes
"How fearful
And dizzy tis to cast one's eyes so low!
[…]
I'll look no more
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong."
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker), Gloucester
Page Number: 4.6.16-29
Explanation and Analysis:

Edgar wonders how to help his father in his current decrepit state. He pretends, here, to be overlooking an enormous cliff, hoping that Gloucester will ask to be hurled off it.

The full effect of this passage is difficult to imagine without the image of the flat stage, but it comes off as somewhat farcical in an actual performance. Choosing words like “fearful” and “dizzy” to describe a flat stage would seem humorous and would allow the audience to comprehend better the metaphorical and literal blindness that is essential to this tragedy. And Edgar’s repeated references to vision—“cast one’s eyes so low” and “deficient sight”—make the irony of the scene entirely evident to the audience. The passage is, however, more than a humorous aside. It also transforms blindness into an odd asset for Gloucester. Edgar is able to set up a fake cliff for Gloucester, where he believes he has attempted to commit suicide and been saved by a miracle. Edgar thus harnesses the very quality in Gloucester that caused him to be treated so terribly—his blindness—and instead turns it into an opportunity for redemption.

Act 5, scene 3 Quotes
"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 5.3.308-310
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Edmund sends a messenger to halt his plans to kill Cordelia and Lear, Lear enters with his daughter’s body. He exclaims these lines of intense remorse.

Though Lear’s language has become increasingly difficult to parse, it continues to hold meaning if examined carefully. Lear’s invocation—“Howl, Howl, Howl”—recalls his earlier expressions during the storm. Here, he mimics the environmental sounds, becoming himself an expression of natural catastrophe rather than of rational human logic. Calling others “men of stones” implies that he finds them emotionless and cold in the face of the catastrophe he has witnessed. As a result, Lear finds their verbal responses lacking.

In particular, he wishes he possessed their “tongues and eyes” because he could speak and see with greater vigor the horror of his daughter’s death. That Lear demands the senses of others is particularly evocative considering the role that blindness and insanity have played in the work: even as he descends into a lack of proper sensation, he demands the sensory capacities of others. His goal would be “that heaven’s vault should crack,” which develops the previous imagery of celestial bodies. Here Lear implies that something could “crack” or change course in the pre-destined role of the heavens were he given sufficient power—a point that notably deviates from his earlier adherence to fate and the heavens. Thus in Lear’s more remorseful moments, he both imitates and seeks to overcome the power of nature, all while demanding that the other unmoved humans grant him their sensations.