In William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, “King Lear,” certain characters’ flawed sense of perception allows the fundamental structures of reality to be completely turned upside-down and gives shape to the play’s holistic metaphor of a life cycle in ultimate death and rebirth. The world created for King Lear’s story is one where the idea of perception weighs heavily on every action and every move made the characters. False realities allow ostensible evil to perpetuate itself. The very fact that the play’s overarching metaphor envelopes the death and rebirth of certain perceptions symbolizes that in the world within the play, one perceives another is king.
Furthermore, within the world of “King Lear,” the instruments used to stimulate such rebirths of perception are natural and uncontrollable.
Whether it be a natural and uncontrollable physical ailment such as blindness or insanity, or something as natural as the weather, only pure naturals that are unable to be manipulated by the perpetuators of these false realities can break these false perceptions, beginning the life cycle again.
The idea of a natural stimulus only further qualifies this metaphor. Under the blanket theme of perception and the overarching interpretation of King Lear as a story of death and rebirth comes the often-used motif of vision. Sight and blindness in the literal sense, as well as the metaphorical sense, plays a large role in the greater theme of perception and helps to craft the death/rebirth metaphor of the play through the characters Lear and Gloucester.
The reader can see these themes portrayed and embodied within the two main characters withthe largest perceptual ailments: Lear and Gloucester.
The very beginnings of Lear’s false reality start to aggravate him from the start of the play. In Act 1, Scene 1 Lear divides his kingdom among his two obedient daughters, Goneril and Regan. Cordelia, the honest daughter, is banished along with the Earl of Kent for attempting to stick up for her. This instance alone perfectly portrays one of the ways in which Lear views the world. Lear speaks of Cordelia, “… with those infirmities she owes, unfriended, new-adpoted to our hate, dowered with our curse and strangered with our oath. This shows that he thinks of her to be dishonest and uses adoption and dowry imagery to further outline her ostensible betrayal. Because Lear was told he was wise from birth, his perceptions of reality are quite warped. The idea of vision appears here because Lear is unable to see Goneril and Regan for what they really are: disloyal.
He is unable to view his devoted followers, Kent and Cordelia, for what they really are as well. Ironically enough, Kent later returns to Lear in disguise and is welcomed as Lear’s new right-hand man. This is another perfect example of Lear’s false perceptions affecting his better judgment. He trusts a complete stranger and banishes a loyal friend; although, unbeknownst to him, they are one and the same. In this instance, it happens to work towards Lear’s advantage, driving him closer to rebirth. Since Lear is driven to a revival despite these false pretenses, undying loyalty and friendship are portrayed as completely natural occurrences, even if the recipient is blind to them at the time. In the very next act, the Earl of Gloucester parallels King Lear’s behavior of the first act almost exactly, showing the audience a dramatic representation of his own perceptual ailment.
Just as Lear was blind to the truth about his daughters, Gloucester is blind to the truth about his sons. In Act 2, Scene 1 Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, not only convinces the legitimate heir to flee from the castle through lies and duplicity but uses the same means to convince Gloucester to have Edgar found and murdered. In this scene, we can see that Gloucester lives in a false reality similar to Lear’s-a reality perpetrated by lies, betrayal and arguably, evil. Gloucester speaks, “O strange and fastened villain! / Would he deny this letter said he? I never got him. ” He shares the same visual ailment of blindness to the truth of his world and the true characters of others. As Lear’s loyal follower, Kent, returned in disguise to aid Lear on the road to perceptual death and rebirth, Gloucester’s loyal and loving son, Edgar, initiates the exact same process for Gloucester.
Lear and Gloucester’s physical manifestations of their inner ailments differ; as do the means their loving counterparts used to ‘take them to the edge and back,’ but they both do reach the end of their false reality. Nature, backed by love and tragedy, crack their perceptions wide open come the middle of the play. In Act 3, Lear begins to descend much further into insanity. As he is kicked out of both Goneril and Regan’s castles, he flees into a tremendous storm with his fool in a fit of absolute rage. As the storm progresses in Act 3, Lear grows more and more insane. The raging tempest here mirrors the state of Lear’s mind and the turmoil his life has become since he has given away his kingdom and crown to his treacherous daughters. His flaw in perception has simply cost him too much.
Lear screams, “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts, spout till you have drenched our steeples drowned the/ cocks… Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once that makes ingrateful man. ” In this passage, using incredibly natural imagery Lear almost personifies his inner battle by challenging the storm itself. Lear’s own insanity and the tempest outside are the naturals that bring his perceptions to a breaking point. As this shattered man becomes madder and madder, he continues to beckon the storm to give him its best shot. He is then led to a hovel by Kent and later to a safe house by Gloucester who, sinking further into his own false reality by trusting Edmund with pertinent information, helps to remove Lear from his respective false reality. Gloucester tells Edgar (disguised as poor Tom) to remove Lear from the situation and take him to the French camp in Dover to be with Cordelia.
In Scene 4, Lear’s madness progresses as he comes closer and closer to his own perceptual rebirth as he exclaims, “Thuo think’st much that this contentious storm/ invades us to the skin. So ’tis thee. But where the greater malady is fixed, the lesser scarce is felt and, “O, that way madness lies. Let me shut that; No more of that. ” He then removes himself from the safe shelter that his loyal friends Kent and Gloucester have found for him and tears the clothes off of his body screaming, ” Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated/ man is no more but such a poor, bare,/ forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!; Come, unbutton here. ” He then rages through the storm alone and completely naked, defying the elements. Meanwhile, a war is brooding between England and France; Lear’s loyal Cordelia is wed to France’s King who plans to invade England shortly. In Act 3, Lear has finally reached his perceptual death and rebirth.
As the storm represents his inner mind, he literally battles it bare to the skin. He faces his own demons and puts himself on the edge of death at the hands of nature itself. Lear reverts himself to an almost too obvious metaphor for a man reborn as he strips naked and thunders against his personal evils as he realized himself earlier “A man more sinned against than sinning. As he finishes waging this individualist’s war, it is made symbolically known that his false reality has been cracked by nature and his perception has died and is being reborn while Edgar carries him to Dover. Edgar, in this play, represents a normative figure – a figure of love and loyalty that is represented in the world of the play as something natural. Lear rests in the arms of such a character and is carried to the city of Dover, the literal edge of England, looking out onto the ocean. At these natural boundaries, they have reached the metaphorical edge of sanity and where they will both begin again.
The journey continues to bring Lear to Cordelia, the figure of honesty and forgiveness in the play, who is also the representation of the edge of truth and the possibility for new life. In Act 3, Scene 6 Lear, in his incredible madness, puts Goneril and Regan on trial in his mind for their outrageous betrayal, showing an acceptance of a very sane truth, albeit taking an insane road to get there. But, in Lear’s world, the natural ailment of insanity is part of the means that breaks the somewhat unnatural false reality he’d been living in, perpetuated by the warped perceptions of his surroundings. At the end of Act Three, Lear can see again. In Edgar’s arms en route to Dover, he can truly see that what is happening is real, and he understands the reasons for these occurrences. Lear exclaims, “…
Draw the curtains. So, so, we’ll go to supper I’ th’ morning. ” Here he validates the end of a scene, so to speak, as his own battle has ended. In Act Four, the motif of vision and sight shape the theme of perception an incredible level through the characters Gloucester and Edgar. The idea of perception helping to make the overall theme of death and rebirth in the play is extremely apparent in act 4, scene 6. Earlier in the act, Gloucester is literally blinded by the Duke of Cornwall, Goneril and Regan at the orders of his son, Edmund for his ‘treason’ in helping Lear. These are some of the same people who had kept Gloucester figuratively blind to truth and reality for so long through intangible treachery. Now that Gloucester is physically blind, he stumbles upon Edgar (disguised as poor Tom) who agrees to lead Gloucester to a Dover cliff where he will jump to his death.
Here, Edgar plays with his father’s perceptions to no end, to trick him into thinking he is jumping off of the cliff when they are actually on flat ground. . In this scene we see Edgar completely toying with Gloucester’s perceptions as he says, “You’re much deceived; in nothing am I changed but in my garments. ” He convinces Gloucester they are on a hill by telling him they are laboring, and blaming his literal blindness for the deafening of his hearing to the ocean roaring below. Then between lines 15 and 30 he describes the buoy out in the distance, the fisherman as small as an ant and an image of being above the seagulls. Edgar is using all natural imagery in this scene to coax his father into a perceived suicide in order to cure him from his despair. This scene uses a literal perceptual death as Edgar leads his father up to a natural, perceived cliff that doesn’t really exist (mirroring his false realities as they were) and letting him believe he has jumped off of it when he keels over on flat ground.
At the bottom of this perceived cliff Edgar (in a new disguise) makes him believe that poor Tom was a demon, and the only way he could have survived that fall was through divine intervention by saying, “… Think that the clearest gods, who make them honors/ of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee. ” He again, then, goes through a manipulating description of the cliff and birds above, all natural images, to bring his father to cure for the time being. There is nothing more natural in life than death, so as Edgar uses the perceptual suicide to attempt to cure his father from his false realities and despair, it further proliferates the idea of only pure elements of life are strong enough to start the metaphoric life cycle in motion.
Lear and Gloucester have now been effectively reborn and completed their own perceptual life cycles that help to build the play’s main death and rebirth: a societal rebirth. Now Lear waxes philosophically in Act 4, Scene 6, speaking more sanely and with more realism than anyone else, anywhere else in the play. “A man may see how this world/ goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how/ yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. ” He then goes to oscillate almost haphazardly between images of life and death including an actual image of lamenting birth to come to this ‘great stage of fools. This is intriguing because, although it is at the height of his madness, it is after his proposed rebirth and in a rational mind an ailment such as insanity should ostensibly distort reality and perception. Yet, in Lear’s case, the effect is exactly the opposite. Gloucester too, now completely blind, sees the world ‘feelingly. ‘
Just as Lear, he sees and understands more than he ever has and more than most/all other characters in the play. In Act Five of the play, the life cycle(s) is completed on many different levels. Lear has already been reunited with Cordelia, the heavenly figure of forgiveness in the play. Gloucester dies effectively of a ‘broken heart’ as he is torn between joy and grief after learning and accepting ‘his sorrows’ in Act 4 as his personal life cycle comes to a close. Lear and Cordelia are incarcerated after the battle with France ends and Cordelia dies first. Then, as the Duke of Albany is making plans to restore order to the Kingdom, Lear himself dies as his personal life cycle has ended. The only surviving characters are Kent, Edgar, and the Duke of Albany. The Duke of Albany survives as the one normative, pseudo-monarchical character to act as the political figure in the ‘new world. ‘
Hence, a completely new society is birthed as the story of Lear comes to a close. Kent and Edgar, the catalysts for Lear and Gloucester’s perceptual rebirths further the connection between sight and perception in the play by utilizing false visual pretenses. Yet they remain the loyal, honorable figures of the play, and manage to survive. Their survival symbolizes and edifies the idea that perception in any vein shapes the larger themes in life, death, and rebirth. The interesting thing about the overarching, societal life cycle at work in this play is that it really does circumvent. By the end of the play, the entire social structure of Lear’s world evaporates and a new foundation is born to take its place. The catalyst for the societal and overriding rebirth of the play is not only perception embodied by two of the main characters, but the war between France and England.
The fact that the impending war is a major motif of action entwining with and inflicting on the general theme of perception is something that breeds thought. The correspondence of letters between treacherous parties ultimately falling into the ‘wrong hands’ proves to be either major proliferators or ultimate destroyers of certain character’s false realities. The use of the war as a device in the play is incredibly fascinating because it even overarches the theme of perception because war itself can change perception. This fact leads me to conclude that the author may have seen war as something as inevitable within peace as death is within life. As individual characters have their own perceptual rebirths, the catalysts being completely natural, the political society and the world of Lear also had its rebirth with its catalyst being not only a shine of reality, but also the absolute war between France and England.
Thus, war is portrayed not only as an inevitability in the cycle, but also as an incredibly natural piece of reality. War is shown to change perception and shed light where darkness lies and to stimulate the societal cycle of a complete rebirth of values, ethics and politics. The idea of literal and metaphorical vision and sight in terms of perception helps to absolutely shape the overarching death/rebirth metaphor at work in “King Lear” as we can see by exploring the language within the text itself. Through Lear and Gloucester’s characters we see how literal sight coincides with metaphorical sight and how their individual perceptions alter in co ordinance with their individual rebirths.
We also see how they, in turn, play a significant role in the ultimate death and rebirth of society and the world created within the play itself. The idea of war, battle, and correspondence plays a large role in shaping the play’s overall metaphor as well, but those themes also overlap with the larger theme of one’s perceptions and false realities along with the idea that only pure naturals yield the power to change these perceptions or crack the aforementioned false realities. King Lear,” as a play, explores many aspects of the human mind, and, as it could be argued to be Shakespeare’s most perceptually based work it is way ahead of its time.
Although one might literally be able to see what is apparent, directly in front of their eyes, they may falter in seeing truth in a situation, and as seen through Gloucester’s rebirth, this idea works both ways. The play as a whole makes the idea of perception an extremely important one as it is the thread that connects motif to metaphor in more than one sense. The society within the play can be seen as almost allegorical, or at least bearing some connection to the reality we live in as it is quite cyclic. The fact that these seemingly cyclical motifs within the play help to shape the overall metaphor of a cycle itself, whatever it may be, may lead the reader to look at the cycles in his or her own life and to see the overriding truth that seeps out of William Shakespeare’s, “King Lear. “