08: Instructor-Graded Assignment in King Lear
2: Sight and perception in King Lear. Analyze the characters' failure to recognize one another, both physically and morally. For example, Gloucester and Lear fail to see their children as evil/virtuous; Lear fails to penetrate Kent's disguise; Gloucester does not recognize his son under various disguises. What does all this mean in the play? What does this motif contribute? The failure to recognize one another is a common motif in the play King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Some of the characters, notably King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester, so very often fail to penetrate the physical and moral disguises of other characters. At the same time, one may note that this phenomenon goes hand-in-hand with the fact that deception is also a common motif in the play. Key characters in the play disguise themselves morally to do evil and disguise themselves physically to do good deeds. The instance of misrecognition, therefore, is a two-way street wherein one end purposely deceives for the sake of personal motives. However, prompted or not, why is the other end so susceptible to such deception? Other than a convenient plot device and a means of suspending disbelief, one may also consider it from a thematic standpoint. The men who display this trait, King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester, are both old men of power. Their inability to morally and physically recognize the other characters, therefore, can be traced to the play’s themes of power and loyalty. The crux of his downfall can be traced back to the fact that King Lear is a man who prioritizes the superficial over the deeper, genuine truth. This is best seen in his belief in his older daughters and his banishment of Cordelia. Because he considers things at face value, he accepts the truth of their flattering and ultimately untrue words. How mistaken he is foreshadowed in Gonriel’s speech, in which she tell him, “I love you more than words can wield the matter; / dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty / beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” (1.1.55-57). The mention of eye-sight, which seems out of place amongst space and liberty, signifies its importance. The implication is that she would rather become blind than lose him. In a sense, this is what Lear does for his daughters. He allows himself to become blind for their sakes. On the other hand, Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him shatters this blindness. Because what he is looking for are superficial signs of affection, he cannot see the sincerity in Cordelia’s blunt speech. It is significant, therefore, that when he becomes angered by her words, he orders her “out of [his] sight” (1.1.130). Moreover, when Kent cautions him about his action, he tell the king, “See better, Lear” (1.1.14). This implies that King Lear fails to recognize the evil in his older daughters and the genuine love and goodness in his younger daughter. His reliance on the superficial, compounded by his ego, limits his perception of the truth.
Moreover, one must also think of the context of his “love test.” Whoever loved him the most would obtain his kingdom. This reward, that promise of power, is what makes the older sisters lie. One must also note that Lear himself equates the desire for this power with love for himself, suggesting that he equates himself with that power. By refusing to play the game to obtain that power, it is as if Cordelia rejects him. This is important because that power, especially considering how it relates to Lear’s ego, also contributes to Lear’s failure to recognize characters. For example, although he states that he wishes to retire and to “shake all cares and business from our age;” his insistence on keeping an entourage of a hundred men suggests that he wants to maintain a semblance of his king’s power (1.1.2). Because he has tied his identity so tightly with his power, losing every semblance of it would be as if he lost himself. It would make