Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, June 01, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act III On Human Blindness)

There’s an old saying that “there are none so blind as those who will not see.”  In King Lear we see examples of both physical and moral blindness.  Many of the Great Books have important things to say about blindness.  In Sophocles' play Oedipus the King (GB Series 5) it’s the blind Tiresias who sees the truth that Oedipus can’t understand.  The Thebans are suffering from a plague because they’ve offended the gods and the land is polluted with blood.  That’s because a man has murdered his father and had children by his own mother.  Oedipus is that man.  Once Oedipus finds out the truth he puts out his own eyes.  He can’t bear to see the world any longer and will spend the rest of his life in darkness.  In Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (GB Series 5) simple-hearted Felicite gradually goes blind in her old age.  Her world slowly closes in upon her and like Oedipus she too is left in darkness until at the very end a Spirit in the form of a parrot comes down to shed light upon her departure from this world; apparently to guide her on their journey back to heaven.  Henry James highlights metaphorical blindness in his story about The Beast in the Jungle (GB Series 3).  John Marcher never “sees” that it was really May Bartram he had been looking for all along.  It isn’t until the very end of the story that he finally understands he’s wasted his whole life looking for something (love) that was there all along (May).  Other Great Books readings on this theme of metaphorical blindness include Goethe’s Faust (GB Series 5).  Faust wants to “see” more of the world than books can show him.  He gets more than he bargained for when Mephistopheles appears to him first as a poodle and then as a suave gentleman.  Appearances can be deceptive and our hearts can deceive us as well as our eyes.  Henry Adams (GB Series 5) can’t “see” the point of education, at least not the way it was taught at Harvard.  In Ecclesiastes (GB Series 5) the Preacher wants to “see” what wisdom is.  He searches high and low to find it before coming to the conclusion that all is vanity.  In Kafka’s Metamorphosis (GB Series 5) Gregor’s family can’t “see” that this giant bug is still their son and brother.  They can’t “see” beyond the material and physical manifestations that have trapped Gregor in the body of a bug.  They only see what they want to see.

In King Lear we see a continuation of these themes of sight and blindness, light and darkness.  Like Oedipus, Gloucester literally loses his eyes in Act III.  Like Felicite, he literally becomes blind.  It takes a literal and physical blindness before Gloucester can confront his deeper moral blindness.  He finally “sees” that he’s been a fool: “O my follies! Then Edgar was abus’d.  Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!”  It’s harder for King Lear to come to terms with his own moral blindness.  He remains convinced that “I am a man more sinn’d against than sinning.”  It’s true that he’s been thrust out of his own home to make his way in a stormy world.  And yet wasn’t it King Lear who banished Kent and Cordelia from the kingdom in the first place?  He thrust them out of their home (the kingdom) to make their own ways in a stormy world.  A good argument could be made that Lear is just getting what’s coming to him.  He made this mess.  Now he has to live with it.  We’ve heard this story before.  Mephistopheles once appeared in the form of a serpent and said to the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  (Genesis, GB Series 1)  Ever since then we can "see" good and evil but only darkly and imperfectly.  Lear and Gloucester (and many of us) can't really see good and evil until it’s too late.  And that’s the real tragedy of human blindness.       


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