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An Insight Into The Consciuosness Of King Lear Essay, Research Paper

The images of sight given, taken, or abused resonate deeply in King Lear from Kent’s first imperative, “See better, Lear” (I.i.158), to the painful images of a stumbling, eyeless Gloucester. Such imagery, drawn both dramatically and verbally, illustrates well the theme of consciousness. Consciousness in this play refers to seeing the world without through the lens of the world within. The success of King Lear as a satisfying tragedy relies on this issue of consciousness. This theme is most potently manifest in the play through the classic inversion of sight and blindness: paradoxically, those with healthy and normal eyes see both a self and world distorted while only those who have been robbed of their sight physically, like Gloucester, or metaphorically, like Lear, can apprehend their truer nature.

In the play’s initial scenes we behold Lear as a vain old man, motivated by a desire for necessary dependents while refusing to yield his own independence. Two of his daughters, keenly aware of their father’s desires, acquiesce to his designs and play up to his increasing insecurity. Cordelia, the third, youngest, and favorite daughter, refuses to make her love a show and denies her father the cruel pleasure of seeing her bend to his warped will. Her love, more true than either of her elder sisters’, is ignored. Lear cannot appreciate Cordelia’s candor for what it is. Instead of realizing her pure devotion, he casts her from his house, his fracturing sense of self precluding his better apprehension.

Kent, Lear’s chief lieutenant, immediately recognizes his chief’s grave error. Undeterred by Lear’s growing anger, Kent proceeds to call his master to task, saying, “See better, Lear; and let me still remain/ The true blank of thine eye” (I.i.170-171). Kent perceives the pure love underlying Cordelia’s seemingly rude front, and in asking Lear to “see better,” implores his master to look beyond his own pride and inner weakness to the true intention of his most honest daughter. Lear, still bound by monarchical arrogance, pays no heed to Kent and dismisses him from service. Sightless with eyes, Lear’s only path towards consciousness of own condition and the true motives of others is through his metaphorical blinding, which, as we shall see, is effected by gradual disintegration of his decaying inner self.

The thematization of sight and blindness is underscored by the parallel plot of the family Gloucester. The Earl of Gloucester, like Lear, is aged and insecure about his position. He is threatened by the prospect of his own superfluity and is easy prey for his son, Edgar’s, deception. In this way he is blind to the true nature of his children. Gloucester, as we see, pays dearly for this sightlessness, losing his physical sight before becoming conscious of his own wrongs.

Lear’s tragic descent into blindness begins shortly after abdicating his sovereignty. As early as Act I Scene 4, Lear becomes disoriented, questioning his own identity in terms of sight. “Doth any here know me? This is not Lear/ Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? where are his eyes?” (I.iv.201-202). Lear is no longer sure who inhabits his body, masquerading in his trappings. He is losing the ability to see out the same set of eyes that he utilized in the opening scene. His shell appears similar, but his place in his environment is indisputably different. Lear, as he conceives of himself, would never be treated as his daughters have in fact treated him. This separation of selves, the distinction between different layers of being, is the first step toward both his greater awareness of self and social context?the redeeming consciousness to which Lear must in the end come.

This displacement comes to a climax in Act III as Lear is let loose to wander the barren heath in the night. Torn from the self-preserving dominance of this former position, Lear is left not only as a physical wanderer but as a psychic one as well. His psyche, so long bound up with the authority of kingship and fatherhood, has become untethered. Lear’s wandering across the wasteland of the harsh English landscape is representative of his travail across the flat and desolate contours of his own mind. He has fallen into a tortuous dream, lost and alone in his own psyche; his blindness to reality has brought about his lapse into unconscious madness. To be redeemed Lear must awaken from the nightmare of his unconscious and discover a new apparatus of sight.

We see the beginnings of this reconstruction in Lear’s interactions with the disguised Edgar. Pondering the pitiful figure of Edgar, Lear announces, “Thou art the thing itself; unaccomodated man is no more but a poor, bare, forked animal as though art” (III.iv.98-100). With this pivotal epiphany Lear begins to replace his own self conception with a more genuinely human and alternative. Lear, in this state, is unaccomodated: he has lost his position, the love of his daughters, and at this point, even clothes and shelter. He is Tom O’Bedlam. He is the Fool. In becoming conscious of Edgar’s condition and its similarity to his own, Lear opens the way to a new self-consciousness.

Gloucester’s own descent into blindness occurs more precipitously. Not until the end of Act III does Gloucester ever question his understanding of the events around him. It is only when Regan tells him that Edmund has betrayed him does his world shatter. Fittingly, this realization occurs just as Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out by Cornwall and Regan. The one immutable fact on which he had based his entire conduct during the first half of the play is revealed as a lie. This awakening, though, comes too late, as his former blindness to the truth is literalized in physical terms.

Gloucester’s immediate move is to despair. He curses the gods and their open malevolence, declaring “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for sport” (IV.i.37-38). He can conceive of no other course but to wallow in self pity. He makes no efforts to reconstruct himself and “see” again. In fact, Gloucester begs for death. He pays an unknown man, his son Edgar in disguise, to take him to the cliffs of Dover so that he can cast himself into the sea. Edgar’s behavior here is very interesting. He says in an aside, “Why I do trifle thus with his despair/ Is done to cure it” (IV.vi.34-35). He evidently sees the suicidal charade as an attempt to cure his father’s most desperate malaise. The substance of this act is to renew Gloucester’s inner sense of worth and revive his consciousness.

After Gloucester’s meeting with Edgar, Shakespeare provides us with one of his most pathetic scenes: the mad King Lear meeting the blind Earl of Gloucester. The exchange between these two displaced patriarchs speaks directly to the relation between sight and consciousness.

LEAR: Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light. Yet you see

see how the world goes.

GLOUCESTER: I see it feelingly.

LEAR: What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.


Lear, having himself traveled from metaphorical blindness into limited sight, works to share this realization with his old friend. The clarity of normal vision moves us to complacency and delusion; true awareness of ourselves and others can only be achieved when reliance on convention and unimpeachable authority is removed. Lear has learned this at last, but this will not save him from final tragedy.

The theme of consciousness, illustrated dramatically through the sight and blindness of Lear and Gloucester, provides King Lear its tragic significance. Lear, as tragic hero, begins the play blind to the truth of his own condition and those around him. Only through his fantastic fall into madness does he find a conception of self and the world that awakens him to consciousness. Gloucester’s parallel move toward consciousness uniquely contextualizes this theme and provides the analog of physical blindness through which Lear’s own metaphorical blindness can be better understood.

In Elizabethan times, the role of a fool, or court jester, was to professionally entertain others, specifically the king. In essence, fools were paid to make mistakes. Many of the fool’s quips and riddles were made at the expense of the king. The “all-licensed” fool was able to get away with this due to his position (1.4.191). By using the character of the Fool in King Lear, Shakespeare intends to illustrate the imperfections in human nature by showing that all humans can be guilty of folly. He portrays this in a number of characters, but namely through his protagonist, Lear, in several important scenes of the play.

As the tragedy opens, Lear presents his three daughters with a feigned hearing that allows them to make a public pronouncement of their love for him. He is delighted when Goneril says hers is “Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty” (1.1.56). He is similarly pleased with Regan’s praises. Lear foolishly believes that Goneril and Regan love and respect him the way they say they do; he is oblivious to the fact that his daughters, or anyone for that matter, may lie for their own benefit. Because he believes his eldest daughters’ insincere adulation, Lear’s trial proves him a fool.

In addition, Lear senselessly concludes that Cordelia is a disrespectful daughter and not worthy of her share of the kingdom. He is irked when she states simply that she loves her father as a daughter should, no more and no less: “I love your majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less” (1.1.92-93). Angry and humiliated at her lack of honor, Lear immediately exiles Cordelia from the country. Through banishment, Lear intends “to reduce her to “nothing,” this being the recompense that she had earned by answering “Nothing” to his demand that she demonstrate her love for him” (Willeford 210). He then orders her to marry the King of France and finally divides the kingdom between his two eldest daughters and their husbands.

Furthermore, Lear’s folly is again evident when both Goneril and Regan later shun him. As he ventures into the night’s storm, he tells the Fool, “O fool, I shall go mad” (2.2.475). He later remarks, “My wits begin to turn” (3.2.68). Here, Lear begins his downward spiral toward madness. But in his madness, he discovers the essence of humanity; he descends from his majestic position to a ranking of lower class. He declares, “When we are born we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools” (4.6.183-84). The Fool accurately comments, “this cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen” (3.4.77). Later, he quips, “Marry, he’s grace and a codpiece ? that’s a wise man and a fool” (3.2.40-41). Ironically, the Fool and the king begin to swap positions. Up until this point, the Fool has granted Lear helpful understanding of his decisions; this establishes the question of which of the two is now the real fool. Lear asks, “Dost thou call me a fool, boy?” The Fool replies, “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with” (1.4.142). The “king has been openly debased to the level of the Fool” (Willeford 218). Consequently, the Fool disappears after the storm; he has taught Lear all he knows. Through Lear’s metamorphosis, Shakespeare demonstrates that being a fool enables one to see things clearly.

Moreover, when Lear is reunited with Cordelia at the end of the play, “it is not as the petty tyrannical king who has banished her but as a fool who has himself been banished by such a king and who yet preserves the future of the kingdom in his enigmatic relationship with her” (Willeford 223). Lear is fooled a final time by Cordelia’s death. After she is hanged, Lear appears on stage holding her dead body in his arms. He cries,

Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha? What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft, Gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman. I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee. (5.3.269-73)

Lear asks for a “looking-glass” and “feather” to see if she has “no breath at all.” As Lear falls to his death, he has a glimmer of hope. He asks, “Do you see this? Look on her: look, her lips,/Look there, look there!” (5.3.308-309). Rather than part in misery, Lear journeys to his final rest in contentment for he is fooled into thinking Cordelia still lives. The “imagined breath” is brought to the audience by “a king who is also a tragic clown to a point of folly” (Willeford 225).

Although the Fool serves many functions in King Lear, his main role is that of a moral instructor to his king. He teaches him that humans are unable to know themselves completely. Through his character, Shakespeare reveals the magnitude of humanity.


Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. R.A. Foakes. Surrey: International Thomson Publishing Company, 1997.

Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

Historical Background of King Lear:

The story of King Lear and his three daughters existed in some form up to four centuries before Shakespeare recorded his vision. Lear was a British King who reigned before the birth of Christ, allowing Shakespeare to place his play in a Pagan setting. Predated by references in British mythology to Lyr or Ler, Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded a story of King Lear and his daughters in his Historia Regum Britanniae of 1137. Dozens of versions of the play were then written up, highlighting certain events, such as the love test, or expanding upon the story, such as creating a sequel where Cordelia committed suicide. Most of these versions had a happy ending, though untrue to the story, where peace was restored under the reign of Lear and Cordelia. Shakespeare however had no interest in writing a tragicomedy.

The main version that Shakespeare had likely read and from which he had definitely borrowed was The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters. He also borrowed from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland (who adopted the story from Monmouth), Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (from which Shakespeare drew his subplot), and John Higgins’ A Mirror For Magistrates. He stole pieces and ideas from these versions to create the type of story he wanted to tell. For instance, The True Chronicle provides the basis of the story, though sentimentalizing it by ignoring the sequel. “Leir” is betrayed by two of his daughters but is reconciled to his youngest at the end. “Cordella” is accompanied by a Fool-type character who is loyal to her and Leir is reseated on the throne after beating Gonerill and Regan’s armies. Moreover, Shakespeare left out main components of the earlier stories of Lear and created wholly new ones as well. Most considerable of the changes was the creation of a subplot and Lear’s descent to madness.

In Shakespeare’s time, numerous events, historical considerations, relationships, and cultural trends influenced his writing of King Lear. Scholars tend to believe that the play was written after Othello and before Macbeth, thus assigning it to 1604-1605. Further proof of this comes from the apparent influence the 1603 texts, A Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures, by Samuel Harsnett, and John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, had on Shakespeare’s conglomeration of the story. Critics have noted that more than one hundred words found in King Lear which Shakespeare had never before used can be found in Florio’s translation. In addition, Montaigne’s famous essay, “Apology for Raymond Sebonde,” apparently refers to the same major themes which Shakespeare’s King Lear presents. He also borrowed from a very convenient contemporary true story of a gentleman pensioner of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Brian Annesley, whose daughters tried to get him declared insane in late 1603 so that they could legally take control of his estate.The youngest daughter, named Cordell, intervened on his behalf.

As Shakespeare’s players were the king’s men, he knew they would have to perform for King James I and his court. Subsequently, Shakespeare imbued his plays with certain aspects that would appeal to James. For instance, the dangers of a divided kingdom was often the topic of James’ speeches because of his wish to unite Scotland with England. Further topics from the time which Shakespeare took into account were the honor and wisdom endowed to the elderly as opposed to the rash ambition of the young as well as the ritualistic reverence showed to royalty. Shakespeare himself had moved into his period of writing tragedies as he felt they were more respected by critics although audiences generally preferred comedies. After his publication of Julius Caesar, he was looked at as the greatest tragedian since Sophocles and was at the zenith of his literary capacity. The play was first performed for the King in December of 1605. It was first published in a quarto in 1608 and titled M William Shak-speare His Historie, of King Lear. A completely revised version was reprinted by Shakespeare in a 1623 First Folio edition, now referred to as The Tragedy of King Lear. The two versions were conflated in the eighteenth century until editors realized how significantly different the two were and now each edition and the conflated text can be found.

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