King Lear: I’ve got my eye on you

The last week or so, I’ve been playing around with the concordance (a reference material that counts and chronicles every use of particular word within a collection of works. For use in this blog, I like to use the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare.). So far, we’ve looked at nature and nothing. And today I want to look at what many see as primary motif in King Lear: vision and eyesight.

I checked out the usages of the following eyesight-related terms (and their variants): eye, see, watch, behold, spy, vision, and blind. And King Lear is the winner. In Lear, those phrases are used in 142 speeches. By comparison, our second and third place plays (The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet) are nearly tied with 140 and 139 speech appearances, respectively. That’s not exactly a landslide.

Of course, King Lear’s going to lead the pack, what with Gloucester’s blinding and all (neither The Winter’s Tale nor Hamlet have a plot-related physical blinding).

So am I saying eyesight isn’t a valid subject of study in King Lear? Of course not. The numbers show that the motif is there, and that it’s substantial. I’m just saying that as I was reading the play, seeing these phrases continue to pop up, I expected the numbers to be more impressive.

So the totality of eyesight-speeches is tight. And even if you break down the total by the specific types of uses, King Lear has no phrase for which it sits as the lone leader within the Canon. Eye: 52, tied with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and just two ahead of Love’s Labor’s Lost. See: 70, behind Winter’s and Hamlet, both with 85. Watch: 3, way behind Much Ado About Nothing with 17 and Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, both with 16 (and yes, each of those plays has character-watches, but still). Behold: 7, behind Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, all with 13. Spy: 4, behind Midsummer 6. Blind: 6, behind Henry V with 9.

And Vision? Not used a single time (though for full disclosure, the top dogs here are Midsummer and The Tempest, both with a relatively measly 3).

Regardless, if we use Gloucester’s blinding as ground zero, then we get quite a bit of foreshadowing. When Goneril professes her love for Lear, her first comparative is “dearer than eyesight” (I.i.55). I’d argue that eyesight is the most important of the five senses, so her love must be overwhelming, or she wants daddy to think so. Cordelia doesn’t play that game, though, and is banished. Some of Lear’s final words in the presence of Cordelia in this opening scene proclaim that he “shall [not] ever see // That face of hers again (I.i.263-64). While Lear will see her again, Gloucester will not see Edgar again (they only share the stage after Gloucester’s blinding).

When we next see Lear and Goneril, she questions his wisdom. Lear sarcastically asks if he is no longer Lear: “Where are his eyes?” (I.iv.211), he asks. Lear’s and Gloucester’s narratives run parallel, and here Lear’s question foreshadows Gloucester’s fate. The hints to the future only get more blatant and specific, as when Lear curses Goneril and berates himself, saying, “Old fond eyes, // Beweep this cause again [and] I’ll pluck ye out” (I.iv.283-84). Plucking out of eyes? This isn’t the last time we’ll hear these words (and, worse, see the action).

In Act Two, Scene Four, as we near the midpoint of the play (and Gloucester’s blinding in the second half), we get three notable uses of the word “blind”–two by the Fool (“Do make their children blind” [II.iv.41] and “blind men” [II.iv. 61], and Lear calling for lightning to “dart [their] blinding flames // Into [Goneril’s] scornful eyes” (II.iv.156-7). You can check off another item off the audience preparation list for what will happen to Gloucester. We are ready to have everything “out … from my sight!” (II.iv.179), as Lear says to Oswald. And just as Lear told Cordelia in the opening scene that he would never see her face again, Lear now tells Goneril that they will “no more meet, no more see one another” (II.iv.212).

Of course, by the end of Act Three, Scene Seven, Gloucester will no more see anyone. At the beginning of that scene, however, Goneril says that they should “pluck out [Gloucester’s] eyes” (III.vii.5) even before they have him in captivity. Once they do get Gloucester, he says that he tried to send Lear away so Gloucester wouldn’t have to have “seen [Regan’s] cruel nails // Pluck out [Lear’s] poor old eyes” (III.vii.55-6). Bonus points there for getting both “see” and eye-plucking in that statement. And within 30 lines, “All [is] dark and comfortless” ( for Gloucester.

From this point on for Gloucester, it’s all about regrets. “I have no way,” he says, “and therefore want no eyes. // I stumbled when I saw” (IV.i.18-19). Now, he wants only to die, but hopes to “see [Edgar] in [his] touch” (IV.i.23), and that would be like having eyes again. To give him a reason to live again, though, the disguised Edgar needs to play upon his father’s blindness. He describes to his father the cliff Edgar has supposedly led Gloucester to, saying,

 dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low…
 …too small for sight…
 …I’ll look no more
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong
  • IV.v.12, 20, 22-24

After Edgar fakes his father’s fall, he assumes a new identity, but still speaks in the language of eyesight: “Look up a-height. The shrill-gorged lark so far // Cannot be seen or heard. Do but look up” (IV.v.58-9). Edgar’s plan is successful and Gloucester agrees to “bear // Affliction till it do cry itself, // ‘Enough, enough,’ and die” (IV.v.75-77).

When the old mad king enters the scene, joining Gloucester and Edgar–but unaware of their presence–his speech, too, is filled with vision imagery: “stare” and “see” (both IV.v.109), “sight” (IV.v.113), and “behold” (IV.v.117). When he becomes aware of Gloucester’s presence, the references intensify, first commenting on Gloucester’s appearance:

I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squinny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love. Read thou this challenge. Mark but the penning of it.
  • IV.v.133-7

I think the first reference here is more costume direction (Gloucester’s bandages should be like Cupid’s blindfold) and madness (“read” and “mark”) than cruelty. As Lear realizes that Gloucester has “no eyes in [his] head” (IV.v.143) Lear moves from eyesight-based language to hearing imagery, before going off on a seemingly mad rant on justice (there’s something truthful in that speech–like one from a “natural” fool–something that even Edgar recognizes as ‘reason in madness” [IV.v.173]). Coming out of the rant, Lear finally recognizes Gloucester, and continues with imagery of non-sight senses (“smell” [IV.v.177] and “mark” [IV.v.178]).

Before we get a chance to see where this is going, however, a gentlemen from Cordelia’s army enters looking for Lear. This is not just an interruption of Lear and Gloucester’s conversation, but the intrusion of war into the plot of the play. It also marks the beginning of a relative lull in the eyesight imagery. But when the imagery returns in the play’s final moments, with Lear carrying in the body of dead Cordelia, it’s back with a vengeance.

Lear calls for a “looking glass” (V.iii.238) so that he can have visual proof of her life-breath. He talks of having “seen the day” (V.iii.252) in his own past, when he was a stronger warrior. He comments on the dead bodies (of his daughters) onstage, “This is a dull sight” (V.iii.258), then when he’s told by Kent that Kent was Caius, Lear says, “I’ll see that straight” (V.iii.263).

Edgar actually gets that show-capper, noting that his younger generation “shall never see so much, nor live so long” (V.iii.303).

But all of this is prelude to the finale. Albany begins what sounds like your typical end-of-tragedy setting-future-expectations speech by the king-to-be. Only it isn’t. Albany says that he’s putting Lear back on the throne of “absolute power” (V.iii.277), but even this announcement is cut short by his imploring everyone to look at Lear: ‘–O, see, see!” (V.iii.281).

Resigned to Cordelia’s death, Lear utters final lines filled with sight imagery: “Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips, // Look there, look there–” (V.iii.287-88). I suppose there are a number of ways to read this. His final “look there” might reference her spirit leaving her body (I remember one video production that certainly used Lear’s ascending spirit for Edgar’s next-line ‘Look up, my lord” (V.iii.779). I suppose you could have the reference of his final lines being all around him, his sanity gone.

But I don’t think so.

A couple of days back when we were discussing “nothing,” Jean Hegland commented that one could claim

there is a final time that nothing is spoken, and that’s when Lear begs the dead Cordelia to “speak again” by asking her corpse “What is’t thou sayest?” In that instant, the difference between her saying,”Nothing,” and saying nothing becomes excruciatingly clear.

I’d buy that, and I’d take one step further. If we take the penultimate line as our cue, both of those “look there” statements are about her lips, which can no longer say, “Nothing, my lord” and can speak only nothing.

I agree 100% …Lear’s words may be about seeing, but (like Hamlet) the rest is silence.

Heartbreaking silence.