The King and the Fool: the Case of Blindness and Ability to Perceive
Blindness is not just an inability to see with your eyes. It is a quality derived from lack of wisdom and intuition. True vision is not the product of properly functioning optic nerves – it is the ability to keenly observe one’s situation and to deduce, interpret, and decipher. Sight is wisdom; blindness is foolishness. A clinically blind man walking down the street with a cane may, in this definition of “sight,” be able to “see” more than a person with 20/20 vision. In this definition of “sight,” a Fool may be sagacious and a King may be foolish. This is exactly the case in William Shakespeare’s famed play, King Lear. Two characters, King Lear and the Fool, represent the juxtaposition of the two contrasting qualities of blindness and the ability to perceive, in their interactions with one another, with others, and their general behavior.
Lear and the Fool’s interactions with each other help to establish the theme of blindness versus sight. Throughout the novel, the Fool observes Lear’s behavior and speaks to Lear of the truths of his own identity. The Fool sees Lear’s faults plainly when he chants witticisms like, “thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers” (1.4.176-177) and “thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides/ and left nothing i’ th’ middle.” (1.4.191-192) In this scene the Fool is telling Lear that he has given his daughters, Goneril and Regan, an overwhelming amount of authority over him – he has made them his “mothers,” or given them a position of power over himself similar to that of a parent. He also likens Lear’s division of his lands to a “paring” of his “wit,” meaning that, in giving away his land to his daughters, Lear was also relinquishing some of his brains, because he has foolishly left himself with nothing. The Fool then speaks to Lear of the disappearance of Lear’s identity: now that Lear has nothing, he has become nothing. “Now thou art an O/ without a figure. I am better than thou art now./ I am a Fool. Thou art nothing,” (1.4.197-200) says the Fool. He is being incredibly truthful; he sees that Lear has given away everything that constituted his identity as king. Now Lear is an “O without a figure,” or a zero with no number before it. He is “nothing,” and he is worse than a Fool – “I am better than thou art.”
While the Fool is amazingly accurate in deciphering Lear’s character, Lear himself doesn’t have a clue about the folly of his own nature. He is blind to the truth of himself and to the truths spoken by the Fool. When the Fool speaks to him, Lear either ignores the truth behind his words completely or reprimands him.
Fool: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
Lear: O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! / Keep me in temper. I would not be mad! (1.5.43-46)
Here the Fool is commenting on Lear’s obvious lack of wisdom, but Lear only becomes angry. He never once is willing to accept the Fool’s observations, although he is in great need of advice. He cannot see the true light of his own character, and sometimes he demonstrates a severe lack of understanding regarding his identity:
Lear: Does any here know me? This is not Lear./ Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?… Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
Fool: Lear’s shadow. (1.4. 231-237)
In this quote, Lear is showing a great deal of uncertainty about who he is. “Does any here know me?” he says, “Does Lear walk thus, speak thus?” He is muddled, confused, unable to see his true nature. And, truly, his confusion about his identity stems from the fact that he has mostly lost his identity. He is no longer king and he no longer has any real possessions. So when the Fool says that Lear is really “Lear’s shadow,” he is indicating Lear’s loss of identity. But Lear, as usual, disregards the Fool’s statement. He will not see the truth behind it. The line “Where are his eyes?” is an indication of Lear’s blindness. But it isn’t until the end, when he has an epiphany, that Lear realizes the extent of his blindness: “Mine eyes are not o’ th best,” (5.3.336) he declares, admitting his own inability to see. The only one who “saw” Lear completely was the Fool, the truth of whose statements Lear refused to “see.” This is one way in which Lear and the Fool represent the opposing forces of blindness and true sight.
Lear and the Fool demonstrate blindness and clarity of vision, respectively, in their interactions with and observations of others. For one, Lear doesn’t recognize his servant Kent, who returns from banishment to serve his king. Kent has been Lear’s loyal servant for many years, yet when he puts on a disguise, Lear is completely blind to his identity. More importantly, Lear does not see through Goneril and Regan’s excessive flattering of him in the beginning. He does not see that Cordelia is the honest one when she says that she, unlike her false sisters, does not love him so entirely, but will save a portion of her affections for the one she marries. He does not see that it is unwise to give away his land, to banish his one faithful daughter, and to make himself dependent on his two deceitful ones. The Fool sees right through Goneril and Regan from the start. When Goneril approaches Lear about the rowdy behavior of his knights, Lear is taken by complete surprise by her rudeness: “Are you our daughter?” (1.4.224) he asks in disbelief. Meanwhile, the Fool speaks witticisms that indicate he saw the whole thing coming: “For you know, nuncle,/ The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,/ That it had it’s head bit off by its young.” (1.4.220-222) The Fool is making a reference to how a cuckoo lays its egg in the sparrow’s nest, and the sparrow feeds the young cuckoo until it gets big and kills the sparrow. This is exactly like Lear and his cruel daughters – he has nurtured them into adulthood, and now in return they are ready to “bite off his head,” or to destroy him. The Fool sees all of this; Lear does not. Lear, in this scene, continues to express disbelief at Goneril’s behavior towards him. The Fool attempts to enlighten Lear with sayings like, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” (1.4.229) in which he refers to how Lear is being led by his daughters like a horse being led by the cart. It is a reversal of what is natural; Lear should be the one in authority, but now his daughters have turned on him and are leading him by the reigns. Yet Lear is still blind to their intent to take him over completely; once again he disregards the Fool’s comments and naively believes that his other daughter, Regan, will treat him better. But when he arrives at Regan’s dwelling, he finds his disguised servant, Kent, placed in the stocks. To Lear, the public punishment of his servant is a sign of complete disrespect, and he cannot believe that Regan and her husband would do such a thing. “They durst not do’t. / They could not, would not do’t. ‘Tis worse than murder…” (2.4.25-26) Lear says. He is again taken by complete surprise, because his blindness does not permit him to see that both his daughters are cruel and ungrateful. The Fool, however, knows exactly what is happening in the situation. He sings a little rhyme to Lear:
Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind,
But fathers that bear bags
Shall see their children kind. (2.4.54-57)
In this rhyme, the Fool is revealing to Lear that the reason Goneril and Regan had expressed so much kindness to him in the beginning was because they wanted to obtain large portions of the kingdom. Lear “saw his children kind” only because he “bore bags,” or had riches to share. The two daughters initially gave Lear respect so that they could get what they wanted; now that they have it, they have no more need to treat him kindly. He is now a “father that wears rags,” and his children do not care about him any longer – they are “blind” to him. The fact that the Fool perceives all of this, and Lear does not, indicates that the two characters represent the juxtaposition of sight and inability to perceive.
The final way in which Lear and the Fool help establish the theme of blindness and true vision is in their general behavior. When Lear acts rashly and without sense, the Fool is the one who attempts to provide stability in the situation. The main example of this is when the two characters are out in the storm after Lear has chosen to face the elements rather than meet Goneril and Regan’s conditions that he give up all his servants.
Lear’s rage is like that of the storm, and screams a challenge to the weather:
Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world. (3.2.1-9)
Lear’s rash behavior shows that he lacks a great deal of sight. He is childishly roaming about in the danger of the raging elements and shouting challenges to the thunder and rain. His blindness does not permit him to see the danger of the situation. The Fool, meanwhile, recognizes that they are in trouble. He implores Lear to act more sensibly:
O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this rainwater out o’ the door. Good nuncle, in. Ask thy daughter’s blessing. Here’s a night that pities neither wise men nor fools. (3.2.11-15)
Once again, the Fool is the one who speaks with reason. The Fool realizes that it is better for Lear to ask his “daughter’s blessing,” or to take shelter within Regan’s home, than to be out in a storm that “pities neither wise men nor fools.” Interestingly enough, the Fool is the wise man in this situation, and the king is the fool. The Fool can see the danger; Lear is blind to it.
Shakespeare’s purpose in having such drastically different characters is to provide a sense of excitement in the play; when there are two contrary forces that juxtapose, conflict is brought out, and conflict is what makes a work of literature interesting. Shakespeare, however, always has more than one reason for his devices. Having two contrasting characters not only serves to enrich the structure of the play by creating conflict, it provides the reader with a sense of irony and a deeper understanding about the workings of human beings. A king who is supposed to be wise may sometimes be inferior in wisdom to his Fool – this idea says many things contrary to what we would typically expect or like to believe. Position and rank do not always coincide with wisdom and prudence. The one we consider to be of least importance could hold all the truths and answers. People can be completely blind to what is plainly in front of them. Shakespeare was constantly making comments about the nature of man, and we should always attempt to decipher his verses, unravel his complex structures, decode his difficult language – or we may not “see” what he is really trying to say.
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