Christianity · Literary Wisdom · Theology

Ultimate Joy in Blindness: Gloucester’s Christian Testimony in King Lear (+ Extras)

Hi everyone!
The following piece is a paper I wrote for a literature class at my dream college, where I’ll be a freshman this coming fall. Read through till the end to find more extras to help you smile during quarantine!

Far more irony than appears on the first read of Shakespeare’s King Lear lies beyond the irony of Gloucester’s literal blinding. Contrary to pagan classics like Oedipus Rex, in which the protagonist’s blinding occurs after a quest for too much knowledge, King Lear’s Gloucester undergoes blindness after a contentment with too little knowledge. Gloucester’s rich and glorious journey closely parallels a Christian testimony, especially with the aid of Edgar, who is not only the foil to both the Fool and Cordelia, but also a figure echoing the acts of Christ.

Act I, scene ii, of King Lear is the equivalent to Act I, scene iii, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in that each scene reveals the subtler “dynamics” of the secondary family (Lamb et al., p. 54). Though members of each family briefly appear in the previous scene, Shakespeare does not give the reader a proper introduction until he isolates them in the context of the home. Thus, the second instead of first scene of King Lear provides the proper framework for the beginning of Gloucester’s character study. In this second scene, Shakespeare introduces Gloucester as a victim of a peculiar naïveté: that is, an unstable spirit due to his belief in unstable gods. Although his literal blindness has not yet occurred, he is most certainly blinded by his idealism. His attempt to use natural star cycles reflects his idealistic conviction that he could understand gods by what he could see. All the proof against his beliefs he meets with frustration and a stubborn clenching to hope, because the base of his religion is fear that it is not true. Edmund, because he has evidently studied his father’s astrology, recognizes this immediately, which is why he does not give his father “Edgar’s” note immediately (Shakespeare, I, ii, 1-6). Edmund believes that once he can instill in his father a fear that Edgar isn’t true, his father will lay hold of such a belief and pursue it doggedly, because in the end, both his religion and the lie Edmund creates both appeal to the same foundation of fear.

Now, people can learn to modify complete trust in the five senses without losing one of them, but the impulsiveness of Gloucester’s decision to send Edmund in pursuit of Edgar does not allow for any less severe option. Nevertheless, Lear’s daughters are only able to find Gloucester because of his loyalty to the king. By this loyalty, Shakespeare suggests that Gloucester’s true character is beautiful, and only needs the right motivation behind his actions to refine that beauty. To uncover the better parts of his character, Gloucester must cover his eyes, and permanently.

Just when the literal blindness plagues Gloucester, he finds his son, Edgar, who is now acting the part of a madman. Of course, Edgar’s true turmoil lies in whether he should follow through immediately in his desire to reveal his sanity to his father, but as he sees his father’s blindness and desperation, he also sees an opportunity: “I cannot daub it further…./And yet I must” (Shakespeare, IV, i, 60, 62). Since Gloucester can no longer use his senses to convince himself that what he believes is true, he is open to anything. Gloucester’s very presence with Edgar demonstrates his desperate openness, since the former believes that his leader has lost his sanity. Edgar does not rejoice in his father’s humiliation but sees that he could be an instrument compelling Gloucester toward the truth. The dialogue between father and son as they head toward “Dover” reveals Edgar’s attempt at demonstrating to his father the idealism of identifying each of his sensations as true when the senses are not working in harmony with each other, for instance:

Gloucester: Methinks the ground is even.

Edgar: Horrible steep./Hark, do you hear the sea?

Gloucester: No, truly./

Edgar: Why then, your other senses grow imperfect/By your eyes’ anguish. (Shakespeare, IV, vi, 4-7)

If the senses fail to cooperate with Edgar’s word, how could they do so with the ones who rule the universe? The leap from the cliff, then, functions as a leap of faith, not merely in the faith that Gloucester will die, but that there can be truth beyond what he can fathom. He is daring to see with eyes he never knew he had: the eyes of his heart, a heart not based in a desire to feel rightly, even if it means living in unreasonable fear, but based in the pursuit of truth.

It is no coincidence, then, that when Gloucester reaches the “bottom,” he meets his son once again, who ironically and perpetually conveys the voice of truth within his psychological masking. Gloucester has by now suffered much regret and misery, but in that very same moment, Edgar holds it tenderly in his hands and effectively draws his father to conclude that a higher being loves him. He compels Gloucester to see that the pursuit of gods who make themselves known only by earthly creations and do not seek their followers cannot be viable. If the world of the spirit is, by definition, not bound to earth or any of its corrupting influences, then neither is it bound to human whims. Instead of relating to gods because they are essentially the same as humans, one can relate to God because His love is applicable to both this world and the next. 

The only blindness remaining to Gloucester, then, is his failure to identify Edgar as his son—but Edgar chooses not to tell him at the “cliff.” Just as the God of Scripture waits until the human heart is opened widest to receive His love, so Edgar perceives that the present situation opened his father’s heart only a crack, and though it pains him to wait, he knows that patience will reap greater fruit.

By the conclusion of Act IV, Gloucester has progressed from naturalism to theism, a theism which declares that He who is holy wishes for a personal relationship with those humans he rules over. When Edgar virtually splits open the curtain of idealism separating his father from the Holy of Holies, all that remains for Gloucester to do is to step confidently inside. Although the reader never sees the dying breaths of Edgar’s father, Edgar does tell the audience that Gloucester uttered his last words in the midst of the war between England and France, and that the moment of impending death had finally compelled his father’s heart to receive the glorious revelation of Edgar as his son. Gloucester thus dies to himself figuratively at the precise moment he dies literally, at which event Edgar grants the viewers or readers the altogether lovely and otherworldly perception, “his flawed heart…/’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,/Burst smilingly” (Shakespeare, V, iii, 232, 34-5). The bursting of the heart Edgar describes here closely mirrors the moment of Christian justification, the holy paradox of emotions where there is “joy” at God’s mercy and “grief” at sin. Gloucester has finally seen, in his blindness, that although an apparent contradiction of even the abstract senses—emotions—can occur, a greater and truly incomprehensible truth can and often does rise up simultaneously to permanently fill the resulting void.

Works Cited

Lamb, Sidney, et al. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tragedy of King Lear. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015.


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~Sarah Merly

April 26, 2020

Isaiah 53