One of the 20ths century’s questionably greatest poets and writers Maya Angelou has said, “Blindness is a disease that does not affect the eyes alone.” As some truths of human nature defy time and technology, the reality of this existed even in the Elizabethan era. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Shakespeare’s current status, one thing that cannot be denied was his devotion to targeting the basic flaw in all “good people” that inevitably causes their downfall. Similar to all Shakespearian plays, King Lear is essentially a tale about the human flaw of faulty perception. It is this imperfection that ultimately jeopardizes the lives and sanity of each character.
Lear is fundamentally portrayed as a nobleman. This assessment is alluded to through various means. His kingdom exists in tranquillity. He is surrounded by advisors that prove themselves to be righteous. Yet, as the play opens the audience is exposed to a new light on Lear. By splitting his kingdom, he is sure to create a civil war. By asking his daughters to profess their love for him, he is asking more of them than obvious. It seems as though the responses he receives are measurements of greed, not love. He is quick to believe Regan’s and Goneril’s claims of all-consuming love for their father, though he has raised these children. Clearly, his desire to hear kind words overrides the truth. In Cordelia’s case, the one daughter that refuses to make a mockery out of herself and her scared bond to her father says “nothing.” Lear mentions, “Nothing can come out of nothing.” Unfortunately, he seems to only see these inconvenient cases, such as money; he ignores its literal meaning. He hastily exiles Cordelia from his kingdom. Kent tries to knock some sense into Lear and is meet with the same misfortune as Cordelia; “out of my sight!” It seems as though Lear is able to keep anything out of his sight. His blindness is his need to be reassured of his stature as a man through other petty words and mannerisms.
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Lear went to great lengths in order to maintain a pleasant little fantasy; Cordelia is his polar opposite in this sense. Cordelia revels in the truth, hiding nothing and risking everything. She refuses “to speak and purpose not;” meaning that she will never say what she does not believe. Shakespeare illustrates Cordelia’s truthful nature through means other than dialogue and interactions. When Cordelia speaks it is often in heightened language, rhythms, and couplets. Through this, the audience recognizes the true tragedy in Cordelia too. She is just a girl trying to come clean, the whole time knowing they would have preferred her dirty and smiling. If one views extreme righteousness and truthfulness as a flaw, then this is the blemish that ultimately leads to her death. Had she been able to bite her tongue once in a while, she would have given the King the desired answer and moved on. Rather it seems as though integrity is a value one must die for. She is the victim of Lear, Goneril, Regan, and perpetually of her affinity for the truth. She is a woman who sees with every sense of her being, ignoring nothing.
The relationship between these two characters is one of ignorance versus knowledge. King Lear holds Cordelia up to an unhealthy and unrealistic light. This may be out of a need for vindication that he is a man of candour. Regardless, when Cordelia says “nothing,” she is saying no to Lear’s way of living. She is denouncing Lear’s belief in authority and social hierarchy. Eventually, truth is punished and thrown out of the empire until she is needed again.
The journey the audience takes in King Lear is toward the realization that truth and ignorance must coexist. Lear would never have found inner peace without Cordelia’s persistence and absolution. Cordelia exemplifies the consequence of never turning a blind eye. Cordelia’s death is the moral responsibility of the patriarchal society she lived in, this is true, yet if she chooses to ignore its force she might have made it to the end. Ultimately, truth and blindness can never be separated without the eruption of chaos.
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