Saturday, March 13, 2010

Eyes and seeing and madness in King Lear.

King Lear is the best play ever written English and contains some of greatest lines. Lines like, "It is the time's plague when madmen lead the blind." And many of those lines contain the words "see" or "eye".

The play opens with a flattery competition. Lear is dividing his kingdom in three and giving it to his daughters.

LEAR. Which of you, shall we say, does love us most?

KENT. What wouldst thou do, old man? Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least.
LEAR. Kent, on thy life, no more.
KENT. My life I never held but as a pawn to wage against thine enemies, nor fear to lose it, thy safety being motive.
LEAR. Out of my sight!
KENT. See better, Lear.

And it's down hill from there. Lear alienates Cordelia, who loves him, and gives the kingdom to Goneril and Regan. They betray him. And use terror against those who help him.

GLOUCESTER. Because I would not see thy cruel nails pluck out his (Lear's) poor old eyes.
GONERIL. Pluck out his eyes.
GLOUSCETER. I shall see the winged vengence overtake such children.
CORNWALL. See it shalt thou never. Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot. (Takes out his eyes.) Where is thy luster now?

Later, blind Gloucester doesn't recognize his son, who is disguised as a madman.

EDGAR. You cannot see your way.
GLOUCESTER. I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw. Who’s there?
EDGAR. Tis... poor mad Tom.
EDGAR. Madman and beggar too.

EDGAR. Give me thy arm. Poor Tom shall lead thee.
GLOUCESTER. Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.

Gloucester meets Lear, now a homeless citizen in the veld, but having partially won his battle against his own rage and insanity.

GLOUCESTER. Dost thou know me?
LEAR. I remember thine eyes well enough. Read this challenge. Mark but the penning of it.
GLOUCESTER. Were all thy letters suns, I could not see.
LEAR. Read.
GLOUCESTER. What, with the case of eyes?
LEAR. Yet you see how this world goes.
GLOUCESTER. I see it feelingly.
LEAR. Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
LEAR. There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obey’d in office. Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand. Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind for which thou whip’st her. If thou wilt weep, take my eyes.

And, finally, Lear kneels of the body of Cordelia, who loved him.

LEAR. Who are you? Mine eyes are not of the best. I’ll tell you straight. This is a dull sight. Are you not Kent?
KENT. The same. Where is your servant Caius?
LEAR. He’s a good fellow, I can tell you that; He’ll strike, and quickly too. He’s dead and rotten.
KENT. No. I am the man that from your first difference and decay have followed your footsteps.
LEAR. You are welcome, hither.
KENT. Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves, and are dead.
LEAR. Ay, I think so.
ALBANY. He knows not what he says.
LEAR. And my poor fool is hang’d! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more. Never, never, never, never, never! Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir. Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips. Look there, look there!
KENT. Break, heart; I prithee, break.
EDGAR. Look up, my lord.
KENT. Let him pass. He hates him that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer.
EDGAR. He is gone, indeed.
KENT. The wonder is he hath endured so long.
ALBANY. Our present business is general woe. Friends of my soul, you twain rule in this realm, and the gor’d state sustain.
KENT. I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me; I must not say no.
EDGAR. The oldest have borne most; we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.

A story of seeing and not seeing, an arc that travels from from arrogant Lear ignoring the advice to see better, to humble, broken Lear kneeling over Cordelia's body and admitting, "my eyes are not of the best".

Thank you sir.

You could make a strong argument for the proposition that, "thank you, sir," is the greatest line in the English language. Because it shows, not tells. Its "grace under pressure" marks the end of Lear's extraordinary journey from madness to sanity.

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