“See better Lear,” Kent says to King Lear after he is banished from the court. Blindness runs throughout this play, from Lear’s inability to see that he is being flattered, to Edgar’s inability to see that he is being set up, to Gloucester’s inability to see after the outing of his vile jelly. “See better” may as well be the subtitle of this play for it is the cause of everything in this play. And while this aspect is interesting—aside from hitting the nail on the head a few times—the notion of “see better, Lear” resonates in our own struggles. Should we all have our own Kent warning us to see better? Would we want to?
What is it that Lear doesn’t see? Truth. What is truth? Meaningless. This is not necessarily new ground. Most of the comedies are founded on deception: certainly the love of Beatrice and Benedick was sparked by the lies perpetrated by their friends and can only be maintained through the continuing lies they challenge each other with. The truth of Shylock’s claim within the laws of his world are undermined (to everyone’s delight) by the absurd extensions (or loopholes) of these truths by Portia (in disguise herself). Even in the early tragedies— particularly Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar, truth and lies are weapons the characters use to achieve their goals.
And then Hamlet and Othello pounced on the notion of Truth and beat it into submission. Hamlet forces us to wrestle with whether a ghost can speak true, and if that truth is accepted, must action be taken? And in the end, Hamlet’s action wasn’t even a result of his search for Truth but the chaotic reactions of the world around him. Then there’s Othello, where Iago twists truths to an almost comical degree, although not as sloppily as Edmund. Desdemona at some point basically tells Othello to “see better”: then there’s a scene in pitch black and Desdemona’s face is smothered by a pillow. Call that irony if you wish. Othello mocks the pre-Locke Locke idea of empiricism, which argues that we must believe only what our senses tell us. Othello relied on what he saw and heard, failing to see that these were manufactured images, “a dagger of the mind.”
Thus we circle back to King Lear and his idea of seeing better, which in light of everything that comes before it begs the question, “Why should I want to?” Why should Portia care about the manipulations of truth if it leads to saving a life? Why should Beatrice care about lies if it leads to her happy marriage? Why should Lear care about truth when the lies are so pleasing?
'tis our fast intent
He wishes to divest himself of responsibly and therefore implicitly of Truth. This is a foreshadowing of Lear in the middle of the play, when he is forced to see the truth, and flat out rejects it.
We are trained to welcome things into our lives that make our lives better, or more comfortable. Yet there is always someone or something to take advantage of that desire. There’s always an Edmund to pounce when our guard is down. Call them marketers, call them politicians – we are more Lear than we care to admit. Sometimes we don't want to "see better". Sometimes it's easier to shake off all cares.
Before we approach Lear, let us begin with the sometimes weaker side plot: Gloucester and his sons. We see Gloucester and his bastard son, Edmund, in the opening lines, in which we learn that Edmund is a bastard, Gloucester is embarrassed to call him son, and that Gloucester is a bit crude, insofar as he talks about fornicating with Edmund’s mom right in front of Edmund. They then disappear into the background of the Lear plot until the next scene, where Edmund is given this monologue:
Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
Throughout the play, Edmund goes on to lie to everyone around him, and manipulates the truth for no other reason than he can, and he is bitter. Like Iago before him, Edmund gets what he desires halfway through the play. He is named Duke of Gloucester, but still continues to plot against Goneril, Regan, Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. It is not until his dying moments that he has a bit of redemption. He attempts to stop the assassination of Lear and Cordelia which he ordered. Still, in this opening monologue, we can see him as nothing but honest. “Gods, stand up for bastards” is as passionate a plea in anything else in this play, and it is hard not to sympathize with him for his reason is sound. Why, when he is roughly the same age, of of the same quality, and (according to him) loved as well as his legitimate brother, Edgar—why should he get nothing? Like bastards before him, and like Iago, he rejects the “truth” of the world that reduces him to nothing and pledges himself to chaos.
To Gloucester’s credit, he does half-heartedly question the validity, but when Edmund announces that he wasn’t given the letter, but found it, it’s game over for Edgar. Why is Gloucester so quick to believe Edmund, beyond the Shakespearean trope of people believing letters to be true? Perhaps, Gloucester is avoiding the larger truth, as Lear does. The letter explains “Edgar’s” reasons for wanting to supplant his father: Gloucester is old, and is clinging to power, keeping his son from ruling. Even though Lear hands over his kingdom to his daughters, his troubles stem from the fact that he tries to cling to the powers of King, while being informed by his daughters how old and feeble he is. Gloucester may not be ready to face his end, and so shifts the blame to Edgar’s cruel ambition. Father turns against legitimate son, and Edgar, too trusting, allows himself to be convinced that he is in danger (which admittedly is partially true) and that he must flee. He heads to the inconspicuous land that all the banished characters in this play end up in, and adopts the name Tom of Bedlam— but more on that later.
Gloucester continues to place his trust in Edmund until, after he is captured and blinded by Cornwall and Regan, he is told the truth, which he believes as readily as he believed Edmund.
Blind now, Gloucester comes to the light. When an old man offers him help as he wanders through the storm he says:
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;
He does not gain any comfort from this revelation, only despair and the wish to commit suicide. Meeting up with Tom of Bedlam, he asks to be escorted to the cliffs of Dover where he plans to end his life by jumping. Here we get one of the great perversions of truth, for Tom of Bedlam (Edgar) has no intention of letting his father kill himself. He leads Gloucester to a small drop which he claims is the edge of the cliff.
[Kneeling] O you mighty gods!
When acted well, this is a great moment of pathos. For we see what is happening. We see Gloucester kneeling at the edge of a tiny drop but that doesn't matter because his truth is that he is about to end his life and we hear that in his voice (if well acted). Thus, we simultaneously experience the tragedy of a man brought to the edge of a cliff and the comedy of a fool falling flat on his face.
Edgar expresses this same thought:
Gone, sir: farewell.
Gloucester is led to believe that he leapt from the cliff and survived, but even this miracle does not revive his spirits. His last exchange with his son is telling of his circumstances.
The next we hear about Gloucester is that he died of a broken heart. “His heart burst smilingly” when Edgar informed him of everything that had happened, and that he was the madman who helped him during his blindness. The Earl of Gloucester, a man who accepted all truths equally and in the end was happily killed by Truth. There is no positive moral here, there is barely catharsis as Gloucester’s death is buried in so much action in the final scene. We are not encouraged by Gloucester's story to follow the old axiom. What does Gloucester leave us with except that nagging sense that Truth is fickle, and pursing it is dangerous.
Productions like to play up her virtuosity which means she must be so naive while delivering these lines. I think she knows exactly what she is doing here. But of course, Lear does not like her “truth”:
Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
I include the whole speech here because, not only is Lear rejecting truth and essentially cursing Cordelia to it; his invocations are telling. Like Edmund, who pledges himself to Nature (a pagan force oppositional to Christianity) Lear calls upon the sun and Hecate (another pagan force). True, King Lear is set in pre-Christian England and so the constant references to the Greek pantheon and to Nature makes sense, but it sends a clear message to the Christan audience watching this play. Lear and Edmund, these are not virtuous men. These are not Christian men. These are not men who value “our Truths.”
Lear does not initially recognize that he stands in opposition to Truth. He warns his fool that he will be whipped for lying (about singing), he comes across Caius (Kent in disguise) chained up, and refuses to believe that his daughter did this.
But shortly after, when speaking with his daughters, the veneer cracks. The main point of contention between Lear and his daughter is his train of knights. When he gave over his kingdom, the stipulation was that Lear should be allowed to retain 100 knights that he will take with him from one daughter’s house to the other, perpetually partying. Goneril grows frustrated and insists that she can only host 50 of Lear’s men. This enrages Lear and he ends up cursing Goneril and leaving for Regan’s. He finds Regan and Cornwall at Gloucester’s castle, having fled their home after learning that Lear was coming. Reasonably enough, they were not prepared for his arrival. After assuring Regan that he would never curse her like he has his other two daughters, Regan states that she can only host 25 of Lear’s men—and so he curses her, turning back to Goneril, because, according to Lear, 50 men is at least better than 25. But Goneril comes back with a fairly reasonable argument.
Hear me, my lord; What need you five and twenty, ten, or five, To follow in a house where twice so many Have a command to tend you? (II.iv)
So far, this argument over Lear’s knights has been the biggest conflict post Cordellia, and it’s ultimately a silly conflict. True, for Lear this represents his loss of power, what the Fool previous referred to as Lear making his daughters his mothers. And for Lear, accepting this truth, that he is no longer in control, is what drives the rest of the tragedy.
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars Are in the poorest thing superfluous: Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady; If only to go warm were gorgeous, Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st, Which scarcely keeps thee warm.
And so, in the first half of the play, we went from Lear being enraged by Cordelia’s truth, to refusing to be lied to, to pointing out that someotiems the world doesn’t operate based on Reason. Shortly after, he will find Tom of Bedlam naked in a storm and reiterate this point, saying that Tom is the true man, stripped of all artifice. Lear then ascends to the Ultimate Truth, which in the world of Shakespeare, is madness. In a small house near Gloucester’s castle, Lear, Tom, and the Fool set up a court to play out their fantasies. This is King Lear at his happiest—farthest removed from reality, from truth. This is Lear being told to see better and saying, “I am perfectly content to live with my eyes shut, now go away.”
As a tragedy, an audience can easily accept that King Lear had to die. His hubris (giving in to his evil daughters) led to his downfall. But what the audience could not accept was Cordelia’s death. True, she was not without fault—how dare she speak truth to power?—but her death cast the play in such a nihilistic light, that the ending was changed in the late 17th century. Nahum Tate adapted the play, changing the ending to one in which Cordelia lived and married Edgar. This version was the definitive version of the play until the 19th century. Audiences knew that Tate’s ending was not the “truth” but they didn’t care. They didn’t care to be subjected to such a dark ending. Like Lear in his final moments, the people turned away from Truth in favour of a more fairy tale ending. Eventually the world became too bleak to bear the cheesy ending and so the original was restored. But Tate’s version still hangs around, and it would not surprise me if there was a renewed hunger for it. Ali Smith opens her novel Spring with:
"Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment"
Which is as true a statement as any of our modern day. What do facts give us? That we are rapidly destroying our world beyond the point of no return? That isolation and nationalism are on the rise and we are working back towards, shoving (insert race) back into their own borders? That technology—created to better our lives—is robbing us of humanity? Who wants these facts? Why else are superhero and Disney films the top grossing moves? Look at the last two best picture winners at the Academy Awards--Shape of Water and Green Book—two films set in a “darker” past that distorts history in favour of stories that shine a beautiful light on humanity. Why should we “see better” when we could live out our days disregarding responsibility, giving over power to others, and ignoring the problems smacking us in the face? Or as Tina Fey put it: