Sight & Insight
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King Lear, Ran, and what we gain when we lose
Of all the reflections on madness in King Lear, it is Gloucester’s which is perhaps the most poignant. Gloucester’s situation reflects Lear’s; more than any other character, Gloucester understands what Lear is going through. While the others offer their sympathy, Gloucester is the only one who could offer an empathetic response—he truly feels what Lear feels. Gloucester’s newly fraught relationship with his sons lends some credence to his opinion on Lear’s psychological state, so when he says:
The King is mad: how stiff is my vile sense,
That I stand up and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows? Better I were distract;
So should my thoughts be severed from my griefs,
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
That knowledge of themselves.
It seems we ought to take him at his word that madness is far preferable to the slings and arrows of life; if anyone would know, it would be Gloucester.
This sentiment is echoed in Akira Kurosawa's Ran by Kyoami, the Fool’s counterpart, who insists that in a world that has descended into madness, it is far better to be mad than to try to cling to one’s sanity. Madness is presented in both King Lear and Ran as a viable escape from the world, and as an affliction which—given the suffering of the king-figure—it would be cruel to alleviate. But though the two versions of Lear seem to agree on the merits of madness, Ran treats blindness—an affliction which, in King Lear, is framed in much the same ways as madness—in entirely novel ways, which reflect some of the larger thematic differences between the two stories.
When Gloucester’s eyes are plucked from his head in Lear, his blindness is accompanied by revelation. Like many in the Western canon before and after, Gloucester finds that being eye-less actually helps him to “see” the world far more clearly than he previously had. In 1.2, when Edmund first begins to exercise his cunning against his father, Gloucester’s vision is complicit in his deception. “Let’s see,” he says, “Come if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles” (1.2.35-36) and insists further “Let’s see, let’s see” (1.2.43). Later on, when he no longer can see, Gloucester acknowledges that it was his sight that led him astray:
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes:
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen
Our means secure us and our mere defects
Prove our commodities.
This sentiment, though it comes most powerfully through Gloucester, is echoed by other characters as well. Lear insists that “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes” (4.6.146), and Albany, in conversation with Goneril, says: “How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell: / Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (1.4.341-2). The common thread throughout the play seems to be that our eyes may fall victim to illusion, or may be tricked by falsehoods, and that in this regard blindness is a kind of blessing. The irony of gaining perception after losing sight is similar, if not identical, to Kyoami’s statement about how madness can become the only sane choice.
Even if we find such a tenet untenable, Gloucester’s blinding is at least presented to us as a kind of cosmic justice. Though he is not, in that brutal sequence, being arraigned for his lechery, the suggestion is that his blindness is well-earned. It is Edgar, his own son, who announces to the gathered crowd at play’s end: “The dark and vicious place where thee [Edmund] he got / Cost him his eyes” (5.3.170-1), drawing a direct connection between the two chronologically distant happenings. The Arden edition affirms Edgar’s sense of justice in a footnote to 3.7.5 (“Goneril: Pluck out his eyes!”), which calls such brutality “an appropriate punishment, since it was sight that attracted men to commit adultery,” and goes on to inform the reader that “blinding had been a medieval penalty for rape.” We can take some consolation, then: even if we refuse to accept blindness as preferable to vision, we can rest easy knowing that Gloucester's blindness is the endgame of some cosmic justice, which makes it more palatable (perhaps because it removes the element of chaos, and therefore the element of fear).
But in Ran, Tsurumaru’s blindness is neither just nor ironically preferable to vision. When Hidetora plucks out Tsurumaru’s eyes, he is not a lecherous man. Tsurumaru is just a child at the time, his only crime having been his birth into a family which opposed the Ichimonji campaigns. And unlike Gloucester, who we are led to believe benefits in some way from his blindness, Tsurumaru is just sad and blind. He receives no extra wisdom and does not prove himself to be immune to trickery; unlike Gloucester, no insight replaces his sight.
Though Tsurumaru receives relatively little screen-time, his importance to the themes and intentions of Ran is emphasized by his lonely presence in the last few shots of the film. Our eyes are led to Tsurumaru and his plight as a subject of reflection, and our minds follow. This difference in blindnesses highlights an essential difference between King Lear and Ran. In Lear, characters either suffer as a result of a kind of justice (Goneril and Regan, for example) or they learn a lesson from their suffering (Edgar and Lear) or both (Gloucester). Ran is, I would argue, an even more tragic text than King Lear—because the world that it posits is one in which our suffering has no real meaning.