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  • Seeing Blindness
  • Stuart Hart
Blind Spots of Knowledge in Shakespeare and His World: A Conversation edited by Subha Mukherji. Medieval Institute Publications, 2019. £71. ISBN 9 7815 8044 3654

When, at the beginning of Act IV of King Lear, the old man refuses to leave Gloucester despite his insistence, because the latter 'cannot see [his] way', the blind Gloucester proclaims, reflecting profoundly on his earlier failure to perceive his sons morally:

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 defectsProve our commodities …

(F. IV. i. 18–21)

Later in the same act, Lear himself questions his own mis-recognitions when he exclaims, 'Doth any here know me? This is not Lear: | … Who is it that can tell me who I am?' (I. iv. 246–50). This follows Goneril's earlier damning assessment of her father, who 'hath ever but slenderly known himself' (I. i. 292–3). The complex relationship between seeing and knowing, and what happens when we see defectively, or unsee, lies at the heart of much Shakespearean drama and forms the basis of this collection. [End Page 89]

As John Berger notes, 'it is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world'; however; 'the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled' (Ways of Seeing, quoted on p. 1). Seeing is a more complex process than a purely optical one; it involves more than a mechanical reaction to stimuli. Shakespeare knew this; again and again, we see him question the Aristotelian epistemology that 'sight best helps us to know things', as well as the 'Platonic tradition where knowing is a kind of seeing' (p. 1). In her fascinating introduction to the volume, Mukherji invites the reader to 'think of situations where [Shakespearean] characters misread from circumstantial evidence, supplementing what is invisible or obscure by bending their gaze, reading inferentially from a semiotic neighbourhood'. By doing so, she introduces readers to the metaphorical concept of blind spots in texts whereby knowledge is 'obfuscated or hindered' (p. 17).

In scientific terms, a blind spot, or scotoma, is a part of the retina which lacks photoreceptor cells, thereby preventing vision at this point in the visual field. However, through a curious process of readjustment, the brain interprets the blind spot by 'interpolating it with information from the surrounding field, including the other eye: so the blind spot itself is not visible to the eye to which it belongs. But because of its invisibility in the "normal sense", it induces an optically inventive way of seeing, activating tools of perception not ordinarily in use' (p. 2). For Mukherji, the recalibration or cognitive adjustment that is 'so central to the optical functions of the blind spot models a hermeneutic encounter where the conventional processing of information is disrupted and diverted' (p. 7). Blind spots were not scientifically documented until 1660, by the French physicist Edmé Mariotte. However, as Mukherji argues, it seems that Shakespeare seems to have known of them well before they were recorded by Mariotte, drawing upon their metaphorical possibilities to highlight the ways in which knowledge becomes entangled as normal routes of seeing are diverted.

'Tracing the unknowable back into modes of knowing so far unexplored or merely intuited, then, is the main conceptual aim' of the collection (p. 21). To frame the volume's argument, Mukherji draws upon a number of instances whereby these epistemological blind spots are crucial to Shakespearean drama, especially in King Lear, Othello, The Winter's Tale, and The Comedy of Errors. She argues that these metaphorical scotomata are integral to Shakespeare's depiction of human reality through their portrayal of characters' perceptual failure (cannot know) or, worse, denial (will not know). As she demonstrates, Shakespeare seems particularly interested in considering how, when faced with obscure knowledge, individuals construct their own version of reality, or the world they choose to see or unsee, by 'taking cues from the visible world', just as the brain recalibrates its perceptions by [End Page 90] interpolating information from the local field of vision to compensate for the blind spot (p. 7). However, as we see in...


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