Madness and Nature in King Lear
Madness and nature often work together in strange ways. Nature can drive a man to madness, and madness can drive a man to nature; in King Lear, both of these are true. Lear’s madness is one of the root conflicts in the play, but it can be argued that it is just in his nature. Lear does not suffer the ever-present general madness of Shakespeare’s day, but a more specific variety: King Lear exhibits all the signs of an elderly person dealing with mild to moderate dementia.
Examining Lear’s character in the context of being diagnosed with an actual illness, not just “senility” or “madness” allows us a look at two things; first, it allows us to justify some of his rash actions in light of his illness, and second, it allows us to look at how mental illness was treated in that time.
In Dennis Seloke’s article The Aging Mind: Deciphering Alzheimer’s Disease & Its Antecedents, he asserts that the “madness” of old age is not technically a real illness.
“First, over time, the brain accrues molecular and cellular defects in neurons and glia, which reduce its physiological reserve, just as occurs in muscle cells with age. This process makes the brain more susceptible to loss of function if and when a neurological disease is imposed. Second, some of the specific diseases that cause dementia require great time to produce enough brain abnormalities, or lesions, to compromise function. For instance, in Alzheimer’s disease and certain other dementias, a lot of time is needed to reach a critical tissue concentration of particular proteins that allows for their polymerization into potentially toxic forms. In short, the process of brain aging can contribute to the development of a clinically noticeable dementing illness, but aging by itself appears to be in sufficient to cause the illness.”
This means, in short, that Lear was not just a senile old fool closing in on his last days of life; he had a legitimate illness that his age was only a part of. Seloke goes on to say “In the popular mind, and even among scientists and philosophers, the idea that great age inevitably brought about an inability to think clearly was widely accepted·reinterpretation of the nature of the aging mind has profound implications on both the personal and societal levels.” Reinterpreting Lear’s actions in the viewpoint of mental illness allows us to see that his actions share a great many similarities to actions dementia patients frequently exhibit; vicious mood swings, confusion, depression, inability to deal with change, etcetera. His actions towards and treatment of his court and his own daughters resemble the common occurrence wherein dementia patients lash out at those who take care of them, or those with whom they have a familiar/familial relationship.
This idea of senility and inability in old age is long held and pervasive, and we can see some of Lear’s court, including his daughters, treat him in a manner befitting a doddering old man past his prime. Regan, when Lear arrives at Gloucester’s castle, even tells him: “O, sir, you are old; Nature in you stands on the very verge Of her confine. You should be ruled and led By some discretion, that discerns your state Better than you yourself.” (King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4). Rather than taking Lear’s emotional and mental legitimacy as a person into consideration, they treat him as a mad blight to be hidden away; it is analogous to the way that many dementia patients are committed to memory facilities long before their mental faculties are far gone.
Lear’s actions, especially that of fleeing to the heath and throwing a tantrum, are very childlike in their own way. Shakespeare himself touches on the phenomenon of a “second childhood” in another play, As You Like It; “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7). This is an accurate observation of human nature, in that the close we get to death, the less of our “human” faculties we retain, including physical, mental, and social aptitudes. On the heath, Lear rages against a terrible storm; this is an allegory for Lear raging at his own nature and the nature of his disease. He laments that “Here I stand, your slave, A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.” (King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2, 19-20). Lear speaks not only to the Storm and Nature, but to himself and his own mental illness. He is the slave of Nature and his own nature, and both have made him a shadow of who he once was, who he wishes he still was; “Lear cannot debate within himself nor surrender his pride so far as to confide in anyone. The condition of his ordeal is that he cannot recognize his own weakness and dependence on others,” (Bennett, 143-144).
In The Emotional Landscape of King Lear, Arthur Kirsch opens by saying “Prominent critics have contended that Lear is locked in combat with Elizabethan conceptions of Providence and order·” The play would tend to agree. Lear is the opposite of Elizabethan order; he purposely divides his kingdom in three so that he may “unburdened crawl towards death” (King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1). It can be argued that in a rare moment of clarity, Lear did what he thought was right to help rule the country peacefully, but that his plans are ruined when his emotions get hold of him and he asks his daughters to profess and explain their love for him to receive their portions of the kingdom. It can also be argued that Lear’s fading mental sharpness ruined his ability to rule. Rebecca Munson’s article “”The Marks of Sovereignty”: The Division of The Kingdom and The Division of The Mind in King Lear,” Munson makes the point that Lear’s mental break, or the point where his cognitive functions decreased rapidly, could have come before his division of the kingdom, or could have been triggered by it.
“Whether Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom stems from what could be called “Disability in his natural Body” depends largely on the concept of disability. At the time, the term disability did not carry any specific connotation of physical injury or mental deficiency, but meant simply “inability, incapacity, or impotence” … This raises again the question of the causal relationship between Lear’s abdication and his madness: does Lear divide the kingdom because he is mad, or is his madness caused by the division?” (Munson 19).
Lear’s confused nature about where he is in both time and place may have something to do with his willingness to do something as experimental and possibly dangerous as dividing up his kingdom into three parts. In an exchange with Kent nearer the end of the play, Lear demands to know where he is.
“Lear: Am I in France?
Kent: In your own kingdom, sir.
Lear: Do not abuse me.”
(King Lear, Act 4, Scene 7).
Losing time or mistaking time and place are common among dementia patients, and although this particular show of confused nature is exhibited nearer the end of the play, it does not mean that displacing time and/or place was not an issue Lear was dealing with earlier.
Lear’s relationship with his daughters is a problematic one at best, but one that is understandable when framed by mental illness. His relationship with Goneril and Regan is a tempestuous one, but they do not seem to care about Lear outside of what he had to offer them of the kingdom. After Lear banishes Cordelia, Goneril says to Regan “You see how full of changes his age is,” (Act 1, Scene 1, 290). They remark in a cold and calculating manner on the shifts in Lear’s actions as his age progressed, wondering how it would affect them after their inheritance of the kingdom. Goneril plots with Regan about how to strike Lear down; “Pray you, let’s hit together,” (Act 1, Scene 1, 304). They agree that Lear has to be put away and that he shall not be allowed to gallivant about in their homes. They treat him not with the affections one would wish from loving daughters, but rather with an air of disposal and uselessness.
Cordelia, on the other hand, recognizes Lear’s descent into madness. She, as the favorite daughter, would more closely understand the shifts Lear had been experiencing in his disposition over the years. This explains why she would not play into his game of thrones; she would rather have been banished and received aught as inheritance that played into her father’s illness and ego. Lear’s punishment of Cordelia is blown out of proportion:
“In a modern audience his treatment of Cordelia more readily evokes disapproval. He is not merely harsh in his punishment of her, he is positively vindictive. She is to have not the worst third, but nothing. He even tries to dissuade her suitors from taking her (11. 189-266), and finally denies his paternity, “we have no such daughter”,” (Bennett, 152).
Later in the play, when a near-dead Lear is brought to Cordelia, he has a moment of clarity about his state of being: “And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man; Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant,” (Act 4, Scene 7, 63-66). He also realizes whom he is speaking to; “I think this lady To be my child Cordelia…If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong,” (Act 4, Scene 7, 70-71, 73-75). Although he is not entirely correct about Cordelia’s feelings towards him, he is lucid; bouts of lucidity are not uncommon among dementia patients. Although he is not so far gone as to no longer remember anything, his dementia is still progressed enough to make this bout of clarity rare.
Lear’s treatment is analogous of many elderly people. The elderly, even in this day and age, are treated as somewhat frail. The treatment of the elderly is usually fraught with disrespect and mockery, and in Shakespeare’s day this seems to be the case as well, given that in most of his plays, the elderly are characters never associated with wisdom, but rather senile fools to be ignored. Lear’s character in the play is incredibly rash, but it is said by Goneril that before his illness consumed him, he was also rash; “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash,” (Act 1, Scene 1, 296-297). This proves that although one’s innate character may become obfuscated in one’s mental illness, the real nature of a person does not change.
Identifying King Lear as a character with mental illness somewhat changes the play’s nature in accordance to his character. In Josephine Bennett’s article “The Storm Within: the Madness of Lear”, she asserts that “An understanding of Lear’s madness is essential to any serious interpretation of the play and to any understanding of its structure,” (Bennett, 137). While this is true, most interpretations tend to focus on the effects Lear’s madness, and the actions it perpetrates, has on the play rather than on Lear himself. Lear is obviously tortured by his older daughters’ actions and inhumanities and his youngest daughter’s refusal to play to his ego, but he is also tortured by the loss of himself.
Lear’s death is tragic; he is having a rare moment of clarity about Cordelia and her state, and right as he believes her to be breathing and not dead, he dies. The end of his life was traumatic and fraught with the descent into an illness that seems to have been creeping in for years before the beginning of the play. Edgar, at the close of the play, poignantly states why the elderly should be treated with dignity, even in the clutches of illness; “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
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