Madness through king lear
In the 17th Century, madness was still a relatively new concept. Many people believed it was due to a person being possessed, which resulted in madness often being linked back to black magic and witchcraft. In context, the public would frequently visit Bedlam Hospital to enjoy the spectacle of a madman’s behaviour thus, Renaissance dramatists typically used ‘mad scenes’ for a comical effect. In spite of this, Shakespeare seems intent on a serious, if not slightly disturbing, portrayal of madness in King Lear.
Throughout the play King Lear, we bear witness to Lear’s gradual and possibly inevitable descent into madness. As early as Act I Scene 1 we, as the audience, observe early signs of the king’s insanity, albeit political at this point, we are alarmed at Lear’s decision to break up his state. Especially through the means he wishes to do so, his ‘love-test’ is foolish and egotistical, as is his desire to be treated as an important, royal personage after he has given away his kingdom.
It is fair to say that all through Act I Scene 1 Lear shows many times that he most concerned with appearances.
Seemingly his ‘love-test’ is going to plan, as Goneril and Regan extravagantly pledge their love and allegiance to their father, this is until Cordelia refuses to comply with Lear’s ‘love-test’, answering “I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more, no less. ” simply meaning that Cordelia loves her father as a daughter should. Lear, in his blissful ignorance, cannot see past Goneril and Regan’s elaborate speeches and instead feels humiliated by his youngest daughter’s unadorned answer.
As a result, he disowns her and banishes her, Cordelia then departs to France. We can see Lear is already losing control as he goes to strike his faithful advisor Kent and banishes him also, all because Kent questioned the Lear’s actions. As a consequence of Lear’s vituperative temper and his irrational, ‘insane’, actions he leaves himself powerless and at the mercy of his two eldest daughters, with neither his loyal advisor nor his devoted youngest daughter to protect him from what is to proceed.
As the play progresses, we can see that the king’s identity is gradually becoming unbeknown to him when he asks the question “Who is there that can tell me who I am? “1, we can see that Lear is slowly losing his wits. Lear’s speeches become increasingly disjointed as he becomes more distressed, hinting at the madness that will overtake him later in the play. He is becoming progressively isolated due to his fragile mental state, thus, through Lear the idea of madness could be seen as being presented as vulnerability. In Act II, Lear’s changes of moods and tones indicate his escalating mental instability.
His foolishness persists as he insists he will stay with the daughter that allows him to keep the most knights; there is desperation in his confrontation with his ‘dog-hearted’ daughters. Eventually, the beleaguered king’s rages become signs of impotence, not authority, emphasising the fact that the patriarch’s insanity has left him powerless and increasingly vulnerable. When the storm starts we recognise that Lear’s fear that he would go mad, first voiced in Act I Scene 4, has been realised. The storm serves as a metaphor for Lear’s – and England’s – plight, his speeches establish and reflect properties of the storm.
Through the storm, Lear’s madness is presented as destructive as his speeches are full of anger and distress, as the mad king moves swiftly from one topic to another. The violence of the imagery that the king employs reflects his state of mind. It is easy to see how Lear’s insanity could be viewed as destructive; he has caused his kingdom’s predicament through his rash actions at the beginning of the play, he has divided his family through his egotism and in his ‘mad’ rages he often behaves like a scorned child using invective language.
However, all this considered, Shakespeare also presents Lear’s madness as pitiful. Due to his madness Lear confronts his failings: as a father and a ruler. He shows compassion to the characters that have helped him i. e. the Fool, Kent/Caious and Poor Tom. Even when Lear starts to regain his wits, we sympathise with the king as with his new clarity of vision brings with it distress and much regret. These are not the facts that make us truly pity Lear; it is the reality that wisdom came too late.
Jesters were often kept by the monarch to provide witty analysis of contemporary behaviour and to remind the sovereign of his humanity; Lear’s Fool certainly fulfils these functions for his master. At first glance, the Fool’s professional madness is rendered as comical, his seemingly asinine jests often lighten the tone and provide some much needed moments of relief, the Fool’s flippant remark about Poor Tom’s clothing is a good example of him lightening the tone of a distressing scene.
However, through the Fool’s professional insanity Shakespeare presents a hidden wisdom. Lear’s Fool is ‘all-licensed’ which essentially means that the Fool is licensed to say things to his superior that anybody else would be punished for. Taking this, and the fact that Lear and his Fool seem to have a very close relationship (the Fool calling Lear ‘nuncle’ and Lear calling the Fool ‘boy’), throughout the time the Fool exists in the play he is able to counsel Lear. The Fool’s sarcastic jesting is blunt and hard hitting.
Almost as soon as the Fool enters in the play he harps on Lear’s folly, this is apparent when the king asks ‘Dost thou call me fool, boy? ‘ to which the Fool replies ‘All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with’2. Through the Fool’s madness he serves to push Lear towards the truth about his daughters this is evident when he warns Lear that Regan will side with Goneril, ‘Shalt see thy other daughter will use kindly; for though she’s as like this crabs like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell”3.
And again when he hints at the dangerous situation Lear has put himself in by reversing the natural order, making his daughters his mother, ‘The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had it head bit off by it young’4 – this is clearly warning the king that his daughters will turn against him. Furthermore, the Fool also tries to open the king’s eyes so that he can see these truths on his own, ‘Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise’5, as well as have some insight as to why these events are occurring.
The third character in question is that of Edgar / Poor Tom. Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate son, is introduced as being a passive, credulous dupe upon whom Edmund’s6 devious practices ride easy. We are only given a succinct introduction of Edgar before Shakespeare haves him disguise himself as Poor Tom. In the days of Shakespeare, ‘Bedlam hospital’ housed the mentally ill. When they were released Bedlam inmates were allowed to go begging for survival; this is what Edgar has been reduced to by his gullible father and his brother’s trickery.
“My face I’ll grime with filth, blanket my loins. Elf all my hairs in knots, and with presented nakedness outface the winds and persecutions of the sky”7 the fact that Edgar has to disguise himself as a ‘Bedlam beggar’, wandering the countryside in nothing but a loin cloth in order to preserve his life, presents to us his vulnerability and the sheer desperation of his feigned madness. Initially, Edgar is presented as a seemingly lucid character yet, as the plot unfolds we see he has many purposes within the play.
Shakespeare uses Edgar’s alias Poor Tom to provide some comical relief as the plot thickens as some of his antics and ramblings can prove to be amusing gibberish. However, in contrast, Poor Tom’s erratic breathless craziness in Act III Scene iv increases the pathos infinitely. A prime example of this would be when he (Edgar / Poor Tom) says that a ‘foul fiend’ “laid knives under his pillow and halters in this pew, set ratsbane by his porridge”, indicating towards suicide, this speech reflects Edgar’s fragile state of mind and, although fake, his madness is distressing to the audience.
We are reminded of Edgar’s humanity in Act III Scene vi (the mock trail scene) as he listens to Lear’s lunatic agony, his ‘act’ as Poor Tom momentarily breaks down at “Bless thy five wits” this in turn is another moment in which Edgar’s caricature increases the pathos of a scene. Furthermore, I feel that Shakespeare is using Edgar / Poor Tom’s situation to mirror Lear’s. Similarly to the besieged king, Edgar is now reliant on charity and he has also had his world and expectations turned upside down.
Edgar’s assumed madness indicates towards Lear’s eventual submission to complete insanity in Act III, through Poor Tom we glimpse what Lear will be reduced to. Madness is portrayed in different ways through these characters: professional, feigned and genuine insanity. Nonetheless, the idea of madness is presented as purposeful, almost like a journey, for all three of the characters in question. Edgar’s ‘pilgrimage’ through his contrived madness serves the obvious purpose of preserving his life.
The preservation of Edgar’s life enables him to guide his father but ultimately through his madness his valour is awakened allowing him to play the role of avenger at the end of the play. However, Edgar’s madness also serves a purpose to the principle protagonist, Lear, as it is noticeable that on the heath Edgar’s presence as his caricature Poor Tom aids Lear, as through interactions with Poor Tom the king’s humanity and understanding increase. The Fool’s professional jesting provides some much needed moments of relief. In spite of his comic role, the Fool’s main purpose within King Lear is to, in essence, be Lear’s conscience.
In other words, he bestows the king with truth and reason throughout the turbulent situations that occur during his, the Fool’s, time in the play. Due to the fact that he is ‘all-licensed’, and also has a close relationship with the king, he can inform and criticise Lear for his mistakes without being punished for it, this permits him to counsel Lear. Lear eventually gains the insight he needs to perceive his daughters and society for what it really is, insincere and immoral. The Fool’s abrupt disappearance signifies that Lear has gained all the understanding he needs to distinguish between and reality.
Therefore, the Fool is no longer needed: his purpose has been fulfilled. Unlike Edgar or the Fool, Lear’s madness is not an imminent occurrence, it develops throughout the play. The insanity of the king is unequivocally ironic, in his apparent sanity he was introduced to be conceited and imprudent, yet when he is ‘mad’ he becomes a more humble, compassionate and attractive character. At the beginning of the play Lear acts exceptionally irrational and cannot see the verity of his superficial values but as a result of his ‘madness’ he demonstrates an increasingly sincere, tolerant side to his nature.
Attributable to his intensifying humility he is able to recognise his wrong doings as a leader and a father thus, the king’s madness redeems him as he learns the value of true emotion and is able to consider the sufferings of those close to him. Consequently, this enables Lear to reconcile with his beloved daughter Cordelia. In conclusion, the madness of King Lear is deeply distressing, it develops from and points back to the king’s instability.
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