The Three Forms of Madness in King Lear

April 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

This essay concentrates on Act 111, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s King Lear, a tragic and powerful scene in which we witness Lear’s mind tragically giving way to the menace of madness, which has relentlessly pursued him throughout the play. However, the character of Lear only portrays one of the three forms of madness represented in the scene – he may be the only character who is truly mad, but there is also the feigned madness of Poor Tom, and the professional madness of the Fool. These varying forms of madness are all represented in different ways via varying styles and forms of language, imagery, movement and verbal styles.By the time that this scene takes place, Lear has been reduced from being a powerful and respected monarch with hundreds of followers, to being a lonely, rejected man, cast out of his own kingdom, his family, and all his fortune and wealth. He has been shut out in the night to wander the earth, accompanied by the only subjects whom remain loyal ­ his Fool, and the Earl of Kent, who is disguised as Caius. The Fool and Kent have joined together in the scene to support the king, both physically and mentally.That Lear finds himself here is a mixture of the results of his own folly, and the cruelty that he suffers by the hands of his own flesh and blood. In the first scene of the play, Lear makes a series of mistakes, which ultimately prove fatal for the king. Firstly, he misguidedly casts off Cordelia, his only loyal daughter, then he proceeds to divide his kingdom between the two remaining ‘pelican daughters’ (111.4.72), leaving himself with nothing but trust in his daughter’s love for him. However, as their title here suggests, his two daughters betray their doting fathers trust by seizing all power from him and uniting to place him in the wretched situation he now finds himself in.Even though Lear has been reduced to so little, his voice still remains the commanding one. He retains the language of the central figure, the hero of the play. He specialises in hyperbole, inciting the stars at every given opportunity, including here, when he is cast out from his family and he commands the stars to cast down their diseases upon those that have caused him pain:Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters! (111.4.64-5)He conducts trials, ordering the wholly unqualified, but in Lear’s demented eyes, ‘most learned justicer’ (111.6.21), Poor Tom, to be judge at the make-believe trial of Regan and Gonerill, he gives sermons, and he prays.Lear’s prayer in Act 111, Scene 4, shows him gaining his last firm foothold before his fall into the abyss of madness. As Danby claims, Lear has already learned humility and patience – now he learns charity, (Danby 1948, p. 186) and also repentance of his ³pomp² (111.4. 33); Lear is oblivious to the physical damage such a tempest causes him, informing Kent that ‘This tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses takes all feeling else / Save what beats there. (111.4.13-15), and so rather he prays for those others who are at the mercy of the gods and the storm. When he refers to himself, it is not to pray for his salvation, but to rebuke himself for the way he has lived his life, and to command himself to ‘take physic, pomp’ (111.4.33) – to become morally healthy by rejecting his old ways.When Lear prays, he is on a thin line between madness and sanity. A.C. Bradley questions, whether or not, had the king been allowed to sleep, as is his intention before the prayer, he would have actually made a return to health, as he does in Act 1V, Scene 7 (Bradley, 1948,287). As it is, this sleep and possible recovery is prevented by the arrival of Poor Tom, who bursts angrily into the scene, complete with curses and outbursts that team with his ghastly appearance to provide the catalyst that finally pushes Lear over the brink into madness.The sights and sounds of demented Poor Tom have an immediate effect on the king, sending him into a madness that is all the more tragic because of the contrast between himself only moments before, when he seems almost lucid, and his now wholly demented persona. Now he utters the first words of a truly mad king. His fall into madness is portrayed by the question, ‘Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou/ come to this?’ (111.4.47-48). His question sounds almost hopeful ­ has he now found someone who is in the same plight as himself? Is he no longer alone in his suffering? The king cannot conceive that any thing or event could cause such pain and destitution as that which Poor Tom seems to suffer from, than one’s own flesh and blood, one’s daughters. He clutches to his idea and repeats it again and again (111.4.60-61, 64-69), refusing to listen to the futile voice of sanity and reason which manifests itself in the figure of Kent, who remains patient with the king throughout.The reason for Tom’s potent effect on the King is that the king has immediately identified with his pitiful situation. Lear has been cut off from his family, both because of his own folly in giving away his entire kingdom, and because of the treachery and deceitfulness of the two former daughters. He sees himself and his daughters as part of one body, a body that Regan and Gonerill have mutilated:Is it not as this mouth should tear this handFor lifting food to’t? (111.4.16 -17)As he identified himself with his daughters, now that he has been cut (or bitten) off, he is lost ­ he is desperate for someone to identify with, and in the meantime he flees from the madness that at every turn threatens to take hold of him, as he cries ‘O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; / No more of that’ (111.4. 21­22). Tom, in the image of complete and utter human destitution, provides that someone that Lear is looking for.Lear, in his madness, has gained as well as lost. He does lose his dignity, identity, all the power and respect he was so used to commanding – with Lear existing in a world where the ruler of a country is, in authority, equal almost to God, his imperialism knew no bounds and was never questioned or resisted. Now his perception of reality has been completely overturned. But, as a result of this overturning, he has gained knowledge that he never possessed in sanity, learning truths that he could never before conceive. His way of thinking has been reversed – he is no longer concerned with status or politics, as they are irrelevant to his new reality. He now sees past all the false flattery of his daughters and those around him, all the supposedly loyal servants, whom so readily deserted him, just like ants who have learned that ‘there’s no labouring i’the winter’ (11.4.66). He emerges slowly from the political world that he was so immersed in, and begins to see the importance of individual human life versus status, and as Danby argues, morality versus politics (Danby, 1948, p. 171) He is now in a world where the ‘quality’ (11.4.91) of individual personality is what matters, and position has lost its meaning. Therefore, for Lear, Poor Tom provides an image of man exactly as he should be ­ naked against the world, not cloaked in lies and falseness, with no protection against the elements and facing life exactly as he is:’Thou owest the Worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the Cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself! Unacommodated man is no More but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.’ (111.4.100-104)Lear sees the beggar therefore as a ‘learned Theban’ (111.4.150), someone who knows the secrets of life and nature better than he, and so Lear begins to question him, ‘What is the cause of thunder?’ (111.4.147). Lear goes on a quest to share in his new mentor’s knowledge of the world, hence the tearing off of his clothes in an attempt to emulate him (111.4.105).Edgar has invented a persona to fit what was, in Shakespeare’s time, the stereotypical image of madness and despair. He incessantly talks of the ‘foul fiend’ (111.4.44), the devil that supposedly haunted the maddened; he claims to have received the traditional Devil-given gifts of knives, halters and ratsbane (111.4.52-53); he claims to see the devil ‘Flibberdigibbet’ when Gloucester enters, an accusation which perhaps reflects the rejected Edgar’s feelings towards his father at this point in the play. Also, he defends himself against Gloucester’s derisory remark about the low caliber of his company (111.4.135) by replying that he is attended by no less than ‘Modo’ and ‘Mahu’ (111.4.136-7), grand commanders of legions of devils. He goes to great lengths to present a complex, cohesive and convincing image of himself and his existance, with his wild images of pursuing devils and his long-winded speech describing his past life, when there was little need to go to such lengths ­ Lear is immediately taken in by his act, and the other characters are so busy being concerned with other events and troubles that they have little inclination to take heed of this mad vagrants rambling stories.Poor Tom’s physical appearance on stage would certainly convey the look of a poor beggar in utter destitution ­ he is almost naked (111.4.62-3), and his physical wounds are indicated by Lear’s words, ‘is it the fashion that discarded fathers/Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?’ referring, presumably, both to his nakedness and the wounds or scratches he has received as the result of this lack of protective clothing. However, despite this verbal and physical appearance, Poor Tom, in his ‘madness’, does not appear as tragic as Lear, for many reasons, the most obvious of which being that the audience knows it to be an act put on by the disguised Edgar. The audience feels pity only for Edgar, not for his manifestation of the ‘Bedlam beggar’ (11.3.14). Also, a touch of humour in Poor Tom undermines his tragic circumstances ­ for example, his imitation of a sailor navigating the deep, dark depths of the hovel his imaginary ship sails through. The cry of ‘Fathom and half, fathom and half!’ (111.4.37), is not the cry of a soul in deepest torment from the ‘foul fiend’ (111.4.43). Indeed, he seems to have an odd amount of energy for one so destitute.The Fool is another character who represents yet another form of madness ­ professional madness. The Fool spends his life singing songs, riddles and rhymes – ostensibly to entertain the king ­ and in comparing the linguistic styles of the king and his sidekick Fool, we see how different the two character’s positions are. While the King, so used to total authority, bellows at the stars, commanding them to do his bidding, the Fool whispers little ditties into his ear, speaking only to the person, not to the universe, which he rightfully comprehends, is out of his control. But the king would have done better to listen to this lowly Fool from the onset, for beneath the veil of nonsense, there lies an ocean of common sense. When the king rejects Cordelia, the Fool attempts to bombard Lear with this common sense in the only way his station in life allows him to ­ through rhyme and riddle:’There, take my coxcomb! Why, this Fellow has banished two on’s daughters, and did the Third a blessing against his will. If thou follow him, thou Must needs wear my coxcomb. How now, nuncle! Would I have two coxcombs and two daughters! (1.4.99-105)Through looking carefully at the true meaning of his ‘nonsense’, we can see that the Fool is not mad – he is in fact perhaps more sane than Lear ever was. He is yet another character in disguise, in a play filled with disguises. He constantly ironises the king, subtly mocking his actions and remarks with his comments, such as his sarcastic remark, ‘Nay, he reserved a blanket; else we had been all / shamed’ (111.4.62-3), in reply to one of Lear’s confused questions. However, in this scene when the king loses his mind, we see the Fool slowly beginning to realise his impotence ­ the king never before listened to his comments and advice, and he now lacks not just the inclination, but the ability to comprehend what he is being told, whether it be disguised as humour or not. The Fools realisation of the predicament the company is in is shown in his comment ‘This cold night will turn us all to fools and mad- / men’ (111.4.75-6). Edgar has taken over the role of the Fool, the King is mad, and the Fool has become the balanced observer. The Fool remains loyal until he realises he can no longer fulfill any sort of purpose ­ the king has gone mad, and no longer hears him. The only fool he will listen to is Poor Tom, and so the Fool takes his leave from the dialogue at the end of Act 111 Scene 6, with the words ‘and I’ll go to bed at noon’ (111.6.83)Kent’s patience and calm serves to highlight the madness all around him, whether it is the true madness of the king, Edgar’s feigned madness, or the professional madness of the Fool. He entreats his King to enter shelter a total of four times, never giving up on a man who did not listen to his sensibility at the beginning of the play, when he defends Cordelia, and even if he wished, he lacks the ability to listen now. Nevertheless, Kent stays with his master, sacrificing his own health to remain out in the metaphorical and physical storm with the king whom earlier ordered his banishment. Kent constantly tries to bring Lear back to reality, interjecting his outbursts with doses of sanity, such as when he tries to explain that Tom ‘hath no daughters, sir’ (111.4.66). Unlike the Fool, whom soon realises the futility of efforts to communicate with the King and gives up, exiting the dialogue with the words ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ (111.6.83), Kent persists, and remains with the king until the very end of the play.Thus we can see that the three cases of madness which are portrayed in this scene all draw upon varying theatrical means to represent their different forms. Different styles of speech are used by each character, with Lear’s overstating and the Fool’s realist comments on society, different aural effects and images portraying various outlooks on life, whether it be Tom’s vision of Hell, or Lear’s images of the heavens and their avenging stars (111.4.65). Through these contrasting styles of the characters in this scene, we witness the sanity of the professional madman, the comic Fool, and see how little the playacted madness of Poor Tom compares to the true and tragic pain endured by the tortured King Lear.

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