Discuss Shakespeare’s treatment of madness in “King Lear”

October 9, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

In “King Lear”, Shakespeare uses many different concepts of madness, real, feigned and professional madness. The character of King Lear, himself shows high and low points of genuine insanity. The character Edgar disguises himself as a deranged beggar. The fool displays madness for humour as part of his job as an entertainer. Throughout the play Shakespeare also uses a background of bizarre weather conditions to emphasise the theme of madness. Most of the characters apart from Edmund have a belief in the gods; these beliefs can be seen as absurd to a modern day reader. Gloucester’s madness is his inability to understand situations and to see people for what they really are.

King Lear’s madness starts at the beginning of the play with political insanity when he decides to divide his kingdom between his daughters using a ‘love test’. His ‘love test’ unfolds the wrong results. He ends up giving the kingdom to Goneril and Regan, the daughters that love him least and sending away Cordelia, the daughter that really cares for him. The Earl of Kent realises Lear has not seen the insincerity of Goneril and Regan labelling him as mad for succumbing to their charms.

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“Be Kent unmannerly, When Lear is mad…when power to flattery bows…And in thy best consideration check this hideous rashness.”

(Act 1 Scene 1, Kent to Lear)

King Lear shows madness in his anger when he banishes Kent for opposing his decisions of dividing his kingdom. King Lear expects obedience from everyone and is used to getting his own way. He explodes with anger when Cordelia and Kent don’t respond to him the way he wants. King Lear’s explosions of anger hint his future madness. Other hints of his future madness come when Goneril dismisses 50 of Lear’s followers, he shouts threats and curses and his speaking become more irregular as he becomes more distressed.

In Act One Scene 5, Lear begins to regret his treatment of Cordelia and worries that Goneril’s ingratitude is driving him mad. Lear’s mental state is becoming increasingly fragile.

“O let me not be mad, not mad sweet heaven; keep me in temper, I would not be mad.”

(Act 1 Scene 5, Lear)

Lear’s mental stability continues to come into question when he argues with Goneril and Regan. Lear’s daughters’ ability to strip him of his power and authority sends him into a mad frenzy. Lear becomes hysterical with sorrow.

“O fool, I shall go mad.”

(Act 2 Scene 2, Lear)

Lear leaves Goneril’s house with the intent to stay with his other daughter Regan. However, Regan, like her sister, has no plans of allowing Lear and his knights in her house. Goneril informs Regan of their father’s plans. On receipt of this information, Regan decides to visit Gloucester, intentionally spoiling Lear’s plans.

“I have this evening from my sister been well inform’d of them…That if they come to sojourn at my house, I’ll not be there.”

(Act 2 Scene 1, Regan)

When Kent arrives with a message from Lear and fights with Oswald, Regan along with her husband Cornwall lock Kent in the stocks, ignoring the King’s authority by treating his representative with no respect. When Gloucester tries to convince Cornwall and Regan to release Kent because the King will ‘take it ill’ that his messenger has been ‘thus restrain’d’, Cornwall is not afraid to accept the blame.

“I’ll answer that.”

(Act 2 Scene 2, Cornwall)

When Lear arrives at Gloucester’s castle, he is confused to why no message has been sent back to him. Lear is enraged by the imprisonment of Kent in the stocks. The imprisonment of Kent unnerves the King.

“They could not, would not do’t: ’tis worse than murther”

(Act 2 Scene 2, Lear)

Lear, at this point in the play is now reduced to carrying out his own requests and goes in search of Regan.

“Follow me not, stay here.

(Act 2 Scene 2, Lear)

When Lear returns his anger is increased, Regan and Cornwall have refused to talk with him, Lear thinks they are tricking him. This is proof of the contempt that Lear is treated with.

“Deny to speak with me?”

(Act 2 Scene 2, Lear)

When Regan and Cornwall arrive, Lear becomes pitiful and pleas to Regan. Regan’s adopts a sharp tone and advises Lear to return back to Goneril. Lear pleads in his speech, claiming he is a weak, old man begging for clothing and shelter.

“On my knees I beg, that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.”

(Act 2 Scene 2, Lear)

Regan ignores her father’s pleas and repeats her instructions to return to Goneril. Lear’s begging and pleading continues to no effect. Lear erratically changes the conversation back to Kent and his imprisonment, indicating the instability of his mind.

Goneril agitates Lear. Regan becomes harsher with Lear. Lear remains stubborn. Lear fears he is losing his wits and curses Goneril. Regan contradicts him and suggests a further reduction to his knight train. Lear tries to remind his daughters of everything he gave them. Goneril and Regan manage to argue Lear out of all of his knights.

Lear won’t accept Goneril and Regan’s way of looking at the world. Lear leaves. Lear is ‘in high rage.’ Goneril and Regan want Lear to suffer the consequences of his actions, so they lock him out.

Lear’s emotional decline into madness is highlighted to the audience by the brief scenes in the third act. During this time on the heath, Lear reaches the height of his madness. Lear’s speeches flit from one subject to another full of anger and resent for his daughters. Lear’s lack of communication with the other characters shows the internal struggle he is fighting. Lear refuses to face reality and a world full of feelings and emotions. Lear battles with himself to try to keep his sanity. Lear feels wronged and becomes obsessed with justice.

“I am a man, more sinn’d against, than sinning.”

(Act Three Scene Two, Lear)

In his madness Lear begins to see the world differently and takes notice of things he was blind to as king. Lear’s madness increases his understanding. The storm appears to have no physical effect on Lear because of his inner torment. Lear’s mental anguish exceeds his physical pain.

Poor Tom’s appearance on the heath sends Lear more demented. Lear, at first, believes Tom has suffered from the same plight as him, the ingratitude of his daughters.

“Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?”

(Act Three Scene 4, Lear)

Lear becomes almost obsessed with Tom and believes Tom holds the answers to everything. Lear even strips away his clothes to make himself more like Tom and to return to basics. By the time Lear meets Poor Tom, he is beyond help.

“I’ll talk a word with this same learned Theban.”

(Act Three Scene 4, Lear)

When Lear sets up the mock trial it is a reproduction of the ‘love-test’ in the first scene. However, in the trial, Lear in his madness, is able to see his daughters for what they really are.

When Cordelia returns from France, Lear begins to regain his wits. This return of sanity is not all positive, Lear is now deeply regretful. Through his suffering Lear has received wisdom and understanding.

After Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia, Lear begins to reclaim his sanity as imagines his life with Cordelia in prison. Some people may think he is still mad because these dreams are all an illusion.

In Lear’s final moment, his madness seems to have returned when he mourns the death of Cordelia.

“A plague upon you murderers, traitors all, I might have sav’d her, now she’s gone forever: Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little.”

(Act Five Scene 3, Lear)

Madness opens up a new view on life for Lear. Lear can now see beyond himself and his own selfishness. Lear appreciates life and understands what it is to have nothing.

“Is man no more than this?”

(Act Three Scene Four, Lear)

Lear, however, still cannot accept responsibility for his own downfall. He believes it is Goneril and Regan who have ruined him but forgets who gave them the kingdom to take over.

“O Regan, Goneril, Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all.”

(Act 3 Scene 4, Lear)

Lear becomes a more humble man and with his new kindness the audience feels some sympathy for him.

In madness, Lear becomes obsessive. The ‘filal ingratitude’ of Goneril and Regan is Lear’s greatest obsession. Lear is so obsessed with his daughters’ betrayal of their father he believes ungrateful daughters have also betrayed Poor Tom. Lear becomes obsessed with his new view on life, he sees all men as equals, so strips to unify himself with Poor Tom.

Lear’s madness makes him think there is no justice in the world that he is a man more sinned against than sinning. Lear thinks he has done nothing wrong to provoke or encourage his daughters’ scheming, evil behaviour. Lear wants justice for the wrongs he has been subjected to. Lear will never get justice because he does not realise he is partially to blame.

The weather is a very important part of Lear’s madness; the storm reflects Lear’s mental state. Lear goes into the storm in search of an answer. Lear believes the storm is in league with Goneril and Regan. The elements show prophetic falacy, imitating Lear’s mood. Lear’s speeches establish and echo properties of the storm. The storm helps the tension build on the heath and stresses the height of emotions and the passion.

The madness Edgar displays as the character Poor Tom is that associated with sixteenth century mental asylums. This character of a Tom O Bedlam would have been common in Shakespearean times, a former resident of the Bethlehem Hospital mental asylum loose in the community. The character of Poor Tom in Shakespearean society would be a comic character. People used to mock mad people for fun and entertainment. The Shakespearean audience would have laughed at Poor Tom.

The lunatic Poor Tom is very significant in Lear’s decline into insanity. Poor Tom increases Lear’s compassion and awareness. Poor Tom’s dementia heightens the emotion of Act 3 in his descriptions.

“Do poor Tom some charity, whom the foul Fiend vexes.”

(Act 3 Scene 4, Poor Tom/Edgar)

Poor Tom’s stories reflect his own suffering, of being outcast by his father. His speeches are deranged full of shocking descriptions of mental and physical violence. Through Poor Tom’s interactions with Lear, Lear becomes cleansed from all his selfish beliefs and begins to show compassion. Poor Tom is an essential part in the scenes on the heath he emphasises Lear’s madness and brings a slight sense of comedy into the scenes.

The fool’s professional madness in the play is there to provide comic relief as an entertainer. The fool is narrator of sorts; he speaks of the events in the play in songs and riddles. The fool is very sarcastic and blunt especially towards Lear. The Fool can lighten the tone of the most distressing scenes, for example, his remarks on Poor Tom’s clothing.

“Nay, he reserv’d a blanket, else we had been all sham’d.”

(Act 3 Scene 4, Fool)

The fools continual mocking of Lear is often thought to push him over the edge. The Fool provides a witty summary of current affairs and reminds Lear of his humanity.

Gloucester’s half-crazed pity can be seen as a type of madness. Gloucester’s character is a parallel to the character of Lear. Like Lear, Gloucester becomes increasingly generous as he suffers. He shows great pity for Lear and is truly concerned about the evils the old man and Poor Tom face by helping him. Gloucester goes slightly deranged after he has his eyes plucked out, as any man probably would.

The character’s belief in the God’s stands alone as a theme of “King Lear.” There are many references to pagan and Christian beliefs. The characters often call on the God’s in times of need hoping for help. Edmund shows no respect for religion. Edmund is very ironic when he speaks of the God’s. Edmund thinks people who rely on the God’s to guide their life are ‘mad’.

Traditionally, in the Shakespearean theatre, scenes of madness were written in prose. A King would be expected to speak in verse. Shakespeare also uses blank verse, using rhyming couplets to end the scenes and rhyme is also used to draw attention to particular thoughts and ideas, for example, the Fool’s songs. Lear’s progressing madness is demonstrated by switching from verse to prose and back. When Lear is sane he speaks in verse and when he is mad he speaks in prose. “King Lear” is written in a very direct and simple manner with the exception of Edgar’s mad talk and the Fool’s riddles. The language used in the play definitely reflects the images of madness used throughout the play.

During the play the characters judge and put one another on trial. There are various ‘trials’ that happen in the play, but none of them result in justice. The outcome of Lear’s ‘love-test’ to divide his kingdom is inaccurate. Goneril and Regan profess their undying love for Lear, but they are insincere and are only interested in their own personal gain. Cordelia, who loves her father dearly, cannot express her love in words, so ends up being banished to France. In Act 2 we see the trial of Kent, despite his innocence. It seems to be an excuse for Cornwall and Regan to use their position of authority. The mock trial of Goneril and Regan probably demonstrates most clearly the image of madness. The judge is a lunatic and a fake madman and a court jester attend the trial. The trial is a reversal of the ‘love test’, as Lear can see his daughters in their true colours. The trials in “King Lear” echo the underlying theme of madness in being ill conceived with catastrophic consequences.

In conclusion, the madness of “King Lear” is deeply tormenting. The only sincere madness is that portrayed by King Lear, who is really fighting an internal struggle to remain sane. Poor Tom’s portrayal of pretend madness stirs up the play and makes the scenes on the heath with Lear increasingly distressing. The fool’s madness through comedy has a very dark side to it and sends Lear in a mad fury. Gloucester’s madness is of a deranged man who really has been sinned against more than sinning. Madness is a key theme to the play; it emphasises the tension and brings to life the effects of evil. Madness is treated in variety of different ways in the play, in the depths of depression, in comic relief and in a convincing disguise.


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