The Madmen of King Lear


“O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”
– William Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.5.51

When King Lear introduces his business succession plan and divides his kingdom between his daughters, he projects a version of himself that he believes will warrant admiration befitting a King. Without realizing it however he creates the opposite effect when the daughter he favored did not play the role he prescribed and his dementia takes over his life. In the medical encyclopedia, dementia is described as “a loss of brain function. It affects memory, thinking, language, judgment and behavior.” Technically it is not a mental illness; instead it is a function of brain loss and cannot be reversed.[i] Was Shakespeare aware that his tragic hero in King Lear was not madness but instead a by-product of old age? His need to be admired but then to fly into a rage is symptomatic of melancholy/dementia.

Some Shakespeare Scholars argue that the prevailing knowledge regarding this form of madness was fellow Englishman Dr. Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholy. Bright’s description of melancholy may have influenced Shakespeare as he wrote his plays since it is a condition often afflicting his characters. Bright states that melancholic symptom, proves to be both disheartening and the cause of unreasonable behavior.

“The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities.” Bright, p.102.[ii]

It is in King Lear that Shakespeare compares and contrasts the various forms of madness all within one story. He shows the effective relationship between the ignorant madman (Lear), the professional madman (The Fool), the pretend madman (Edgar), the carbon copy madman (Gloucester) and the catalyst as well as cure for madness (Cordelia). The juxtaposition and progression of each of these roles creates a tragedy for all ages.

The idea of dividing his kingdom so flippantly is a display of rashness an inherent signal of crumbling mind. “Tell me, my daughters, Since now we will divest us both of rule,/ Interest of territory,/cares of state, –/ Which of you shall we say doth love us most? 1.1. 49-53. And when he is answered by Cordelia, he flies into a rage far more violent than is warranted. He disowns her and banishes her and then goes on to banish Kent as well for standing up for Cordelia. Lear says: “Here I disclaim all my paternal care,/ Propinquity and property of blood, / And as a stranger to my heart and me” 1.1 117-119. Any father who knows the character of each of his children would have made a more informed decision but Lear does not. He instead displays his irrational judgment by following through with his ill conceived notions.

His lands are divided again and his misperception of an entitlement is played out as he begins his visit to his older daughters and finds that he is now irrelevant. His madness is mirrored in other characters within the play bringing a layer of intrigue to the story. Goneril recognizes his condition when she says: “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then/must we look to receive from his age, not alone the /imperfections of long-ingraffed condition, but therewithal /the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with ‘them” 1.1.319-323.

His friend Gloucester who also should have known by now the true character of his sons and had been able to decipher the twisted tale he was told by his bastard son Edmund against his son Edgar. Instead he too falls prey to a conniving plot of death and he too banishes his most beloved child.

Let him fly far.
Not in this land shall he remain uncaught;
And found- dispatch. The noble Duke my master,
My worthy arch and patron, comes to-night.
By his authority I will proclaim it
That he which find, him shall deserve our thanks,
Bringing the murderous caitiff to the stake;
He that conceals him, death 2.1 990-997.

Edgar flees for his life and then decides to take on the appearance of a beggar who is mad to protect himself from getting killed by his half-brother Edmund. He uses madness as a useful tool and reveals to the audience his intent when he says: “I will preserve myself; and am bethought /To take the basest and most poorest shape /That ever penury, in contempt of man” 2.3 1255-1259. It becomes successful for him because it works to save him and then he saves his father Gloucester and Shakespeare shows how madness can be an act in contrast to the real condition. Edgar is able to relate to the Fool because neither of them are actually mad.

The Fool who is only present when King Lear is grappling with his descent into madness is used by Shakespeare as a “pretend” fool that acts more as a stabilizer to the story. Shakespeare uses Fool to introduce metaphorically the truth of the story. For example when he and Lear meet Kent who is also in disguise, he tell him that if he wants to follow King Lear then he should wear a fools hat (coxcomb). It seems that he considers Lear and his daughters all fools.

Fool. Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb.

Earl of Kent. Why, fool?

Fool. Why? For taking one’s part that’s out of favour. Nay, an thou
canst not smile as the wind sits, thou’lt catch cold shortly.
There, take my coxcomb! Why, this fellow hath banish’d 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 had two coxcombs and two daughters!

Lear. Why, my boy?

Fool. If I gave them all my living, I’d keep my coxcombs myself.
There’s mine! beg another of thy daughters.

He is then warned by the King that he is out of line, but he made his point. Then when he sees Edgar disguised as a beggar he says: “Prithee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a /yeoman.” And then continues by clarifying “No, he’s a yeoman that has a gentleman to his son; for he’s a /mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him” 3.6 2015 – 2016 & 2018-2019.

The Fool disappears when Cordelia brings a level of sanity and respect back to the King intimating that the fool was part of the insanity. King Lear regains enough sanity to recognize Cordelia and recognize his errors that result in him dying at last a hero.

[i] Ottilingam, Somasundaram. “The Psychiatry of King Lear.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 49.1 (2007): 52–55. PMC. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

[ii] Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie, (1586), Facsimile Text Society, New York, 1940. p.102.


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