- The madness of Lear
- The madness of the natural elements
- The feigned madness of Edgar
- The paradoxically wise madness of the Fool
In Act one Scene one Lear had a distorted image of himself. He saw himself as the omphalos around which everything else gyrated. He expected his imperious will to be complied with acquiescently. His overwhelming narcissistic tendencies lead him to orchestrate his autocratic charade, the infamous ‘love test’, just so his daughters can pander to his inflated sense of himself. Once he has ceded power and given it to Goneril and Regan and their husbands, he receives a fatal blow to his self-made Diderotian man within his imagination. This fatal blow is the direct result of the deliberate and carefully orchestrated system of denigration by his perfidious daughters.
Regan vilifies her father by attacking his virility ‘Pray you father, being weak, seem so’, ‘O sir, you are old, nature in you stand on the very verge of her confine’. Goneril enlists the help of her servants in her systematic torture: ‘Put on whatever weary negligence you please’.
These vitriolic attacks send Lear hurling into the abyss of an identity crisis: ‘This is not Lear, who is it that can tell me who I am?’ The mental maelstrom that ensues eventually disconcerts Lear so much so that he turns mad.
However this mental anarchy is not to be viewed in a negative light. It is for Lear the channel that allows him to gain ‘reason in madness’. The internal suffering has an ennobling effect on the eponymous protagonist as we witness his moral rejuvenation brought to fruition.
Suffering for Lear is heuristic, that is he learns through discovery. The heath acts as a physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual Gehenna against which this ‘poor, weak, infirmed and despised old man’ battles against the raging elements. He prophetically critiques the social fabric of his society and acknowledges his own culpability of omission and insouciance:
‘O, I have ta’en too little care of this. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel that thou mayest shake the superflux to them and show the heavens more just’
He anticipates a Disraelian view of ‘The Two Cities’, indicative of the material and moral disparity that exists between the rich and the poor, between the two types of justice for the rich and the poor.
He rips at his clothes in an attempt to empathise with the essential man. He learns that stripped of the trappings and vestiges of power and wealth, man is nothing:
‘unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, folked animal’
A related trope is the physical madness of the natural elements of the cosmos. Nature is seen to be in utter turmoil. The physical storm provides the backdrop for the internal ‘tempest’ in Lear’s mind as the macrocosm mirrors the microcosm of Lear’s mind. Kent dramatically delineates this tempestuous storm using cacophonous aural imagery:
‘Since I was a man, such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never remember to have heard’
However this physical madness of the elements is indicative of the hiatus in the natural moral order as the result of Lear’s aberrant actions committed in Act one Scene one:
- His aberrant abdication and the fragmentation of his kingdom, leaving it vulnerable and susceptible to foreign invasion.
- His laceration of the familial ties that bound father and child
- His banishment of his loyal friend Kent
Now nature avenges herself and imposes her anarchic punishment. The inviolable jus divinium of nature has been violated and the implications of such a violation are grave.
The madness of the elements gives us an insight of the moral gulf between Regan and Cordelia. Regan on seeing her ageing father turned from her walls states with a ferocious equanimity:
‘O, sir, to wilful men the injuries that they themselves procure, must be their own schoolmasters’
Cordelia much more altruistically declares that:
‘Mine enemy’s dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night against my fire’
The spurious madness of Edgar likewise has a functional role in the play. Edgar assumes the role of a madman in an effort to occlude an attack from his perfidious half-brother Edmund. His madness is feigned in an effort towards self-preservation:
‘I will preserve myself; an am bethought to take the basest and most poorest shape’
However this dissemblance also allows Edgar to emerge as a sincere and sympathetic character:
‘My tears begin to take his part so much, they’ll mar my counterfeiting’
Edgar is conveyed as the complete antithesis to the despicable Edmund. Edgar’s madness is testimony to his moral integrity and reasserts the moral depravity of the egregious Edmund whose evil subterfuge is at the heart of Gloucester’s suffering.
Finally it is worth noting that the character of the Fool is extremely important to the overall dénouement of the play. He is a figure of buffoonery, lampooned by all as a madman, an ‘all-licensed fool’. He is a nonentity below anyone’s consideration. This allows him to expose Lear’s follies without fear of persecution as was the case with Cordelia and semper fidelis Kent. He is the voice of Lear’s conscience. He tells Lear prophetically that:
‘Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise’
Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest thy golden one away’
‘Fathers that wear rags/Do make their children blind’
In conclusion to my essay, the Shakespearian play ‘King Lear’ presents us with a prismatic treatment of the theme of madness be it the result of a personal crisis, nature’s response to an infringement against the moral order, a ploy to occlude the threat of one’s perfidious brother or the real but paradoxically wise madness of a social pariah.