Essay King Lear Madness

Madness distorts reality, but also reveals truth through wisdom. It is evident through Shakespeare's characterization of the Fool, King Lear, and Edgar in the play King Lear. The Fool provides insight through mad blabber. In a state of confusion King Lear is taught wisdom. Edgar's feigning lunacy creates reason from more madness.

The wise Fool disregarded at first, serves as a misunderstood guide to the characters, foreshadowing the oncoming events in King Lear. He warns that a man should not be susceptible in a world of dishonesty, with a disregard to Christian ethics in exchange for a stronger interest in worldly possessions (Lowers 39). Betrayal and greed will become the focus of evil as they will acquire power and land by deceit. The susceptible good side will remain in the dark and blind to the unforeseen injustice that is foreshadowed by King Lear's response that "nothing can be made of nothing" (Kin. 1.4.55) when the fool asks what could be made of nothing. Ignoring the fool's veritable hints as useless blabber, allows for the evil characters to take advantage of good.

Unrealized messages with deliberate irony are said by the Fool. Through riddle or rhythm his message is delivered, but ignored as just nonsensical.

Why, after I have cut the egg i' the middle, and eat

up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou

clovest thy crown i' the middle, and gavest away

both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o'er

the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,

when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak

like myself in this, let him be whipped that first

finds it so. (Kin. 1.4.57)

It is not clear to Lear of his mistake till when "the Fool even parodies Lear's brusque, ironic dismissal of Cordelia to exile: 'Nothing. I have sworn. I am firm'" (Cahn 94) relating Lear's later realization of his own mistake in judgment claiming that he is his own fool. The repetition of the word nothing underlines Lear's ignorance to the matter, and his later realization of the truth. Irony is shown through the double meaning of the word kindly, referring to its definition "affectionately", and 'after her kind of nature" (Lowers 41). Shakespeare would use the Fool to express rational thought commenting on the present situation, and bringing insight to others.

Knowledge and the understanding of the truth is exchanged from the Fool to Lear by exchange of insanity. The transition of Lear's mind from a sane confusion to madness clarity is mirrored by "the Fool's function is to tell subversive truths to a court society foolish enough to think its own truths are the truth. Thus he is the 'outsider-within,' living at the borders of accepted reality, issuing alternative reports on 'what is.'" (Calderwood 126). Lear eventually tilts and slips into the same madness of the Fool, relishing in the freedom to explore the contradictive thought of a naturally malevolent society, in the understanding of the truth.

Benefiting from his own madness, King Lear learns wisdom. "Let it have been uttered to the blind, the howling of convulsed nature would seem converted into the voice of conscious humanity" (Coleridge 59) displaying Lear's despair and growing madness in the storm of being brilliant. Now consumed by a storm of thought, and deviation from the norm, Lear finds salvation. Deviating from sanity, he has transitioned into a new perspective. Formerly blinded by outward appearance with his physical eye, he penetrates the very bottom of things through madness, and recognizes their true nature allowing imagery as the only adequate form of expression (Clemen 65). The storm shrouds reality and sets precedent for wisdom to emerge in an abstract state of mind.

Humility is brought to King Lear at his lowest point of humanity. "Debasement gives rise to dignity and at the moment when Lear might be expected to be most brutalized he becomes most human" (Dollimore 71), experiencing an epiphany of true understanding. There is a personal


Reason in madness, madness in reason; this double paradox is used throughout Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, and demonstrates the downfall of both the King and a family of greatness. Lear’s family and kingdom demonstrate a parallel as they are torn apart and conflicts arise immediately. When a person unfit to lead is given power, chaos will ensue, and this is precisely what happens in the play.  To reiterate, the paradox explains how the sane characters act with insanity, and the characters that have gone mad, show more insight and act normal-minded. King Lear is a perfect example of a character that reveals this double paradox to be true. Before he goes mad, he banishes both Kent and Cordelia; however during his lapse in sanity he sees the error of his ways and grows as a King and as a father.

In the beginning, Lear displays perhaps one of his most fatal errors in the entire play. When Cordelia refuses to lie as her sisters did of her affection for him, he refuses to have her in his kingdom. A quote from Act I shows Cordelia being honest to her father.

Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me…

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.” (Act I, scene I lines 94-104)

Cordelia clearly explains that she will always be there for his father, and that she loves him as any true daughter should. Lear is so blind to Regan’s and Goneril’s false love, that Cordelia’s affection seems to pale in comparison. He then divides his land in two, and gives each half to one of his unfaithful daughters. It is already clear here, that he displays unclear and rash decision making before he goes mad. Any man fit to be King knows that a strong empire cannot be divided in two so easily and keep its glory. Kent has witnessed Lear’s decision, and as his loyal friend tries to help him understand his mistake before it is too late. Another quote from Act I has Kent trying to reason with the King.

“Do, kill thy physician, and the fee bestow

Upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy gift,

Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,

I’ll tell thy dost evil.”(Act I, scene I lines 63-66)

Kent clearly asks him to take back his gift to both Albany and Cornwall, as he knows it will be the demise of his kingdom.  Lear will have none of this and quickly banishes his most loyal friend, only reinforcing the idea that he is acting like a madman, while he still has his sanity.

Not only does Lear prove that he shows madness in reason, but throughout the play he demonstrates some reason after he has gone mad. After Regan and Goneril treat him with disrespect and deviate from their promises of eternal love, he sees the error in giving them so much power and leaving himself without any. When Lear made this mistake, he left himself completely reliant on his two daughters that could not be trusted. This mistake coincides with the fact that he banished his one truthful and loving daughter, Cordelia. He is left completely helpless, and his daughters exile him from their homes, the same castles Lear previously gave them. This quote has Lear reacting to the fact that he has been thrown into a dreadful storm by his daughters.

Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand

For lifting food to‘t? But I will punish home.

No, I will weep no more. In such a night

To shut me out! Pour on, I will endure.  (Act III, scene iv lines15-18)

It’s clear that he understands the mistake he made, and that his daughters feed him lies until they get what they need from. In between his fits of insanity, Lear speaks of Goneril’s and Regan’s betrayals. It is apparent that in some ways he can see more truth than when he had his sanity, an obvious sign that King Lear shows much reason in madness.

A different perspective of Lear’s obvious reason in madness, is when he is in forest enduring the storm, with the help of Kent and the Fool. When they find the hut to use as shelter, Lear encounters a handful of homeless people in the same situation he finds himself in. This quote shows Lear’s feeling towards the homeless of his kingdom.

“Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm…

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just. (Act III, scene iv lines 28-36)

Lear can see that the impoverished citizens of his kingdom stand no chance of survival. He realizes that he had the resources to help these people when he was in power. Lear understands that these people cannot afford food, shelter, or clothes, while he and his family live in luxury. A fact that he chose to ignore throughout his reign of power, and most importantly, while he was capable of making sane decisions. Once Lear has lost his mind, he comprehends the issue with much more wisdom and knowledge than before. This isn’t the only instance where Lear demonstrates improved wisdom throughout his spell of madness, here is a quote of Lear showing more insight and wisdom.

“Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;

Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold…

Take that of me, my friend, who have the power

To seal th’accuser’s lips. (Act IV, scene vi lines 152-158)

Lear is considering the sins of the rich and wealthy, in comparison to the sins committed by the lowly and poor. He understands that someone with wealth and influence will never be charged with the crimes they have committed, whereas the less influential citizens, will be charged and many times sentenced to death. Lear is quoted as saying everyone sins and that no one should be sentenced unfairly. A very true remark, yet different from the way he ruled his kingdom while rational. While under the grips of mental illness, Lear is analyzing his kingdom and the way it is being run, and he makes very wise comments on how it should be improved. This quote is Edgar’s response to Lear’s surprising outbursts of good sense.

“(aside) O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in

madness!” (Act IV, scene vi line 162)

Edgar is amazed by the fact that Lear is making these comments, as he is unmistakably insane. He even uses the statement reason in madness, to perfectly explain the fact that Lear is proving himself to be more wise than before despite his insanity.

Lear ultimately proved that sometimes sanity is in the eye of the beholder as he made the grave error of banishing Cordelia and Kent, however he became a better father and King during his break from sanity. While Lear is sensible he is blind to the fact that Cordelia is the only truthful daughter, and would care for him should he need it. Once Lear is completely mad, he can finally see that his kingdom is flawed and he should have done more to help the starved citizens. He is also aware of the fact that there is corruption everywhere, and that the poor citizens are treated unjustly. In reflection it has become very clear that the famous oxy-moron penned by Shakespeare is a perfect encapsulation of King Lear himself.

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