Compare and contrast madness: its possible causes; its manifestations; its consequences; and its resolution, in King Lear and The Winters Tale
Compare and contrast madness: its possible causes; its manifestations; its consequences; and its resolution, in “King Lear” and “The Winter’s Tale”.
The theme of madness within King Lear and The Winter’s Tale is one of unavoidable importance; through insanity society is inverted, the wise are transformed into the irrational, and the innocent and guilty alike are united in suffering. Though both plays are placed historically within a pre-Christian context, the themes explored by Shakespeare - of madness, the breakdown of order, and the subversion of truth - seem designed as a potent challenge to the religious society in which the author resided, and if these motifs have lost some of their cogency with age, it is very easy to observe the way in which the plays would have provoked and shocked contemporaneous spectators. Though the Renaissance was bringing with it modernizing views upon mental illness, the madness depicted here is certainly not the more clearly known malaise of the twentieth century; this is a view of the subject far detached from the understandings of Freud and his followers; rather than an illness that simply affects the brain, insanity here acts as a threatening veil of senselessness, an extended metaphor for the collapse of order and values considered resolute. In the wake of the rise of psychoanalysis and medicine, today one sees madness within drama merely as a established threat that is curable through understanding of its causes; for Shakespearean audiences the instability with which Lear and Leontes are both affected is largely unexplained; it is an endemic knowing no end. It plays a pivotal role as Shakespeare’s microcosm for the reversal of nature; when a central character falls into its grasps, the world subsides.
The causes for madness in King Lear are uncomplicated yet almost unexplained; in Lear’s initial actions, dividing his own kingdom between his daughters, madness can be observed instantly; without justification Lear’s choices appear bizarre and entirely irrational. The dramatic choice is one that would have surprised Elizabethan patrons; in a society near to civil war, an abdication of regal duty like Lear’s had the potential to appear not only questionable but absurd. As is often the case with the irrational mind, Lear’s decisions are made undemocratically; Lear states “the bow is drawn...make from the shaft,” warning those who contradict him that his mind is set irreversibly. His speeches are lengthy and often rambling, with his extended, unpunctuated sentences broken irregularly by short, plosive bursts of assertive rhetoric: “Away!”, “Hear me!” The viewer is given the impression that Lear’s mind is never submerged totally in madness, but with each contradiction of his choices, his descent into disorder quickens. Those who begin to question Lear’s judgment are cast aside brutally. Kent, forced to be “unmannerly when Lear is mad,” presents himself as one of the few voices of truth, advising his “loved” and “honoured” Lear with as much reason as is permitted by the situation, damning Lear’s “hideous rashness.” Lear, consumed by self-imposed blindness, combats truth by ordering its banishment, choosing to silence emergent voices of sense. In asking his three daughters to profess their love through competition, itself an act of relative madness, he cannot comprehend Cordelia’s aversion to flattery, expecting her to show the same insincerity of her sisters. Again Lear reacts to sense by exiling it, sending Cordelia away. These rejections of truth, love and loyalty seal Lear’s madness indefinitely; until redemption there will be no return to order. Leontes’ descent in The Winter’s Tale takes a similarly unstructured path; he accuses his compassionate wife Hermione of infidelity without cause, implying again a loss of rationality. Hermione’s innocence is evident not only through reason but through balanced speech (“you, my lord, do but mistake”). Camillo, similar to Kent in loyalty to both truth and Leontes, uses correspondingly simple language. In the face of such moral reason, Leontes’ accusations, delivered as profane asides to deepen this sense of internal conflict, seem all the more incoherent. He accuses a woman of royal blood of adultery, and this on its own suggests a severe disruption of orthodox beliefs. In a society where monarchs were considered to be only a little less than divine, this questioning of a moral character like Hermione appears no less abnormal than Lear’s decision to give up the crown. His madness is shown more explicitly than in Lear, with references to “tremor cordis,” a physical malady. Hundreds of years before the psychoanalytical movement Shakespeare would forge links between disorders of the body and the mind, and Leontes’ imbalance, in direct contrast to the grace of Hermione, is displayed also through his use of expression: in repetition (“too hot, too hot!”, “not for joy, not joy”), the use of plosive alliteration (“paddling palms...pinching fingers”), and its undulating sense of rhythm, marked by sudden breaks and caesura. In both King Lear and The Winter's Tale, madness overpowers Lear and Leontes inexplicably, all the more sinister for it.
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The actions of Lear and Leontes throw their respective environments into relative chaos. As Lear descends into insanity, so too does his kingdom; as his kingship is invalidated, the entire concept of parenthood becomes void on a wide scale. Examples of Lear's madness "like a plummet thrown from a boat to fathom the lowest depths" according to Jan Kott; they push humanity to its limits, and by extension an entire empire. This environment, following Lear’s abdication, is as fickle as the incumbent king’s mindset; he alludes to “fifty followers [gone] at a clap!”, and others reference minor riots ("have you heard of no likely wars?") occurring around the time. Suffering quickly transforms itself into an omnipresent reality, rather than an undesirable alternative. Kent is only able to re-enter the play in disguise, allowing the audience to observe truth only through a veil. Critic A.C. Bradley labels this unnatural, a ‘defect’, asking why Kent so “carefully preserves his incognito till the last scene”, going on to say “what the purpose is we have to guess”, but he is in danger of missing the central point. Shakespeare’s refusal to reveal the truth when he can do so represents much of the play’s thematic madness. Likewise, Edgar, slandered to his father by Edmund, must reduce himself to the level of a beggar, speaking in nonsensical outbreaks of feigned madness (“Tom’s a-cold”), walking nakedly through the play, forced to watch the suffering of his father. Now even the true must lie to evade death. The scene presented by Shakespeare can be compared to the “natural state of man” as described by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, contemporary to the time of Shakespeare. Hobbes spoke of a pre-societal period of the “war of all against all,” of mankind bound only by self-regard. This natural state, “nasty, brutish and short” takes a physical manifestation in King Lear; egoism, as exhibited by certain characters, appears as social norm. Gloucester references this suffering, speaking of gods who “kill us for their sport.” This arbitrary world of capricious cruelty, a “vision of humanity’s absurd and alienated condition” (Graham Martin/Stephen Regan) indicates Shakespeare’s possible views on a godless universe. If Shakespeare’s times reflected the common belief in one God as the exclusive source of moral truth, the domain explored within Lear shows an absence of this righteousness. The concept strikes a parallel with the statements of Dostoyefsky’s Ivan Karamazov; as the character expresses two-hundred years later in The Brothers Karamazov, while a world with divine authority means an unbreakable obligation to morality, a world without innate goodness means that we are to be bound only by inclination. As the oft-misquoted excerpt from the novel reads: "if God does not exist, all is permitted." Threatening Christian beliefs over the sanctity of God’s order, Shakespeare replaces godly benevolence with a pre-Christian, tribal world of undefined morals based upon the ancient myth King Leir of Britain, and leaves behind a godless universe of absurdism leaving man alone in nature, with only sacrifice as redemption. The madness of this universe is extended furthermore to the weather as Shakespeare utilizes pathetic fallacy in the fall of society; Gloucester notes “late eclipses in the sun and moon,” while Lear suffers surrounded by rain and thunder, symbolizing the tremulous attributes of his mental faculties. His speech is marked by feverish qualities; he asks emptily “does any here know me?”, endlessly questioning and repeating himself, later edging towards the brink of tears: “no, I’ll not weep.” Dialogue between Lear and other characters is often brief and stichomythic, with Lear instead launching into long digressions. During these monologues he jumps back and forth almost psychotically from sadness to rage, from soft to abrasive, stating movingly “this heart shall break,” yet soon after shouting “blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” before sympathy may set in. Lear’s madness is such that is engulfs an entire kingdom in disrepute, inverting both morals and traditional roles, bringing untold suffering upon both deserving and undeserving. In The Winter’s Tale, the effect of Leontes’ madness upon the world is far less significant, and the play, in stark contrast, is more concerned with forgiveness and healing. Though there is minor conciliation by the end of King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, a comedy after all, does not share with Lear its themes of tragedy. Leontes’ unexplained madness is far more isolated; when he verbally attacks Hermione, causing her apparent death and estranging their newborn daughter, his contemporaries are united in disagreement with him. Only by virtue of his royal position are his imperatives are followed at all, and it seems that Leontes is more explicitly a character to be ridiculed than Lear. In denial of the judgments of the oracle, crass repudiation of his allies (“I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee”), and nervously repetitive language (“nor nothing have these nothings, if this be nothing”), Leontes appears not as a tragic hero like Lear but as a fool, blind to the truth. Though resulting in hardship, his madness is temporary, a short-term lapse in reasoning, and as such it cannot spread as violently across the kingdom as it does in King Lear. It appears only as an extension of his “tremor cordis,” a brief ailment of the mind brought on jealousy. Leontes reverts on this disintegration of sense almost as quickly as he chooses to accuse Hermione, and so the extent of his madness is less radical than in Lear.
In King Lear, the reversal of roles is a further expansion of the disarray caused by Lear’s madness and subsequent decisions. Following Lear’s surrender of the crown, one finds oneself in a kingdom not only of chaos but of switching roles. Some children plot against parents (Edmund against Gloucester) as if this were social custom, with cruelty celebrated over the “foolish honesty” jeered at by Edmund, while others are expected to sustain them; the Fool refers to Lear’s daughters “making an obedient father,” and Lear soon seeks accommodation from Goneril. Gloucester speaks of a world of “son against father...father against child,” and as the daughters mistreat Lear, turning him away when in need, Lear reciprocates with shocking vitriol, wishing upon his “detested” Goneril sterility, calling the gods to “dry up in her the organs of increase,” labeling her “a disease that’s in my flesh.” Edmund speaks of “the excellent foppery of the world,” saluting the caprice of a universe that allows him, Gloucester’s illegitimate child, to ascend to a position of power while Edgar, guiltless, is cast out into the wilderness, impersonating a beggar. The immoral are celebrated, with bastard as prince and prince as beggar, while the good suffer in exile. Allegories for truth and goodness, such as Kent and Cordelia, are expelled; the Fool states revealingly “truth’s a dog must to kennel.” A moment of physical drama presents this suppression of truth graphically; Gloucester’s eyes, his sole means of gaining visual empirical truth, are gouged out. Bradley calls the scene "a blot upon the play, condemned almost universally", but this is too harsh a judgment; in light of man's inhumanity to man in the last, or indeed any, century, the act is surely not an example of "the world of imagination", and it is effective for the reasons shown above. The reversal of values not only turns morality on its head, but upends society itself. The transformation of Edgar from noble to crazed beggar is a literal symbolization of this, but it is most powerfully observed in Lear, reduced to bestial qualities by suffering. He pleads despairingly to his own daughter (“on my knees I beg”) for food and housing; later he is shown resting in a farmhouse. A reference to the barrenness of his surroundings (“there’s scarce a bush”) stands for a development of his madness; after the chaos of before, Lear is presented with emptiness. For a character shown at the beginning of the play as the king of England, this reduction to nothingness is no less than frightening. The idea is comparable to an undoing of God’s creation, with Lear instantly transformed from everything to nothing. The character of the Fool develops these shifts in status and values; a figure of comedy becomes the play’s sole figure of wisdom. He makes reference to “wise men grown foppish,” commenting upon a world inverted, and notes finally “I’ll go to bed at noon,” philosophically lamenting the mayhem left behind by Lear. In The Winter’s Tale comparisons are less visible, and the reversal of sense looks only to be represented in Leontes. His groundless reversal of trust with Hermione extends to few other characters, and the Delphic oracle’s verdict on the matter represents the notion that all is balanced in the universe. While one man has gone mad with jealousy, the audience can be reassured that the world remains coherent, and that goodness (as it does) will reemerge. In Lear this is not as clear, and it truly does seem that there can be no solace for the suffering. Of course a reversal of roles can be seen in Perdita’s upbringing as a girl of peasantry, but this exchange is used not as an example of suffering, like in Lear, but as a symbol of purity, and full reversals like this cannot be found elsewhere. Leontes’ shift of mind is a diametric one; he goes from a position of balance to one where he believes his wife has acted unfaithfully and his friends have betrayed him, and his language is characterized by denial (the triple negative polysyndeton of “nor night, nor day, no rest,” showing fragmentation of the senses). However, this reversal is unable to spread across society as it does in Lear. Truth may be kenneled, “honesty and honour locked up”, but only temporarily.
The two plays here are analogous in their use of themes, and both explore madness and its effects upon civilization. It expands from a disorder of the mind to a disease that infects all society; in Lear this is more extreme, whereas in The Winter’s Tale it is less effectual. To different extents they both show nature reversed in terms of traditional roles, morality and order, and depict chaos as something brought on by poor, irrational decisions. In King Lear and The Winter’s Tale, madness is a cause of suffering and the undermining of reassuring order.