Compare and contrast madness: its possible causes; its manifestations; its consequences; and its resolution, in King Lear and The Winters Tale

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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 ...

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