madness through king lear, the fool and edgar

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Jennifer Kingdom - King Lear Coursework

Explore the way Shakespeare presents the idea of madness through Lear, the Fool and Edgar.

In the 17th Century, madness was still a relatively new concept. Many people believed it was due to a person being possessed, which resulted in madness often being linked back to black magic and witchcraft. In context, the public would frequently visit Bedlam Hospital to enjoy the spectacle of a madman‘s behaviour thus, Renaissance dramatists typically used ‘mad scenes’ for a comical effect. In spite of this, Shakespeare seems intent on a serious, if not slightly disturbing, portrayal of madness in King Lear.

Throughout the play King Lear, we bear witness to Lear’s gradual and possibly inevitable descent into madness. As early as Act I Scene 1 we, as the audience, observe early signs of the king’s insanity, albeit political at this point, we are alarmed at Lear’s decision to break up his state. Especially through the means he wishes to do so, his ‘love-test’ is foolish and egotistical, as is his desire to be treated as an important, royal personage after he has given away his kingdom. It is fair to say that all through Act I Scene 1 Lear shows many times that he most concerned with appearances. Seemingly his ‘love-test’ is going to plan, as Goneril and Regan extravagantly pledge their love and allegiance to their father, this is until Cordelia refuses to comply with Lear’s ‘love-test’, answering “I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more, no less.” simply meaning that Cordelia loves her father as a daughter should. Lear, in his blissful ignorance, cannot see past Goneril and Regan’s elaborate speeches and instead feels humiliated by his youngest daughter’s unadorned answer. As a result, he disowns her and banishes her, Cordelia then departs to France. We can see Lear is already losing control as he goes to strike his faithful advisor Kent and banishes him also, all because Kent questioned the Lear’s actions. As a consequence of Lear’s vituperative temper and his irrational, ‘insane’, actions he leaves himself powerless and at the mercy of his two eldest daughters, with neither his loyal advisor nor his devoted youngest daughter to protect him from what is to proceed.

As the play progresses, we can see that the king’s identity is gradually becoming unbeknown to him when he asks the question “Who is there that can tell me who I am?, we can see that Lear is slowly losing his wits. Lear’s speeches become increasingly disjointed as he becomes more distressed, hinting at the madness that will overtake him later in the play. He is becoming progressively isolated due to his fragile mental state, thus, through Lear the idea of madness could be seen as being presented as vulnerability.  

In Act II, Lear’s changes of moods and tones indicate his escalating mental instability. His foolishness persists as he insists he will stay with the daughter that allows him to keep the most knights; there is desperation in his confrontation with his ‘dog-hearted’ daughters. Eventually, the beleaguered king’s rages become signs of impotence, not authority, emphasising the fact that the patriarch’s insanity has left him powerless and increasingly vulnerable. When the storm starts we recognise that Lear’s fear that he would go mad, first voiced in Act I Scene 4, has been realised.

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The storm serves as a metaphor for Lear’s - and England’s - plight, his speeches establish and reflect properties of the storm. Through the storm, Lear’s madness is presented as destructive as his speeches are full of anger and distress, as the mad king moves swiftly from one topic to another. The violence of the imagery that the king employs reflects his state of mind. It is easy to see how Lear’s insanity could be viewed as destructive; he has caused his kingdom’s predicament through his rash actions at the beginning of the play, he has divided his family through ...

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