Madness In Shakespeare's King Lear

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A definition of madness can be “mental delusion or eccentric behavior arising from it,” however madness itself can seem to be completely interpretive, as Emily Dickinson wrote that “much madness in its divinest sense- to a discerning eye.” Characters often seem to showcase an apparent madness, one that is completely misunderstood, but ultimately ends up playing an important role in said story. This madness is embodied in Shakespeare’s King Lear- it is essential to the entire set up of the plot- and is ultimately reasonable and selfish depending on the perspective of each character. Within the drama of King Lear there is reason in the madness; a double paradox with the motif because of the convoluted nature of reason within madness. However there is also a selfish reason behind the madness, pointing out individual agendas in each character and how they arrange the plot line. Ultimately, King Lear is a play that offers subtle insight and meaning into the complexities of the human condition.

The initial madness that is introduced in the beginning of the drama essentially builds the plotline of King Lear, demonstrating how there is an eventual reason behind his madness that he continues to showcase scene after scene. The first instance of this madness and reason can be identified with this quotation where Kent is speaking to King Lear about his actions, “Be Kent unmannerly when Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man? Thinkest thou that duty shall have dread to speak when power to flattery bows? To plainess honor’s bound. When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state, and in thy best consideration check this hideous rashness..” (Act 1. Sc.1 160-179). You hear Kent reasoning with Lear about the possible repercussions of his actions, but because he is blinded by his anger and ego, Lear refuses to listen and in turn exiles Kent as well. Lear clearly wants to remain King- but without having the responsibilities of ruling- yet still having the same amount of power. The impulsive nature of his actions is clearly seen in effect, essentially setting up the plot of King Lear, lining up the succession of how the rest of the tale will go. Although the strings of madness are not wholly present, they are provoked with the raw honesty showcased from Cordelia and how he reacts to her statements. Even if the reader does not know who King Lear is prior to the start of the story, the issues behind his mannerisms and how he treats his daughters point to underlying concerns that could have been present prior to the start of the story.

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The issues that King Lear further has with his behaviors can further be seen with this quote from Cordelia, “Alack, ’tis he! Why, he was met even now as mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud, crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds, with hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow in our sustaining corn.” (Act 4. Sc.4 1-6). Although King Lear begins his rights of madness right from the beginning, he truly begins to showcase it in Act four, further pushing the plot. Lear is at the peak of his madness- and Shakespeare builds up right to these points by demonstrating the phases that King Lear goes through- from complete madness, to him coming out of it, to realizing the vast mistakes that he created. Madness is seen even further through the quotation from Cordelia’s utter to the guards as to how her father is acting, giving a deeper description of the condition that King Lear is in. These characteristics are unfit for a king, leaving the reader with the reasoning other than the fact that he is seen as mad. However, although his mannerisms throughout this act are seen as “mad”, as you analyze it even further you unearth the sane reasons behind his behaviors and quotes. He states that he knows that he is in fact mad- and if he was truly mad then he would not be able to pick out why he is acting in the way that he is. Thus, deepening the reasons behind the madness that Lear introduced into the story.

Another theme that emerges within the motif of madness is the selfish reasons behind the characters actions. Although King Lear is the one with the primary traits throughout the story, there are underlying characters. For example, the agenda that Edmund chases throughout the entirety of the drama, where he wants to regain power as the favorite son, even though he is illegitimate, can be used as an example. The reader can first identify Edmund’s attitude with this quotation, “Well then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund as to the’ legitimate. Fine word, “legitimate.” Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed and my invention thrive, Edmund the base shall top the’ legitimate. I grow; I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (Act 1. Sc. 2. Lines 16-23). Edmund’s attitude towards his father and brother are first introduced with this soliloquy that he performs; demonstrating to the reader his selfish intentions for the remainder of the story. Edmund has a valid and selfish reason for feeling the way that he does, as he is an illegitimate son that has been cast aside by his father and lives constantly under the shadow of his more influential, supposedly better brother. However, rather than facing the issues that he has in a positive approach, he chooses to become selfish and be done with them in an ill-mannered, selfish, mad way. Once again, the story of Edmund highlights that the tale of King Lear is meant to showcase the profound meanings and insights to the complex human condition.

Now, King Lear can be highlighted once again but now with the underlying theme of selfishness in the madness with the quotation of, “Into her womb sterility, dry up in her organs of increase, and from her derogate body never spring a babe to honor her. If she must teem, create her child of spleen, that it may live and be a thwart disnatured torment to her.” (Act 1. Sc. 4. Lines 292-297). King Lear is seen once again with this quotation, raging with anger and now with apparent selfishness. At this point, Lear has been stripped of his land, wealth, soldiers and all of his power, as well as the false affection from his daughters and is now facing the repercussions for his actions. Acting selfishly, he is cursing out Cordelia for her honest actions and furthers the motif of his madness but now with a different front. His rage is not only insulting to his one daughter that was honest with her feelings for him- which in turn were valid as he was her father- but is also now distancing himself even more emotionally further by lashing out in a selfish bout of anger. These emotions play into the multiple human motifs that Shakespeare unearths within the tale of King Lear.

As previously mentioned, the themes and motifs in regards to madness, selfishness, and reason are all significant in King Lear, propelling the story forward and setting the plotline from the very beginning. Although the character of King Lear is seen as perplexing with his full range of emotions, the reader can unearth the timeless complexities of human nature and emotion that are given extensive insight and meaning throughout this work. This madness that is seen during the story might seem one-dimensional, but Lear’s character and Edmund bring reasoning behind it and provide acumen to the intricacies of each story that lies within the drama of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  


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