Insanity And The Necessity Of Madness In King Lear

1841 words - 7 pages

The Necessity of Madness in King Lear

At the beginning of “King Lear,” an authoritative and willful protagonist dominates his court, making a fateful decision by rewarding his two treacherous daughters and banishing his faithful one in an effort to preserve his own pride. However, it becomes evident during the course of the tragedy that this protagonist, Lear, uses his power only as a means of projecting a persona, which he hides behind as he struggles to maintain confidence in himself. This poses a problem, since the audience is prevented from feeling sympathy for the king. Shakespeare’s ironic solution is to allow Lear’s progressing madness to be paired with his recognition of truth, thereby forcing Lear to shed his persona, and simultaneously persuading the audience that Lear is worthy of pity.

Lear is initially consumed by what Burton would refer to as the human appetite,[1] and exhibits traits indicative of someone dominated by the choleric humor: he is prideful, yearns for authority, and bullies others when he doesn’t get his way. After Cordelia refuses to dote on him in the first scene, he goes into a fit of rage:

Let it be so; the truth then be thy dower…
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.

(I, i, 110-118) [2]

Lear’s fury, however, only masks the fact that he is really a very needy person, consumed by an insatiable appetite for power and attention. As Bloom says, “Lear always demands more love than can be given.”[3] Lear proves this to be true when he repeatedly rejects those who love him most, banishing both Cordelia and Kent, who would protect him from his other two daughters’ impending betrayal. Despite their devotion to him, Lear is nevertheless unsatisfied with the way they express it. Burton predicts that failure to control one’s appetite, resulting in an imbalance of the humors, inevitably leads to madness and tragedy.[4] In Lear’s case, as we will see, this is strikingly true.

In working so hard to project this persona, Lear is untrue to himself, and loses sight of who he is. Even the scheming Goneril and Regan notice that their father “hath ever but/ slenderly known himself.” (I, i, 282-283) This makes Lear a very insecure person, which explains in part why he insists that his daughters stroke his ego before receiving any of his kingdom. His identity crisis is highlighted when he asks who can verify who he is, and the response by the Fool is: “Lear’s shadow.” (I, iv, 251) At this point in the play, Lear is sane and is still the monarch of the kingdom. Nevertheless, the Fool’s insightful comment insists that Lear is nothing more than a shadow of his true self. Plato would say that he is trapped in the shadow world of the cave, unable to grasp the true forms.[5] This self-imposed persona estranges Lear from his audience; his vulnerability as a human is masked by his rash behavior and unjust decisions....

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