King Lear and Madness in the Renaissance
It has been demonstrated that Shakespeare's portrayal of madness parallels Bright's A Treatise of Melancholie (Wilson 309-20), yet, the medical model alone is insufficient to describe the madness of Shakespeare’ s King Lear. Shakespeare was not limited to a single book in his understanding of madness; he had at his disposal the sum total of his society's understanding of the issue. Since Lear's madness is derived from a mixture of sources, it can only be effectively described in this larger context.
Because much of Renaissance medical theory was based on premises from the Middle Ages, a starting point for our understanding of Lear's madness can be found in the 1535 translation of De Propriatibus Rerum by the thirteenth century monk Batholomaeus Anglicus. This work is based entirely on the traditional model of illness as an imbalance of the four humours: melancholy (or black bile), choler (or yellow bile), blood, and phlegm. Batholomaeus classifies melancholy and madness separately, attributing them to different humours and different areas of the brain (1-4). The condition of melancholy is caused by an excess of the melancholy humour. It makes a person "ferefull without cause, & oft sorry. And that is through the melancholi humor that constreineth & closeth the herte" (2). In extreme cases melancholy causes symptoms quite like madness, "somme fall into evyll suspections without recover: & therfore they hate - blame, and confounde theyr frendes, and sometyme they smyte and slee them" (2). But although Lear could be described as falling into "evyll suspections" he probably does not have melancholy. He is choleric by nature and it is likely that his madness is caused by an excess of that humour. Goneril describes his choler and foreshadows his madness in an early attempt to discredit him:
The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look from his age to recieve, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them. (1.2.294-298)
In Bartholomeus' model madness caused by an excess of choler is called "the frenesie". Its signs are "woodnes and contynual wakynge, mevynge and castynge aboute the eyen, ragynge..." (3). It is caused by the red choler "made lyght with heate of it self... ravysshyd upwarde by veynes, synewes, wosen and pypes" (2). The cure involves bleeding the patient, shaving his head and applying vinegar and ointment to the head. However it also recommends creating a calm environment for the patient, feeding him a sparse simple diet, and "above all things... men shall labour to bringe hym a slepe" (3-4). Kent seems to be aware of this most important part of the cure, and through him we realize that Lear's madness may have been shortlived had he been able to rest before fleeing to Dover:
Oppressed nature sleeps.
This rest might yet...