In this essay I shall try to depict King Lear's madness, how it is displayed, the effect it has on Lear and other characters and what function it serves in the play. First several scenes have to be discussed at what point Lear's madness possibly begins. Secondly, other people's reactions to his madness will be examined. Finally, I will analyse the function his insanity has in the play.
Many critics argue, at what point Lear starts to lose his sanity. Quite a few think, his madness is obvious for the first time in
Act 3, Scene 4, when Lear encounters Edgar disguised as Poor Tom.
A.G. Harmon states “his madness is manifest at the point when Lear projects his own plight onto the suddenly appearing Tom“ (404). Here it becomes clear that Lear's judgment of reality is distorted, it is the first time in the play where his madness is drastically shown. However, there are already hints of declining sanity in previous scenes. For example in Act 2, Scene 2, when Goneril demands to dismiss half of his followers, clearly shows this as he pleads: “Now I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad“ (2.2.408).
This line implies that Lear already has a notion of his mental health being frail and fading. Later when he is out in the storm pitying his fate and blaming his daughters for his desperate situation, he cries “O fool, I shall go mad“ (2.2.475). But one also could argue - as Harmon does – that „Lear's disordered mind is only a later manifestation of the irrationality he exhibits from the play's beginning“ (421). The Love Test in the first scene is indeed astonishingly irrational. Especially for a king who wants to distribute his heritage and find a suitable heir. Normally, the kingdom would be bequeathed to the first born son (or daughter in this case). Dividing the kingdom was rather unimaginable for the audience in Shakespeare's time. In the play it later leads to a war. But the way Lear tries to test his daughters' love and loyalty is absolutely inappropriate. He is blinded by Regan's and Goneril's flowery words and misinterprets Cordelia's short, honest answers -e.g. “What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent“ (1.1.62)- as if being indifferent towards him. It becomes clear from the very beginning that he does not know his own daughters, nor can he rely on his judgment. This is not yet madness, but we can see that his irrationality combined with his stubborn, harsh character is a dangerous mixture which hints at further drama.
It is difficult to point out one specific event that actually triggered Lear's madness. Josephine Waters Bennett is of the opinion that “it is not his daughters' ingratitude, but Lear's reaction to their ingratitude, which produces the insanity“ (138). One might contradict Bennett, saying his daughters' ingratitude provokes his reaction. Yet another possible trigger could be when Goneril forces him to dismiss half of his train and thus dramatically limiting his negotiating power. This is the first time he becomes fully aware of his loss of power and influence. Lear now realises, he depends on his daughters' goodwill, as they depended on his when he was king.
Lear's growing madness also effects the people surrounding him who respond in different ways to his insanity, trying to keep him sane. The fool tries to cheer him up when he realises Lear is anxious. He also makes the attempt to show him in how far he has gone wrong: “Then I prithee, be merry, thy wit shall not go slipshod“ (1.5.11-12). When Lear's madness increases out in the storm in Act 3, Scene 2, the fool sings songs and makes jokes to lighten his mood.
Kent treats the mad king with greatest respect, he addresses him several times with “good my lord“ (3.4.1,3,5) when he tries to get him to enter the hovel during the storm. They both try to soothe Lear and cure him, the Fool employs jokes and Kent shows deep concern and resepect.
It is Cordelia in the end who succeeds in curing her father from his madness, at least temporarily. While one of her attendants is preparing a remedy for her father, Cordelia gives a speech that sounds like a prayer and shows her true feelings for her father: “All you unpublished virtues of the earth. Spring with my tears. Be aidant and remediate“ (4.4.16-17). When Lear wakes up, he does not recognise Cordelia at first but then comes to his senses.