Throughout the play King Lear, we bear witness to Lears gradual and possibly inevitable descent into madness. As early as Act I Scene 1 we, as the audience, observe early signs of the kings insanity, albeit political at this point, we are alarmed at Lears 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 Lears 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 Regans elaborate speeches and instead feels humiliated by his youngest daughters 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 Lears actions. As a consequence of Lears 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 kings identity is gradually becoming unbeknown to him when he asks the question Who is there that can tell me who I am? 1, we can see that Lear is slowly losing his wits. Lears 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, Lears 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 kings rages become signs of impotence, not authority, emphasising the fact that the patriarchs insanity has left him powerless and increasingly vulnerable. When the storm starts we recognise that Lears fear that he would go mad, first voiced in Act I Scene 4, has been realised. The storm serves as a metaphor for Lears and Englands plight, his speeches establish and reflect properties of the storm.
Through the storm, Lears 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 Lears insanity could be viewed as destructive; he has caused his kingdoms predicament through his rash actions at the beginning of the play, he has divided his family through his egotism and in his mad rages he often behaves like a scorned child using invective language.
However, all this considered, Shakespeare also presents Lears madness as pitiful. Due to his madness Lear confronts his failings: as a father and a ruler. He shows compassion to the characters that have helped him i. e. the Fool, Kent/Caious and Poor Tom. Even when Lear starts to regain his wits, we sympathise with the king as with his new clarity of vision brings with it distress and much regret. These are not the facts that make us truly pity Lear; it is the reality that wisdom came too late.
Jesters were often kept by the monarch to provide witty analysis of contemporary behaviour and to remind the sovereign of his humanity; Lears Fool certainly fulfils these functions for his master. At first glance, the Fools professional madness is rendered as comical, his seemingly asinine jests often lighten the tone and provide some much needed moments of relief, the Fools flippant remark about Poor Toms clothing is a good example of him lightening the tone of a distressing scene.
However, through the Fools professional insanity Shakespeare presents a hidden wisdom. Lears Fool is all-licensed which essentially means that the Fool is licensed to say things to his superior that anybody else would be punished for. Taking this, and the fact that Lear and his Fool seem to have a very close relationship (the Fool calling Lear nuncle and Lear calling the Fool boy), throughout the time the Fool exists in the play he is able to counsel Lear. The Fools sarcastic jesting is blunt and hard hitting.
Almost as soon as the Fool enters in the play he harps on Lears folly, this is apparent when the king asks Dost thou call me fool, boy? to which the Fool replies All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with2. Through the Fools madness he serves to push Lear towards the truth about his daughters this is evident when he warns Lear that Regan will side with Goneril, Shalt see thy other daughter will use kindly; for though shes as like this crabs like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell3.
And again when he hints at the dangerous situation Lear has put himself in by reversing the natural order, making his daughters his mother, The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had it head bit off by it young4 this is clearly warning the king that his daughters will turn against him. Furthermore, the Fool also tries to open the kings eyes so that he can see these truths on his own, Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise5, as well as have some insight as to why these events are occurring.
The third character in question is that of Edgar / Poor Tom. Edgar, Gloucesters legitimate son, is introduced as being a passive, credulous dupe upon whom Edmunds6 devious practices ride easy. We are only given a succinct introduction of Edgar before Shakespeare haves him disguise himself as Poor Tom. In the days of Shakespeare, Bedlam hospital housed the mentally ill. When they were released Bedlam inmates were allowed to go begging for survival; this is what Edgar has been reduced to by his gullible father and his brothers trickery.
My face Ill grime with filth, blanket my loins. Elf all my hairs in knots, and with presented nakedness outface the winds and persecutions of the sky7 the fact that Edgar has to disguise himself as a Bedlam beggar, wandering the countryside in nothing but a loin cloth in order to preserve his life, presents to us his vulnerability and the sheer desperation of his feigned madness. Initially, Edgar is presented as a seemingly lucid character yet, as the plot unfolds we see he has many purposes within the play.
Shakespeare uses Edgars alias Poor Tom to provide some comical relief as the plot thickens as some of his antics and ramblings can prove to be amusing gibberish. However, in contrast, Poor Toms erratic breathless craziness in Act III Scene iv increases the pathos infinitely. A prime example of this would be when he (Edgar / Poor Tom) says that a foul fiend laid knives under his pillow and halters in this pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, indicating towards suicide, this speech reflects Edgars fragile state of mind and, although fake, his madness is distressing to the audience.
We are reminded of Edgars humanity in Act III Scene vi (the mock trail scene) as he listens to Lears lunatic agony, his act as Poor Tom momentarily breaks down at Bless thy five wits this in turn is another moment in which Edgars caricature increases the pathos of a scene. Furthermore, I feel that Shakespeare is using Edgar / Poor Toms situation to mirror Lears. Similarly to the besieged king, Edgar is now reliant on charity and he has also had his world and expectations turned upside down.
Edgars assumed madness indicates towards Lears eventual submission to complete insanity in Act III, through Poor Tom we glimpse what Lear will be reduced to. Madness is portrayed in different ways through these characters: professional, feigned and genuine insanity. Nonetheless, the idea of madness is presented as purposeful, almost like a journey, for all three of the characters in question. Edgars pilgrimage through his contrived madness serves the obvious purpose of preserving his life.
The preservation of Edgars life enables him to guide his father but ultimately through his madness his valour is awakened allowing him to play the role of avenger at the end of the play. However, Edgars madness also serves a purpose to the principle protagonist, Lear, as it is noticeable that on the heath Edgars presence as his caricature Poor Tom aids Lear, as through interactions with Poor Tom the kings humanity and understanding increase. The Fools professional jesting provides some much needed moments of relief. In spite of his comic role, the Fools main purpose within King Lear is to, in essence, be Lears conscience.
In other words, he bestows the king with truth and reason throughout the turbulent situations that occur during his, the Fools, time in the play. Due to the fact that he is all-licensed, and also has a close relationship with the king, he can inform and criticise Lear for his mistakes without being punished for it, this permits him to counsel Lear. Lear eventually gains the insight he needs to perceive his daughters and society for what it really is, insincere and immoral. The Fools abrupt disappearance signifies that Lear has gained all the understanding he needs to distinguish between and reality.
Therefore, the Fool is no longer needed: his purpose has been fulfilled. Unlike Edgar or the Fool, Lears madness is not an imminent occurrence, it develops throughout the play. The insanity of the king is unequivocally ironic, in his apparent sanity he was introduced to be conceited and imprudent, yet when he is mad he becomes a more humble, compassionate and attractive character. At the beginning of the play Lear acts exceptionally irrational and cannot see the verity of his superficial values but as a result of his madness he demonstrates an increasingly sincere, tolerant side to his nature.
Attributable to his intensifying humility he is able to recognise his wrong doings as a leader and a father thus, the kings madness redeems him as he learns the value of true emotion and is able to consider the sufferings of those close to him. Consequently, this enables Lear to reconcile with his beloved daughter Cordelia. In conclusion, the madness of King Lear is deeply distressing, it develops from and points back to the kings instability.