Raymond Nighan, Ph.D.

Jessica Dunckel


The Necessity of Reasonable 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. Bloom says that “before he goes mad, Lear’s consciousness is beyond ready understanding; his lack of self-knowledge, blended with his awesome authority, makes him unknowable by us.”[6] Without understanding a character, an audience is most definitely unable to sympathize with him, and here we run into a potentially problematic issue. Aristotle believes that the purpose of any true tragedy is catharsis, which he defines as “the purging of the emotions of pity and fear,”[7] To achieve the desired cathartic effect, an audience must feel sorrow at the plight of the protagonist. Without this, according to Aristotle, a work is not tragic, and is, in fact, quite pointless, for art of any kind must “aim at the universal qualities that all actions of a certain kind share.”[8] There can be no empathy, and thus no catharsis, from an audience that has no universal point on which to identify with a character. Therefore, the completion of Lear’s tragedy depends on the incorporation of Aristotle’s necessary tragic elements of reversal and recognition.

Shakespeare achieves this by radically altering Lear’s consciousness. As Goneril and Regan become increasingly disloyal, Lear begins to sense that he is losing control of his own life. In a panic, he starts his descent into what will become complete madness by the end of the play. But as Knight says, “In madness, thoughts deep-buried come to the surface.”[9] This is indeed true of Lear. A more reflective quality is apparent in his speech following his daughters’ cold rejections. As he begins to lose his sanity, he ironically gains increasing clarity, shown at first by his repentance over banishing Cordelia: “O most small fault, / How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!” (I, iv, 288-289) In yet another source of irony, Shakespeare gives Lear three guides toward truth and self-awareness…and all three are projecting personas themselves, for the purpose of helping their king. Kent returns from banishment to serve Lear, pretending to be a vagabond; Edgar takes on the guise of Poor Tom; the Fool plays the nonsensical and inconsequential court jester, when he is in fact the wisest person in the entire tragedy. Masked by their false identities, these men lead Lear to eventually give up his own façade and confront himself. However, to do this, he must give up his pride and, ultimately, his sanity. Bradley sums this up, saying: “Lear’s insanity, which destroys his coherence, also stimulates that power of moral reflection which had already been quickened by his sufferings.”[10]

The most important point of Lear’s recognition is the speech during the storm scenes in which he tells Edgar (Poor Tom): “…thou art the thing itself; unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come on, be true.” (III, iv, 112-115) In this crucial passage, Lear has an epiphany. Not only has he become capable of selflessness, but he finally calls upon himself to be true and unhindered by these “lendings,” symbolic of the persona he has been so absorbed by. He arrives at this threshold even as the storm, both inside and outside of his mind, begins to break him physically and mentally, and the overwhelming emotional exhaustion seems only to further his understanding. Knight eloquently calls this stage “the rush of madness for this crescendo of silent beauty, a sudden blaze of light.”[11] Bursting out of Plato’s cave, into the sunlight, Lear is no longer a shadow, for he desires at last to be “the thing itself.”

The clothing motif is used again later as Lear, now completely out of touch with reality (or so it would seem), communes with nature. Having crowned himself with flowers, he tells Edgar “Through tattered rags small vices do appear;/ Robes and furred gowns hides all.” (IV, vi, 158-159) Edgar’s reply demonstrates Lear’s condition most accurately: “Reason in madness!” (IV, vi, 164) There is reason in Lear’s nakedness as well. The king has been stripped, literally and figuratively; he has forfeited his wealth, his dignity, and his sanity. But in shedding these things, he has also shed his own blinding pride, and gained what is more important in finding purity and reason.

The reason this is so effective in arousing our sympathies is that Lear’s reformed state of metaphorical nakedness causes us to regard him in a new light. Nakedness is equated with vulnerability and innocence, and, in his madness, Lear seems almost childlike at times. His words to Edgar in Act IV are reminiscent of birth and childhood:

Thou must be patient. We come crying hither.
Thou know’st the first time that we smell the air
We wail and cry. I will preach to thee…
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

(IV, vi, 167-172)

There is a sharp difference between this attitude and that of Act I, when Lear angrily asks the Fool: “Dost thou call me fool boy?” (I, iv, 141) and the Fool responds “All other titles thou hast given away. That thou wast born with.” (I, iv, 142-143) The Fool accurately predicts what Lear finally comes to see in Act IV. Where he was initially indignant, Lear now admits to the inevitable foolishness of humanity, and, more importantly, he is no longer too arrogant to accept his own humanity. The fact that the image of a child is used to achieve this makes Lear seem more innocent even in his old age, and this leads us to pity for his tragic circumstance. We are reminded of another time Shakespeare uses this paradoxical imagery in the comedy “As You Like It,” when the bawdy Jaques describes the seven stages of man: “Last scene of all…/ Is second childishness and mere oblivion,/ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” (II, vii, 163-166) [12] This describes Lear perfectly, for he has both descended to a kind of reinvented childhood and ascended to a new level of moral goodness, without anything external to inhibit him.

Let us briefly recall the speaker from T.S Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a character who seems to share many of Lear’s initial doubts, fears, and insecurities. He describes himself as “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;/ At times, indeed almost ridiculous--/ Almost, at times, the Fool.” (117-119) [13] This is a remarkably accurate description of the King Lear we meet in Act I. He is wordy without reason, ridiculously passionate where rationality is most needed, and mocked by his fool because he, in reality, is the foolish one for attempting to maintain his false exterior. By the time he dies in Act V, Lear is stripped, humbled, and crazy…yet he is finally redeemed, forgiven by his audience for his misjudgments because he has become true to himself. As Bradley says, “everything external has become nothingness to him, and…what remains is ‘the thing itself,’ the soul in its bare greatness.” [14] Without his persona, we are at last willing to appreciate the greatness in Lear, but, ironically, we require his madness to do so.


1-Robert Burton. Anatomy of Melancholy: University of Michigan:

2-William Shakespeare. King Lear. London: Oxford University Press, 2000. p. 105. All future references will come from this text.

3- Harold Bloom. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. p. 493.

4- Burton.

5-A. D. Lindsay (Trans.). The Republic of Plato: The Wisdom of Socrates as Recounted by His Pupil Plato. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1957. p.171.

6-Bloom, p. 482.

7-James Hutton (Trans.). Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 1982. p. 51.

8- Bruccoli, Clark, Layman “Aristotle,” in Bood, (ed.). Dictionary of Literary Biography: Ancient Greek Authors. Vol. 176 (1997), pp. 55-76.

9-Wilson Knight. “The Lear Universe” in The Wheel of Fire. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. p. 201

10- A.C. Bradley. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1961. p. 239.

11- Knight, p. 203.

12-William Shakespeare. As You Like It. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. p. 44.

13- T.S. Eliot. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. II (New York, WW.Norton, 19860. pp. 2174 ff.

14-Bradley, p. 242.