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This extract occurs in Act 3 Scene 2 soon after Lear’s two older daughters throw him out of the palace into the storm, depriving the king of warmth and shelter. This results in Lear’s descent into madness as he furiously wanders the countryside in the storm.
Shakespeare depicts Lear’s madness by having him ask Edgar “didst thou give all to thy daughters?” which demonstrates to the audience that Lear sees Tom’s madness in himself, who is also clearly depicted as mad in order to conceal his identity.
The lack of logic employed by Lear in assuming that this is the most likely cause of Tom’s madness illustrates that he is also distanced from reality, further highlighting his madness. However, Lear’s madness could also be staged and he may simply be communicating his problems to Kent and the Fool in a rather hopeless and hysterical way, giving the impression that madness is not in control of him. For example, Lear uses the pronouns “thou” and “thy,” which shows that Lear still perceives himself as King, superior to Tom and thus will not refer to himself at Tom’s level.
On the other hand, these status markers could be reflective of Lear’s arrogant personality that he is clinging onto his power, despite all his loses.
This notion of Lear clinging onto his power in a state of, what the audience perceives as madness, is also depicted when Lear says “death, traitor” to Kent. This phrase typifies a King’s command through the sharp, swift, simple sentence structure and lexis associated with power.
The word “traitor” creates the impression that Lear is still behaving like a King, despite his clear loss of power by his two daughters. This shows that he is detached from reality and still doesn’t fully realise his situation, perhaps due to shock, therefore he is perceived as mad.
Shakespeare also illustrates Tom’s crafted madness in this passage. For example, Tom reiterates “Poor Tom’s a-cold” which shows his madness through the childish phrasing. Shakespeare also has Tom refer to himself in the third-person in a distinctive childish way, as is the lyrical convention of prefixing words with “a.” This sense of childishness shows Edgar’s decline in status as well as his crafted descent into madness in order to conceal his real identity to the other characters. Moreover, this sense of childishness is a reoccurring motif, for example, when Edgar says “Alow, alow, too, too!” The lack of coherence in this phrase is a clear sign of madness portrayed by Shakespeare. This dehumanises Edgar into the lowest form, further highlighting his sense of madness. Read about foreshadowing in King Lear essay
When Shakespeare writes Lear as saying “nothing could have subdued nature to such lowness but his unkind daughters,” he again shows how Lear relates this state to Tom’s, with the specific detail of “his unkind daughters.” The playwright also shows that Lear still views himself as the centre of the universe, reiterating the dive rights of kings notion, with the use of the definite article: “nothing,” which suggests that he has no empathy outside his own frame of reference. The fact that Shakespeare refers to nature implies that Lear is at the centre of the universe. This could be a reference to the divine rights of kings, where Lear perceives himself as a representation of God and therefore the storm (nature) reflects Lear’s state.
Lear’s thoughts are further explored when Shakespeare writes, “ is it the fashion that discarded fathers should have this little mercy on their flesh? Judicious punishment” The use of “fashion” reflects his previous criticism of Regan’s vanity. This implies sympathy as it highlights his emasculation. This is also shown through the word “discarded” not only dehumanises him, but ties in with Regan and Goneril’s greed for wealth and possession. When Shakespeare writes Lear talking about “little mercy on their flesh,” he could be alluding to revenge on his daughters. This ties in with Lear’s given circumstances as he is evidently angry through the portrayal of his madness. This is supported by Shakespeare adding “judicious punishment” which could show his counter-thought favouring justice not revenge. This foreshadows the mock-trial later in the act, and helps the audience to gain a clearer understanding of Lear’s thoughts towards his madness.
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