Tragedy of King Lear`s Madness

Categories: King Lear

Insanity has always been a recurring fascination for audiences and readers. “That abnormal state of minds were a favourite study of Shakespeare would be evident from the mere number of characters to which he has attributed them, and the extent alone he has written on the subject” (Bucknill). In King Lear, William Shakespeare satisfied this thirst for madness with the creation of the main character of his play, King Lear. The King displayed many symptoms of bipolar I disorder. The disease is characterized by manic episodes that last at least a week’s length.

in time Depressive episodes often follow and usually last twice as long as the initial manic period (Bipolar disorder). During manic episodes, some symptoms include making poorly judged decisions as well as being aggressive and having little tolerance (Manic).

However,during the depressive episodes, the symptoms are similar to those of a person suffering from depression. Those suffering from the disease may experience feelings of guilt accompanied by a decreased self-worth (Bipolar 1 disorder).

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With the diagnosis of bipolar I disorder, it is accurate to state that Lear’s madness was present since the very beginning of the play due to his lack of judgment. Firstly, he made the rash decision to give up his kingdom. In the opening scene, the King decided to abandon his kingdom and divide it between his three daughters. In Act 1 scene 5, the Fool ridiculed the monarch for making this foolish decision. He told the King he was old before his time. When the King was puzzled about his first statement, the Fool added, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst / been wise” (1.

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5. 43-33).

The fool’s purpose in Lear’s court was to critique the King’s bad decisions. His statement indicates that he believes the King is not wise even though he is now an old man. The court jester believed Lear was foolish for abandoning his responsibilities as a king. The King’s decision to retire lacked good judgment and, therefore, the King was the real fool. In addition, when Cordelia refused to speak of her love for her father other than as it truly was, he banished her from the kingdom. Lear decided to make his daughters profess their love for him before offering them their piece of land. Cordelia, not wanting to lie, did not partake in her father’s shallow game and stated the truth of her love for him as that of a child for her father. Overcome with rage, Lear made a rash decision and exiled his favourite daughter. Once everyone departed, Goneril and Regan, King Lear’s two other daughters discussed the affair, “He always loved our sister most, and with / what poor judgement he hath now cast her off / appears too grossly” (1. 1. 336-338).

He did not take the time to properly analyze her response, but, decided to act on emotion alone. Rash decision making is a symptom the manic phase of bipolar I disorder. Lear never had the same amount of love for Regan and Goneril as he did for Cordelia. He loved her more than any other. Prior to the incident, he had planned to spend at least a third of his remaining time in her presence. Nonetheless, he still banished her in an impulsive manner. He did not listen to the words Cordelia shared but rather blew into a rage because his demands were not met to the letter. His other daughters are concerned about his impulsive decisions and critique his judgment. They believed his decision was too hasty. At this moment, they feared for themselves because of the impulsive decisions their father was making. King Lear made many ill-advised decisions which is proven by his rash retirement and also the banishment of his favourite daughter. The symptoms of his manic phase are also clear to those that surrounded him like the Fool, Goneril and Regan..Furthermore, Lear’s manic episodes associated with bipolar I disorder are made evident by frequent bursts of anger. When Cordelia would not amplify her love for her father to please him, Lear became ill-tempered. Kent tried to appease the King, but to no avail, “Peace, Kent. / Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (1. 1. 135-136).

Lear knew he was extremely irritated. He compared himself to a dragon who, according to the lore, destroy entire villages out of pure anger which suggests Lear was openly aggressive to those around him. The King had had no patience for the daughter he loved most and also had none for his trusted advisor, Kent, who had been serving him for decades. He had no tolerance even for the people who were dear to him. Moreover, the King flew in a fit of rage because of his two other daughters. In Act 2, Goneril could no longer endure the King’s hundred men who caused too much commotion. Lear, angry that his daughter did not abide to her verbal contract of letting the men live with her, fled to Regan’s domicile to seek her approval. Unfortunately for him, Regan sided with her sister which made the King’s rage grow stronger.You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!If it be you that stirs these daughters’ heartsAgainst their father, fool me not so muchTo bear it tamely. Touch me with noble anger,And let not women’s weapons, water drops, Stain my man’s cheeks-No, you unnatural hags,I will have such revenges on you bothThat all the world shall-I will do such things-What they are yet I know not, but they shall beThe terrors of the earth! (2. 4. 313-325)Lear needed patience to endure his daughters since he had run out, or rather, had none to begin with. He wanted the anger to guide his actions. He did not want to cry, to let the “water drops, / Stain my man’s cheeks” (2. 4. 320-321), which would have been the healthy outlet for his boiling emotions. He would rather let the anger consume him and guide his actions. He was so angry that he swore revenge on his daughters. Lear did not even know what he was about to do, but, with the anger coursing through his body, he thought it would be “the terrors of the earth” (2. 4. 325).

He was irritated to the point that he then left and went out, into a dangerous, raging storm. Hence, Lear was easily aggravated and had no tolerance even for his daughters and his trusted advisor, Kent. However, depressive episodes of bipolar I disorder are characterized by a lowered self-esteem and feeling of guilt. He felt shameful over the negligible help he brought to his people. During his time in the storm, Lear noticed the poor conditions that beggars like Tom O’bedlam had to live in, “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / Your looped and windowed raggedness defend / you / From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this” (3. 4. 30-34). He was distraught at the small amount of help he provided to his people during his long reign. He was remorseful that his people were living in such conditions while he did nothing to come to their aid. Throughout his life as a king, the fate of the homeless was of little concern to him. Nonetheless, at this point in the play, being in a depressive episode, the King is full of regret. Lear thought poorly of himself as the former leader of a country and had a guilty conscience. Also, King Lear had such feelings of guilt that he could not face his youngest daughter. In the beginning of Act 3 scene 4, Kent discusses with a gentleman in a camp near Dover about Lear’s feelings towards Cordelia after banishing her, “these things sting / His mind so venomously that burning shame / Detains him from Cordelia” (4. 3. 42-48)

After banishing her and giving her rightful land to her two conspiring sisters, Lear feels so much remorse that he can not bear to see his favourite daughter once more. He had deep feelings of guilt that consumed him and refrained him from being able to see Cordelia, who he loved and missed. Therefore, Lear’s depressive episode is demonstrated in the play by a lowered self-esteem and a deep remorse due to his treatment of his people and his daughter.To conclude, Lear suffered from bipolar I disorder. During his manic episodes, He made poorly judged decisions as a father and the ruler of a country. He was also easily irritated and had no tolerance even for those dearest to him. During the depressive episode of the disease, however, he experienced feelings of self-reproach and had a low self-esteem. This diagnosis has also been reached by Dr. Truskinovsky after reviewing Lear’s symptoms and other professional’s diagnosis, “King Lear will remain a valuable piece of reading, a keen clinical study, and a persistent diagnostic challenge” (Truskinovsky). As time evolves, so does our understanding of mental illnesses and their diagnosis. King Lear’s case has been a preoccupation of many psychiatrists of the past and it is bound to continue to fascinate many more in the future.

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Tragedy of King Lear`s Madness. (2021, Oct 08). Retrieved from

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