Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Manifestations of madness in King Lear

Anoushka Sinha
New York, United States

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm
William Dyce (1806-1864)
National Galleries of Scotland

In his satirical masterpiece The Praise of Folly, the influential Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam attributes a Janus-like quality to madness, which he describes as two divergent manifestations: “one that which the Furies bring from hell” and “another…that proceeds from Folly.”1 Given the essay’s encomiastic title, it should come as no surprise that follied madness is fully endorsed as a state which “free[s]” the mind “from those cares which would otherwise gratingly afflict it.”1 We observe this childlike forgetfulness salve the enfeebling degradations that King Lear owes to his vicious daughters Regan and Goneril. However, Shakespeare is hardly one to color inside the lines of convention, and his portrayal of Lear is by no means as simple as the proverb Erasmus’ narrator Folly invokes: “Once an old man, and twice a child.”1 In fact, the maddening “Furies”— drawn from a hellish darkness that the play’s male characters often associate with female genitalia—here assume the forms of Regan and Goneril, who incessantly return to plague their inventor: Lear, horrified by his emasculation at the hands of his fiendlike daughters, rages in fitful gusts of grotesque misogyny as he struggles to defend his manhood against a femininity that almost seems to spring from within him. Yet Lear’s violent see-saws of passion—from fury to folly and back again—are interrupted by powerful moments of startling lucidity and empathy for others, moments that temper the extremes of madness that otherwise enfold him. It seems, then, that Lear’s “darker purpose” to “divide in three [his] kingdom” has the even darker effect of dividing his self into three mental states that alternately surface and sink in a constant welter of “unconstant starts.”2

Lear’s fall to folly does not proceed in baby steps; rather, from the moment he proclaims his decision to abdicate the throne and surrender his power does he shed the stature of enfranchised adulthood, intending instead to “set [his] rest” on the “nursery” of his daughters and “unburdened crawl toward death.” Accompanied by a rollicking train of knights, Lear plans to take turns visiting Regan and Goneril, who would “sustain” him and his followers in their respective palaces. However, Lear’s daughters do not take kindly to the “disordered” entourage that “enguard[s] his dotage” and lends its hundred voices to his every whim—“[e]ach buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike.” The OED defines dotage, used three times by Goneril to describe her father’s condition, as “folly; second childhood,”3 a significance reinforced in the Quarto version when Goneril carps, “Old fools are babes again.” The Quarto also includes a clever exchange—one of numerous in both versions—in which Lear’s Fool implies that he and his master have swapped roles. Lear then demands, “Dost thou call me fool, boy?”, to which his Fool, a perfect embodiment of Erasmus’ licensed truth-teller, replies, “All thy other titles thou hast given away. That thou wast born with.” In other words, Lear’s willful return to infancy signals his return to the folly of youth, a reversal that renders his “daughters [his] mothers” and circumscribes his purview to “go the fools among.”

Lear’s moments of childlike folly certainly have the power to “unburden” him, however, which is made clear towards the end of the play when his madness is at its most frenetic: weaving weeds into his white hair and setting traps for mice, Lear’s mind is freed—at least temporarily—from the filial breaches he has sustained, and he determines, “like a smug bridegroom,” to “be jovial.” The Earl of Gloucester, Lear’s equal in woe if not age, himself wishes for the madness that Cordelia seeks to exorcise from her “child-changed father.” Wallowing in despair due to his son Edmond’s treachery, his betrayal of his other son Edgar, and the loss of his eyes, Gloucester exclaims, “Better I were distraught, / So should my thoughts be severed from my griefs, / And woes by wrong imaginations lose / The knowledge of themselves.” Despite the horrific blinding that stamped out his vision, Gloucester is not able to blind himself to his grief; barred from the relief of emotional detachment, he continues to see the world “feelingly.” Reflecting Erasmus’ conception of folly as a means of liberation from lingering wounds, Gloucester aptly identifies the benefit of Lear’s infantilization, a transformation that has allowed the king to “play bo-peep” with his troubles and blink away the farrago of emotional turmoil that has otherwise plagued him.

Yet in what seems like the blink of an eye, Lear zigzags dramatically from childlike folly to misogynistic fury: he rages against his ungrateful daughters with scattershot jeremiads, cursing them with lameness, sterility, and, he blusters ineffectually, “revenges on you both, / That all the world shall—I will do such things,—/What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth.” Of course it is the all-too-honest Fool who points out Lear’s emasculation using a delicious variety of metaphors: he expresses this turnover of power as a kind of castration when he chastises Lear for giving his daughters “the rod and putt[ing] down [his] own breeches.” The “rod,” of course, is a phallic symbol that represents the dominance that Lear has ceded to Regan and Goneril. This image courses through the Fool’s rhetoric when he tells Lear that he has “pared [his] wit o’ both sides and left nothing i’th’ middle,” and when he dubs the king “an O without a figure…thou art nothing.” Both “O” and “nothing” were contemporary slang for the vagina, lending bawdy connotations to the numerous dark echoes of both words throughout the play.

Those echoes are accompanied by a troublingly universal dread of female genitalia as a source of hellish chaos, a dread that extends beyond Lear’s madness to several male characters. Although Edgar spouts seeming gibberish when he plays Tom o’ Bedlam on the heath, we recognize that his madness has method and know better than to discard his dervish-turns of phrase. Thus, his fictional back-story as a “servingman [who] served the lust of [his] mistress’ heart, and did the act of darkness with her,” concluding with the moral not to “betray thy poor heart to woman…and defy the foul fiend,” reveals a startling misogyny whose association of sex with “darkness” later resurfaces when Edgar declares to Edmond that “the dark and vicious place where thee [Gloucester] got / Cost him his eyes.” Edgar equates that forbidden “dark and vicious place” with the vagina—which he earlier deems the “indistinguished space of woman’s will”—and, based on his aforementioned advice, also associates the “foul fiend” with woman. Thus, Edgar warns at length against “the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet,” who is not only a character from Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures but also common slang for a “flighty or frivolous woman.”4 The Duke of Albany takes Edgar’s association of women with fiends one step further when he rails at his wife Goneril: “See thyself, devil. / Proper deformity shows not in the fiend / So horrid as in woman.” Albany argues that a depraved woman is much more horrific than a fiend, perhaps because she is deceptively kind on the surface.

Lear expresses this disjunction between substance and seeming in a memorable monologue:

Behold yond simp’ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name.
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t
With a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist
They’re centaurs, though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit;
Beneath is all the fiend’s. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption.
Fie, fie, fie; pah, pah!

Based on natural divisions of meter, this monologue can be separated quite cleanly into three parts: the first four lines encompass a kind of quatrain, its wholeness emphasized by the end rhymes of the first and fourth lines (“dame” and “name”). Here Lear describes the affectations of women: they “simper,” “mince,” “presage” the purity of “snow,” and go through the motions—the headshakes, the feigned horror at the sound of “pleasure’s name.” Yet the break from iambic pentameter to trimeter in the fourth line implies a parallel break in Lear’s thoughts. The next quatrain, bounded by feminine rather than masculine end rhymes (“to’t” and “inherit”), likewise shifts to darker, more beastly imagery: women are more lustful than base creatures like the “fitchew” and the “soiled horse”; in fact, their humanity lies purely on the surface, “all above.” And then the meter, like its subject, devolves into pandemonium: Lear’s speech collapses into manic revulsion at the thought of the “fiend’s” vagina, a “sulphurous pit” that sources “hell” and “darkness,” and he is finally reduced to senseless exclamations, embodying the very chaos he shuns.

In fact, what estranges Lear from commonplace misogyny is his peculiar fear that femininity is a hell that rises from within him. Before the Fool even suggests he is a “shelled peascod,” another clever image of castration, Lear demonstrates a preoccupation with his manhood when he disowns Cordelia: “The barbarous Scythian…shall to my bosom / Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved / As thou, my sometime daughter.” According to Herodotus, the Scythians were a group of nomadic people who were cursed with the “female sickness.”5 The OED defines this Scythian disease as the “atrophy of the male organs of generation, accompanied by loss of masculine attributes.”6 Lear’s allusion to this race reveals his anxiety over preserving his masculinity; however, the “female sickness” that he wishes to evade seems to be rooted, like his daughters, within his own body. Just as Lear castigates Goneril as “a disease that’s in my flesh,” he addresses his mad passions as a chaos within him: “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! / Histerica passio down, thou climbing sorrow; / Thy element’s below.” One of the definitions of mother is the “uterus,”7 which seems apt here since histerica passio means “suffering in the womb.”2 By diagnosing himself with a distinctly female condition, Lear seems to acknowledge a femininity within himself, whose element, “below,” reminds one of his persistent fear of female genitalia, where “[b]eneath is all the fiend’s.” He struggles to suppress this feminine aspect just as he struggles not to weep despite his profound sorrows. “[L]et not women’s weapons, water-drops, / Stain my man’s cheeks,” he declares in an attempt to restrain what he considers unmanly exhibitions, instead madly raging against his sufferings with a furious “anger” that is likely more ignoble than “noble.”

Amid these two extremes of madness—infantile folly and misogynistic fury—Lear yet has instances of clear-headed wisdom when his compassion for others seems to reunify his fractured self. When the Duke of Cornwall feigns sickness to avoid seeing him, Lear decides to forbear his rage: “Infirmity doth still neglect all office / Whereto our health is bound. We are not ourselves / When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind / To suffer with the body.” Perhaps his momentary willingness to empathize with others is what enables Lear to understand himself and the nature of his twofold madness, and his efforts to bridge these divides have the potential to heal both external and internal rifts. Unfortunately, Lear is “full of changes,” and these moments of insight are as swift as shadows, leaving behind a broken man, a gored state, and the single hope that none of us will ever “see so much.”2


  1. Erasmus, D.  The Praise of Folly. London: Hamilton, Adams & Co.; 1887.
  2. Shakespeare W, Greenblatt S, Cohen W, Howard JE, Maus KE, Gurr A. The Tragedy of King Lear. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton; 2008.
  3. OED Online. Dotage. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/56966. Accessed March 1, 2014.
  4. OED Online. Flibbertigibbet. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/71553. Accessed March 1, 2014.
  5. Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Trans. George Rawlinson.  The Internet Classics Archive: 441 Searchable Works of Classical Literature. http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.mb.txt. Accessed November 22, 2013.
  6. OED Online. Scythian. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/174053. Accessed March 1, 2014.
  7. OED Online. Mother. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/122640. Accessed March 1, 2014.

ANOUSHKA SINHA is a recent graduate of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, English & American Literatures (with highest honors) and a minor in Biology from Middlebury College. She is completing a Narrative Medicine Fellowship focused on palliative care in India this summer, after which she plans to enter medical school.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 7, Issue 1 – Winter 2015

Winter 2015



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