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Insanity and the Necessity of Madness in King Lear Essay

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The Necessity of 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. D...


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...say (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.


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