King Lear and Madness in the Renaissance

Powerful Essays
King Lear and Madness in the Renaissance

It has been demonstrated that Shakespeare's portrayal of madness parallels Bright's A Treatise of Melancholie (Wilson 309-20), yet, the medical model alone is insufficient to describe the madness of Shakespeare’ s King Lear. Shakespeare was not limited to a single book in his understanding of madness; he had at his disposal the sum total of his society's understanding of the issue. Since Lear's madness is derived from a mixture of sources, it can only be effectively described in this larger context.

Because much of Renaissance medical theory was based on premises from the Middle Ages, a starting point for our understanding of Lear's madness can be found in the 1535 translation of De Propriatibus Rerum by the thirteenth century monk Batholomaeus Anglicus. This work is based entirely on the traditional model of illness as an imbalance of the four humours: melancholy (or black bile), choler (or yellow bile), blood, and phlegm. Batholomaeus classifies melancholy and madness separately, attributing them to different humours and different areas of the brain (1-4). The condition of melancholy is caused by an excess of the melancholy humour. It makes a person "ferefull without cause, & oft sorry. And that is through the melancholi humor that constreineth & closeth the herte" (2). In extreme cases melancholy causes symptoms quite like madness, "somme fall into evyll suspections without recover: & therfore they hate - blame, and confounde theyr frendes, and sometyme they smyte and slee them" (2). But although Lear could be described as falling into "evyll suspections" he probably does not have melancholy. He is choleric by nature and it is likely that his madness is ...

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1. Bartholomaeus Anglicus. De Proprietatibus Rerum. Qtd. in Hunter 1-4.

2. Bright, Timothy. A Treatise of Melancholie. Hunter 36-37.

3. Byrd, Max. Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1974.

4. Hunter, Richard, and Ida MacAlpine, eds. Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry 1535-1860: a History Presented in Selected English Texts. London: Oxford UP, 1963.

5. Johnson, Samuel. "Preface." Johnson on Shakespeare. Ed. R. W. Desai. New Delhi: Orient, 1985.

6. Shakespeare, William. "King Lear." William Shakespeare: the Tragedies, the Poems. Ed. John D. Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

7. Skultans, Vieda. English Madness: Ideas on Insanity, 1580-1890. London: Routledge, 1979.

8. Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967.