Madness in William Shakespeare's King Lear

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Madness in William Shakespeare's King Lear

In his play, King Lear, Shakespeare introduces many themes. The most important theme is that of madness, which is portrayed, during the course of this play, by the tragic hero, King Lear. Though Lear shows great egotism at the beginning of the play, he actually begins to show signs of madness in Acts 3 and 4. In these acts, King Lear is shown spiraling into madness and then eventually regaining his sanity. Shakespeare develops his madness theme through several phases. In the first phase, Lear's madness is shown through his strange conversations and the tearing off of his garments; in the second phase, Lear is shown emerging from his madness through verbalizing the reason for his insanity and, in the third phase, Lear is shown overcoming his madness, as exemplified through his tragic vision.

The first time the audience meets Lear, he is presented as an ?arrogant and egotistical?(Leggatt 33) man who shows no mercy, not even to his favorite daughter when she disappoints him. Though this may be a character flaw, it could hardly be labeled ?madness?. As Lear?s character develops, the audience begins to see another side of him, one that is learning humility at the hands of his selfish daughters and pity for ?Poor naked wretches? (III.iv.35) who have less than they need. ?As Lear reaches his conclusion, an actual poor naked wretch bursts onto the stage, crying, ?Fathom and a half! Fathom and a half! Poor Tom? (Leggatt 32-33)! It is at that moment, when Lear sees Tom, that he breaks down.

Though his mistreatment at his daughters? hands has led Lear to this breaking point, Lear shows his first obvious signs of madness with words when he asks Poor T...

... middle of paper ... reunited with Cordelia and his health restored, he made his confession.

To conclude, Act 4 appears to be the most important act in King Lear. This is because it shows all three phases of madness that the King has gone through; the first phase, his sinking into the depths of madness, as shown through his garments and conversations; the next phase, a realization and understanding of the reasons for his madness, and, the final phase, his overcoming his madness, as shown through his tragic vision.

Works Cited

Bradley, A.C. Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Janet Adelman. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Goddard, Harold C. King Lear. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987.

Leggatt, Alexander. King Lear. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957.