Feigned and real madness in «King Lear»
Madness is a central theme in Shakespeare's King Lear. Characters that pretend to be insane are indeed the wisest whereas the 'sane' characters act in a foolish and unreasonable way. The plot of the tragedy relies on this constant tension between madness and sanity, blindness and vision.
Insanity as a disguise
Edmund, the Duke of Gloucester's bastard son, has plotted against his brother Edgar to make their father believe that Edgar intends to murder him to inherit his title and his wealth. In order not to be arrested for treason, Edgar decides to assume the disguise of a madman and to live the life of a beggar...
King Lear, II.iii
Edgar: I heard myself proclaim'd;
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt. No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may 'scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am.
The old Duke of Gloucester is now blind and wants to find his way to Dover to jump over the cliffs. He is now aware of Edmund's manipulation but he is unable to recognise his son Edgar who still assumes the disguise of a Bedlam beggar.
King Lear, IV.i
Edgar: But who comes here?
Enter GLOUCESTER, led by an Old Man
My father, poorly led? World, world, O world!
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Lie would not yield to age.
Old Man: 'Tis poor mad Tom.
Edgar: [Aside] And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'
Old Man: Fellow, where goest?
Gloucester: Is it a beggar-man?
Old Man: Madman and beggar too.
Gloucester: He has some reason, else he could not beg.
I' the last night's storm I such a fellow saw;
Which made me think a man a worm: my son
Came then into my mind; and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him: I have heard more since.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
Edgar: [Aside] How should this be?
Bad is the trade that must play fool to sorrow,
Angering itself and others.--Bless thee, master!
Gloucester: Is that the naked fellow?
Old Man: Ay, my lord.
Gloucester: Then, prithee, get thee gone: if, for my sake,
Thou wilt o'ertake us, hence a mile or twain,
I' the way toward Dover, do it for ancient love;
And bring some covering for this naked soul,
Who I'll entreat to lead me.
Old Man: Alack, sir, he is mad.
Gloucester: Know'st thou the way to Dover?
Edgar: Both stile and gate, horse-way and foot-path. Poor
Tom hath been scared out of his good wits: bless
thee, good man's son, from the foul fiend! five
fiends have been in poor Tom at once; of lust, as
Obidicut; Hobbididence, prince of dumbness; Mahu, of
stealing; Modo, of murder; Flibbertigibbet, of
mopping and mowing, who since possesses chambermaids
and waiting-women. So, bless thee, master!
Keys to the text
- Find out more about Bedlam and 'Bedlam beggars' on the internet. In your opinion, why does Edgar want to disguise himself as a bedlam beggar? What does it entail as far as identity is concerned? (focus on the last line in the first passage)
- In the second extract, what stylistic differences do you notice between Edgar's speech when it is addressed to the audience (asides) and to his father? (Prose/verse) What justifies this difference?
- In the second extract, what suggests that Gloucester is now is now in a similar state of deprivation as that of his son? What line suggests that madmen have as much reason as others?
Satire under the cover of madness
The witty fool makes fun of King Lear for having given away his kingdom to his ungrateful daughters. The dialogue underlines the absurdity of Lear's present state...
King Lear, I.v
Fool: Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a
bitter fool and a sweet fool?
King Lear: No, lad; teach me.
Fool: That lord that counsell'd thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me,
Do thou for him stand:
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear;
The one in motley here,
The other found out there.
King Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that
thou wast born with.
Kent: This is not altogether fool, my lord.
Fool: No, faith, lords and great men will not let me; if
I had a monopoly out, they would have part on't:
and ladies too, they will not let me have all fool
to myself; they'll be snatching. Give me an egg,
nuncle, and I'll give thee two crowns.
King Lear: What two crowns shall they be?
Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i' the middle, and eat
up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
clovest thy crown i' the middle, and gavest away
both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o'er
the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,
when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak
like myself in this, let him be whipped that first
finds it so.
Fools had ne'er less wit in a year;
For wise men are grown foppish,
They know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish.
King Lear: When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?
Fool: I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy
daughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest them
the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches,
Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep,
And go the fools among.
Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach
thy fool to lie: I would fain learn to lie.
Keys to the text
- What stylistic elements suggest madness in the Fool's speech?
- Do you think he is really mad?
- What is his intention in assuming the part of a madman? Is the mask of insanity a form of self protection?
William Dyce's King Lear and The Fool in the Storm, 1851
William Dyce is a well known Scottish painter. In this composition, he represents King Lear and his fool. Both of them are looking at the stormy sky in a posture that suggests discouragement and despair.
Keys to the painting
- What elements in posture and gaze of the two men suggest that Lear is as foolish as his fool?
- The painting illustrates the extract reproduced on this page. In what way is it significant that the scene should take place during a storm? How does the artist underline that significance?
- What does the withered tree symbolise?
Pour citer cette ressource :
"Feigned and real madness in «King Lear»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juillet 2013. Consulté le 10/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/se-former/les-precis-et-le-workbook/workbook/madness-in-shakespeare-lele/feigned-and-real-madness-in-king-lear