King Lear by William Shakespeare

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Such openness, even in madness, must begin to stir the audience’s heart towards
him.

Lear’s childish rage, however, endures even into his madness. Unbalanced and lunatic as it is, he retains all his venom towards Goneril and Regan – ‘To have a thousand with red burning spits/Come hizzing in upon ’em’ (III.vi.15-6) – and yet the effect is far more comical, as when, in the same scene he arraigns a ‘join-stool’ as Goneril because she ‘kick’d the poor king her father’ ( ibid . 48). The anger is retained, but becomes more generalised; a rage on behalf of the ill-treated and abused with whom Lear now instinctively identifies: ‘change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?...The usurer hangs the cozener’ (IV.vi.153-163). He also fulminates with a madman’s obsessive focus on the lustful nature of woman, which, in terms of the plot, reflects Goneril and Regan’s overtures to Edmund.

Madness allows the darker streaks in Lear’s character to run their course and expend their energies. It also takes him into a new kind of childhood. He runs and plays and covers himself with flowers in his lunacy: ‘Look, look, a mouse! Peace, peace, this piece of toasted cheese will do’t’ (IV.vi.88-9). As numerous commentators have pointed out, Lear becomes his own Fool – and many have speculated that this is why the Fool disappears once the king’s madness is established. Another way of interpreting this idea of Lear replacing the Fool, however, is to see it in terms of age: the old man is now acting like his ‘Boy.’

There are child-like resonances, too, in the humility and wonder with which Lear awakens before Cordelia, but there is a new depth and dignity in the character the audience encounters in the latter scenes of the play which suggests a recovered maturity. It is as though his madness has purged his nature of his selfish affective desires and his cruel thoughtless rants: all that remains is calm and balanced humility and love. The Doctor who helps Lear to his recovery recognises this when he says, ‘the great rage,/You see, is kill’d in him’ (IV.vii.77-8). The audience see Lear as he should have been: ‘a very foolish fond old man’ he calls himself, and this is humble and true, not the self-deprecating humour of the first scene.

In the last few minutes of this harrowing drama, the audience’s attention is inevitably focused on the horror of Cordelia’s totally undeserving death. But, in bringing about her death, Shakespeare has given a Lear his dramatic redemption. He is, momentarily, the man of his youth: ‘I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee’ (V.iii.275). He is also given the dignity of a father who loves his daughter beyond all, when he carries her body onto the stage, howling inconsolably. The father who rejected his own flesh and blood now mourns with a true father’s love.

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Purchase full notes for £4.95 (aprox $7.72)

William Shakespeare