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The Theme of Madness in King Lear

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According to the Paperback Canadian Oxford Dictionary, to be mad is to be "insane" and to have "a disordered mind." Throughout King Lear, there are several different characters who one would question if they are in an orderly state of mind. The Earl of Kent, Edgar, the Fool, and King Lear all portray varying degrees of madness. Some have alternative motives behind their madness while others are simply losing touch with reality around them.

The Earl of Kent is a close advisor to King Lear. Lear decides to split up his kingdom between his two daughters, Regan and Goneril, and to banish his youngest daughter, Cordelia, from the kingdom. Kent strongly advises Lear to keep reign over his own kingdom and insists that Cordelia should not be renounced. With these displeasing remarks to Lear, Kent is banished from the kingdom as well. Instead of leaving the kingdom, Kent returns under a disguise to continue to watch over Lear. While trying to gain a place in the king's company, Kent plays the role of a somewhat senile old man who has extreme loyalty to his king. Take, for instance, Kent physically and verbally attacking the servant, Oswald, for no more reason than to gain a laugh from the king and reinforce his loyalty to the king. These acts, while they do have good reason behind them, lead to Kent being put in the stocks. Some will say that to risk being caught while banished from the kingdom is mad. It is an even madder deed to take company with the one who has banished you in the first place. Kent's instance of madness is for greater good. He is there to help look after Lear's deteriorating mindset and to counsel and consol Cordilia who returns to support her father.

Edgar is the son of the Earl of Gloucester. Edgar is framed by his brother, Edmund, for conspiring to kill their father. He is banished from the kingdom and Gloucester wishes him to be captured, dead or alive. Despite the reward on his life, Edgar takes on the disguise of Tom O'Bedlam and remains in the kingdom. Edgar disguises his actions with "lunatic bans" (2. 3.19) and becomes a madman. Throughout the play, Edgar gives us the illusion of madness. He himself is not mad, but he adopts the disguise of someone who is. Tom is incapable of reasonable and rational thought. He carries on about incoherent subjects and seems not to understand his surroundings. Of course, Edgar is aware of what is taking place around him and, when the time of need arises, his mind is as sharp as ever. Edgar does reunite with his now blinded father, and eventually reveals himself to Gloucester as well as Edmund and the rest of the kingdom.

The Fool, a servant to the king, has a very close relationship with King Lear. He acts as entertainment, but is also a source of advice for the king. Although the Fool's banters sound like foolish nonsense, if you delve deeper into their meanings you will find that they are quite insightful to what is happening in the kingdom. After Lear gives his kingdom away, the Fool offers up a riddle in which he calls Lear a 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.


Lear asks if he is being called a fool, and the Fool cleverly replies, "All thy other titles thou hast given away" (1.4.127). The Fool is of course referring to Lear's mistake of giving away his kingdom. The Fool holds no high position in life and would "rather be any kind o' thing than a fool; and yet I would not be thee [Lear]" (1.4.156-157). He would much rather be the foolish servant he is than be in the place of Lear. Throughout the play, the Fool is portrayed as someone who is irrational. When Lear is showing signs of madness, the Fool is there by his side jesting along and yet when Lear regains he rational thought, the Fool is no longer around. The Fool is very comfortable in his seemingly



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