King Lear Is Not Insane Essay, Research Paper
The Sanity of Lear
King Lear: Sane, or insane? This question is one that has been posed throughout time by those who study him. By his actions, it could be inferred that Lear is mad, but some people have an opinion to the contrary: King Lear is sane. Support for the view that King Lear is sane can be found throughout the play. There are many examples of Lear’s ability to make a rational thought, and assess the situation, including the fact that Lear simply loves his daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, and wants them to have the best life he can give them. Also, The fine line between insanity and ignorance comes into play here as well. The definition of sane as described in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary is: “mentally sound; able to anticipate and appraise the effect of one’s actions.” Blacks Law Dictionary defines insane as “a condition which renders the afflicted person unfit to enjoy liberty of action because of the unreliability of his behaviour with concomitant danger to himself and others. When one is unable to think rational thoughts.” King Lear could not have been insane because he is able to think rationally and understand the effect of his actions on others.
The reason some people think that Lear is insane is most likely because of his actions. But what actions illustrate insanity? When we see a child pretending to fly like an airplane, do we assume they are insane? No. We just know that that is what children do, and we accept it. When Lear acts in a similar manner, he is deemed insane. If a child acts like an old man, he is mature; if an old man acts like a child, he is insane. This is due to the fact that we as a society have preconceived ideas about how people should act. So when Lear acts in a peculiar manner, people think he is insane. Lear was not insane but he was perhaps the unfortunate victim of many bad decisions on his part which compounded into a force strong enough to bring a previously strong, stable kingdom crashing down, resulting in many deaths, including his own.
It is the opinion of many scholars that Lear is insane as the curtain rises on the first Act, but evidence suggests that this is far from true. It is one’s natural instinct to want what is best for one’s children, and Lear is no exception. The same principle is illustrated in nature when a mother animal hunts, and gives the catch to her child. Parents have a natural instinct to care for their young in whatever way possible. For Lear, his natural instinct to care for his children is to give them a kingdom. When Lear says “Know we have divided/In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent/To shake all cares and business from our age,/Conferring them on younger strengths, while we/Unburdened crawl toward death”, he is telling the audience several things. He tells his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan, that his kingdom is to be divided into three pieces, so that the burdens of state will be borne on “younger strengths.” While he, unburdened by the affairs of state, spends the remaining years of his life relaxing. To anyone with children, Lear’s objective makes perfect sense. Lear is an old man, who, because of his age, can no longer perform the necessary duties required of the king, so he gives his kingdom to his young daughters. This not only relieves the stress in his life, but also gives his children a gift to help them marry. When looking from Lear’s point of view, it is easy to see why he would do such a thing as divide his kingdom. With the benefit of hindsight this choice may have been in fact a bad decision, but that?s not what is on trial here: it is his sanity. So was he sane when making this choice? Absolutely. Was he smart? Definitely not.
When examining the text of the play, several examples of Lear’s sanity can be extracted quite easily. The first of which comes from Act II Scene 4 line 1-2, when Lear says “’tis strange that they should so depart from home/And not send back my messenger.” At this point in the play, when some critics believe Lear is insane, this quote seems to portray him as quite sane. He is able to question the whereabouts of his messenger and ponder what could have happened to him. This caring and curiosity is hardly the feelings exhibited by an insane person. An insane person, such as a murderer, would show no remorse for what they had done, and would not care about the people they harmed. Also in this scene, Lear is outraged to discover that his messenger Kent had been locked in the stocks. Lear says, “They could not, would not do ‘t. ‘Tis worse than murder/To do upon respect such violence outrage./Resolve me with all modest haste which way/Thou might’st deserve or they impose this usage,/Coming from us.” One can see how unlikely it would be for an insane person to show such concern for a friend and servant. Within the same scene, Lear says, “I’d speak with the Duke of Cornwall and his wife.” He is requesting to speak with Regan and Cornwall. When Gloucester replies “Well, my good lord, I have informed them so”, Lear thinks that there must be some kind of misunderstanding. “‘Informed them’? Dost thou understand me man?” He can not understand why his daughter does not want to see him. Since Lear is able to see that it was wrong for Kent to be placed in the stocks, and questions the actions of his daughter, he illustrates the ability to execute rational thoughts. By definition, this makes him completely sane.
When Lear uses the phrase “The offices of nature, bond of childhood,” in Act II Scene 4 line 202, he is, to quote Coles Notes, “repeating the word used by Cordelia who had said she loved her father according to her bond. Lear is beginning to acknowledge the tremendous implications of the words she spoke.” This realisation is one that could only be made by someone sane, for only a sane person could make this connection about what his daughter meant by her words.
Lear’s ability to recognise his insanity suggests he is merely stressed rather than insane. When Lear says, “I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad” he is begging Goneril not to anger him because he is afraid that he is going mad. If Lear was insane, he could not have made this statement. This is similar to the situation described in Catch-22 by U.S. novelist Joseph Heller, ‘There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one?s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and he could be grounded. All he had to do was ask: and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Or be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn?t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy, didn?t have to; but if he didn?t want to he was sane and had to . . .’? What this meant was that any airman rational enough to want to be grounded cannot possibly be insane and therefore is fit to fly. Similarly, if Lear was insane, how could it have been possible for him to recognise that he must not be angered, for it is driving him insane?
A further example of his sanity is in Act III Scene 2, line 18-21, when Lear cries out to the storm, “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness./I never gave you kingdom, called you children;/You owe me no subscription. Then let fall/Your horrible pleasure.” By this, Lear is telling the storm to do its worst, since it does not owe him anything. The action of Lear yelling at the storm is simply an emotional release for Lear, allowing him to relieve some hostile feelings toward his daughters. The fact that he is aware of the mistreatment he has experienced as a result of his daughters actions, and how angry it makes him, is a sign of his sanity. This goes back to what was said earlier about how we as a society judge sanity. Is yelling at a storm considered insane? When one considers what Lear has been through, it is healthy for him to release some of the emotions he has bottled up inside.
Lear, at about the midpoint of the play is still able to care for others, and care for himself. Later in Scene 2, lines 73-76, Lear asks about the wellbeing of the Fool, “My wits begin to turn.-/Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?/I am cold myself.-Where is this straw, my fellow?/The art of our necessities is strange.” The last line of this quote illustrates his sanity particularly well. It is telling the audience that necessity has a strange way of making a worthless thing valuable. This example of a philosophical insight into the worth of things in a situation of need shows a rational thought. Lear’s ability to recognise and care for the pain of himself and a friend, and his ability to form rational thought, could only be made by one of sound mind, since some insane people do not even care about hurting themselves, let alone others.
In Act III Scene 6, line 20-22, when Lear says, “It shall be done. I will arraign them straight./[to Edgar]Come, sit thou here, most learn¾d justice”, he has made the decision that Regan and Goneril must be tried for their sins, and justice must be served. Although Lear appoints Edgar, Kent and Fool as judges and tries a piece of furniture he names Goneril, that is not the point. The point is that he is recognising the crimes committed against him by his daughters, and feels they need to be punished accordingly. The mock trial he holds is simply a tool used by Lear to release some of the emotional anguish that plagues his mind. Once again, “how do we measure sanity?” is a valid question here. The same situation is evident here as when Lear was cursing at the storm. Lear’s enigmatic actions hardly make him insane. As Sigmund Freud wrote in Studies on Hysteria (1895), “ascribing symptoms of hysteria to manifestations of undischarged emotional energy associated with forgotten psychic traumas. The therapeutic procedure involved using a hypnotic state in which the patient recalled and reenacted the traumatic experience, thus discharging by catharsis the emotions causing the symptoms.” Freud’s analysis suggests that while Lear’s actions may seem strange to Kent, Edgar, and Fool, acting out what he would like to do to his daughters is a healthy way of dealing with anger. It was simply a healthy release of emotional energy, which does not make Lear insane.
Lear’s sanity is also evident in Act IV Scene 3, lines 46-57. When Kent and the Gentleman discuss Lear’s situation, Kent says “Well, sir, the poor distress¾d Lear’s i’ th’ town,/Who sometimes in his better tune remembers/What we are come about, and by no means/Will yield to see his daughter.” Kent is telling the audience and the Gentleman that Lear still remembers where he is, why he is there, and that he does not want to see Cordelia. To this, the Gentleman responds “Why, good sir?” Kent elaborates, telling him that “A sovereign shame so elbows him – his own unkindness,/That?s stripped her from his benediction, turned her/To foreign casualties, gave her dear rights/To his dog hearted daughters – these things sting/His mind so venomously that burning shame/Detains him from Cordelia.” By this, he means that Lear is overwhelmed by the shame caused by his mistreatment of Cordelia. He gave her portion of land to her evil sisters, and even remembering these horrid deeds brings an overwhelming feeling of humiliation that keeps him away from Cordelia entirely. Typically, people considered insane show no remorse for what they have done, and at this point in the play, Lear experiences feelings of guilt and remorse that could only be experienced by one who is able to “appraise the effect of one’s actions.”
The next example of Lear’s sanity comes in Act IV, Scene 6, lines 165-191, when Lear is explaining to Gloucester that “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears.” He goes on to explain how the justice system works. “See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?” Gloucester replies, “Ay, sir.” Lear continues saying, “And the creature?Seem to see the things thou dost not.” By these words, Lear tells Gloucester that they live in a world where the rich are able to cover up their crimes with their respectable appearances, while the poor are held responsible for the crimes that occur because of their appearances. Such a strong, in-depth view of the world we live in could not have come from an insane man, but from a man with many thoughts and insights about the way that the world actually works.
In the final scene of Act V, Lear’s sanity is still apparent as he is begging to be imprisoned with Cordelia, so that they may share their remaining years together, alone, “like birds i’ th’ cage.” He wants to be locked up with Cordelia, so that they may “live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues/Talk of court news”. This may seem strange, wanting to be locked up in prison, but that does not make it insane. To Lear, it is a way for him to always be with his beloved daughter Cordelia, and prison would not be that bad a place because they could sing, laugh and tell stories. Later in the scene, when Lear carries the dead Cordelia, he says, “She’s gone forever./I know when one is dead and when one lives./She is dead as earth.-Lend me a looking glass./If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,/Why, then she lives.” When he first carries her, he accepts that she is dead, but within seconds, has a hope that she lives. The denial of a death is normal for anyone losing a loved one, especially a father losing a daughter that he so loved. Just as he was sane throughout the play, at the time of his daughter’s death, he was at his peak of rational thought and understanding, showing true remorse for the harm he had caused her.
King Lear suffered many ordeals throughout the play, including the breakdown of his kingdom, the betrayal of his family, and worst of all, the death of his daughter Cordelia. All of these events were caused in part by the actions of Lear himself. His initial decision to divide his kingdom is what started the chain of events in the first place. But the cause of him doing this was not insanity. Lear, throughout the play, was far from insane. In each Act, several examples can be extracted from the scenes within it proving that Lear was able to understand what he was doing, what was happening to his life, and what effect they had on the world around him. Actions such as yelling at a storm, or dividing his kingdom, were a few of the actions that had some critics thinking he was insane. But doing these things do not make him insane, even though they may be abnormal things to do. There are perfectly rational explanations as to why he did these things. In the previous two examples, the reason he was yelling at the storm was to release some of the pressure and anger that had built up inside him. The reason he divided his kingdom between his daughters was because he did not want to have to handle the burdens of state any longer. These reasoning abilities would make him sane, because sane means being able to think rational thoughts. There is no doubt that Lear made some horrid decisions, which, along with his own ignorance of his daughters motives, caused his downfall, but this was because he was foolish, not insane.