Question: What is your opinion of the condition of Lear's mind in the opening scene? What effect does his increasing passion seem to have
upon his faculties? Discuss the character of the king.
Answer: When we first see Lear, he is not a lunatic, although in his lack of judgment, in the excitability of his nerves, and
in his unmanly yielding to passion, we discover a decided predisposition to insanity. As Dr. Bucknill says, if we
regard this trial of his daughters as a fabrication of a sane
mind, we must admit that the play is founded on a gross
improbability, and the action of Lear in the subsequent
scenes is inexplicable.
It is true that improbabilities of circumstance are not of infrequent occurrence in Shakespeare. We have a ghost
in Hamlet, fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and
witches in Macbeth, than which no fabrications of the brain
can be more improbable. But we never have the systematic
development of strength from weakness. As in the after-part of the play we stand before the vast ruin of Lear's
mind, immethodized from the ordinary pursuits of life, but sublime in the heights and depths which it reaches,
it is wonderful, impossible that such power and vigor, such
energy and unrest, should be traced to a weak love of flattery
in a mind whose normal state was little more than idiocy.
No; Lear is already far on the way to that unsound state of
mind to which "not alone the imperfections of long engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them," have been
urging him. We perceive that the kingdom has been
already divided. The trial, then, was but a trick to entrap
his daughters into a profession of attachment to him.
Cordelia's opposition was wholly unexpected. Tottering
reason is overwhelmed in the tide of passion, and woe
betide the man who tries to stem the current. "Our
nature nor our place can bear" opposition even to a whim,
and "This hideous rashness" is only the beginning of a
series to which the end is the wild race through the fields
when Cordelia finds that he is "As mad as the vex'd sea."
Cordelia is his favorite child. See I. i. 125.
"I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery."
Again, I. i. 217.
"she that even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
Most best, most dearest. "
Lear's subsequent recognition of the folly of his course
only proves more clearly his inability to control his wandering faculties in this scene. See I. v. 25, where the sad "I
did her wrong" steals a sense of woe into the stoutest heart,
and again, IV. vii. 71-75.
"If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not."
In this scene the case is one of emotional insanity; it is
not until the king receives a violent physical shock that he
becomes a lunatic.
The remarkable power of passion in the resurgence of the
faculties which age had quietly inurned, in the development
of that fierce Titan of mental strength with clear insight
into purposes, with sublime power of moral reasoning, and
with unlimited reach of imagination, is shown in the vast
convulsion of mind, in the volcanic explosions of passion, in
the wild tumult of thought where matter and impertinency
King Lear's actions send the mind back to the time when
a vigorous, comprehensive intellect was held in strict subjection to the noble impulses of an upright heart. We see
him gradually yielding to the influences to which nature and
political station have subjected him, until all the nobler qualities generosity, sympathy, disinterested affection, all that
makes a man lovable have degenerated into mere selfishness. Through all faith in filial piety controls his action.
When that faith is lost and anarchy sets in, the elements which have been before buried, are thrown up again in the
wild convulsion. Lear's trust in filial piety is justified by the event, though his judgment, as to the proper person to
whom it should be given, was wrong. Lear's purposes were right, but he lacked the judgment and the strength of will to
carry them out.
How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/mtwelve.html >.