Reason vs. Insanity in King Lear

In William Shakespeare’s King Lear, we see Lear diminish in both power and sanity within the play. At the beginning of the play, Lear recognizes that he is growing older and will need to divide his kingdom up between his daughters. However, he does it in a way that isn’t practical or smart. Lear asks,  “Which of you shall we say doth love us most,/That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merrit challenge” (act 1, scene 1, lines 56-58). Lear gives his oldest two daughters his kingdom based on their false flattery. Goneril manipulates Lear by saying, “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the/matter,/Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,” (act 1, scene 1, lines 60-62). Already in act 1, Lear trusts Goneril and Regan. When Cordelia tells Lear she loves him no more than a daughter should love her father, and that her actions should speak for her, Lear banishes her for speaking truthfully. Cordelia: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less” (act 1, scene 1, lines 100-103). The reader begins to think that Lear is insane because he gave his entire kingdom to Goneril and Regan, who are malicious and plotting against him. 

When Lear’s servant Kent tries to warn him of Goneril and Regan, Lear banishes him. Kent: “When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man?/Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak/When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s/bound/When majesty falls to folly” (act 1, scene 1, lines 163-166). The King is bowing to Goneril and Regan’s flattery. Lear banishes Kent “Five days we do allot thee for provision/To shield thee from disasters of the world,/And on the sixth to turn thy hated back/Upon our kingdom. If on the tenth day following/Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,/The moment is thy death” (act 1, scene 1, lines 197-202). Lear banishes his most loyal follower, Kent. Readers are seeing major problems with Lear’s decision making because he bequeathed his kingdom to his lying daughters, and kicked out his trusted servant. This leads readers to question Lear’s sanity.

Later in act 1, Lear admits that he shouldn’t have banished Cordelia. Lear: (regarding Cordelia) “I did her wrong” (act 1, scene 5, line 24). He seems to be reflecting on his past actions. As the play progresses and Goneril and Regan show their true colors, Lear struggles because his own children have betrayed him. Lear: “I will have such revenges on you both/That all the world shall — I will do such things–/ What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be/The terrors of the earth!” (act 2, scene 4, lines 321-323). Lear finally realizes in this scene that his daughters are not who he thought they were, and he has become mad.

Lear rages at the storm due to the unfair treatment of his daughters towards him. He actually asks the weather to strike him with lightning. Lear: “You sulph’ rous anmd thought-executing fires,/Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,/ Singe my white head!” (act 3, scene 2, lines 5-7). Lear is so plagued by what his daughters have done to him that he asks to be hit by a lightning bolt. Another instance when Lear isn’t thinking clearly is in act 4. Cordelia’s servants come to get the King, but he runs off and says they can take him back if they can catch him. “Then there’s life in ‘t. Come, an you get it, you/Shall get it by running. Sa, sa, sa ,sa!” (act 4, scene 6, lines 222-223). In the previous quotation, Lear is acting childish. His actions result in his downfall in the tragedy. And, it leaves readers in suspense to see if he is able to recover and take back his kingdom.

One thought on “Reason vs. Insanity in King Lear

  1. AVERY M

    I agree that the power plays such as these develop immensely throughout the play. Shakespeare wants the reader to see Lear as a vain fool in the beginning of the play, but he eventually grows, in the eyes of the reader, into the mad protagonist. Lear’s realization that he should not have acted so rashly and foolishly with his power represents a main theme of the play. He grows and a character and is forced to try to come to terms with the consequences of his actions in the first act, and that the play implies how he has been acting for some time. Since he cannot grapple with the loss of his role, his idenity crumbles and he grows more and more mad.


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