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The Concept of Madness and Its Significance

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King Lear and Don Quixote use madness to acknowledge the unpleasant truths of humanity. Don Quixote entertains a fundamentally comic madness; while, King Lear offers a more tragic interpretation of insanity. Both protagonists, King Lear and Don Quixote, ground their madness in powerful alternate realities. Cervantes’ explains Don Quixote’s fixation on knight-errantry writing, “So with too little sleep and too much reading his brains / dried up, causing him to lose his mind” (Don Quixote, Part I, Ch. I, 21). We see that Don Quixote, “so convinced in his imagination of all the / false inventions he read that no / history in the world was truer” chooses to isolate himself from the world (Don Quixote, Part I, Ch. I, 21). Conversely, King Lear has madness thrust upon him. He is stripped of his identity and left questioning, “Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear. / … Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (King Lear, 1.4.220-224) Lear’s insanity is forbidding and degrading. In the context of Quixote’s irrationality and Lear’s disassociation, we are encouraged to question the significance of madness and what it means to be human.

In Don Quixote we see that madness is self-initiated. Don Quixote decides to be a knight errant and constructs a reality that supports this fantasy. His ability to play with reality attests to the power of imagination and implies a degree of self-awareness. Quixote’s madness speaks to the greater restoration of chivalry and self-knowledge. Cervantes’ describes this saying, “It seemed reasonable and necessary to him, for the sake of his honor / and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant / … righting all manner of wrong, … / winning eternal renown and everlasting / fame” (Don Quixote, Part I, Ch. I, Pg. 21). Quixote’s humanity is dependent on purpose, beauty and courage. He is very much invested in himself and interested in exploring his perceptions of the world.

Quixote’s world perception is driven by Dulcinea. He expresses a potent infatuation with her saying, “For what I want of Dulcinea del Toboso she is as good as the greatest / princess in the land … / I am quite satisfied … to imagine and believe that the good Aldonza Lorenzo is so lovely and virtuous” (Don Quixote). Choosing to ignore the world around him, he sees Dulcinea as the epitome of perfection. Regardless of her reality, Dulcinea exists as an extension of Don Quixote. She symbolizes the fame and world-renown that Don Quixote seeks. As Don Quixote’s fantasies become reality, he effectively constructs fate.

On the other hand, Lear’s madness is destructive and develops out of external impulses. During the storm he says, “Let fall / Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave, / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (King Lear, III.2.18-20). Betrayed by his daughters, Lear is powerless and assumes a position of servitude. Lamenting “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (King Lear, III.2.59-60), Lear expresses self-pity and condemns his daughters’ treachery. No longer presiding over the kingdom, Lear is without purpose. He has lost everything that once defined him – authority, family, and remembrance. In this identity crisis, we see that respect and dignity are fundamental aspects of Lear’s humanity. Losing the respect of his daughters and kingdom, Lear eventually loses his mind.

During his decent into madness, Lear observes Poor Tom’s shivering and naked body in the storm. Observing Tom’s vulnerability, Lear discovers that true humanity is simple and devoid of superfluous wealth or materialism. Disrobing alongside Tom, Lear’s nudity represents his mental vulnerability and new social consciousness. He tells Tom, “Though art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no / more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (King Lear, III.4.107-108). Lear comments on the convergence of man and beast by suggesting that essentially people aren’t any different from animals. Lear revisits this comparison while mourning Cordelia’s death. He asks, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (King Lear, V.3.313-314) Having answered his own question, Lear knows that all creatures share equal entitlement to life and prosperity. Given that people and animals have the same right to life, then Cordelia is no more important than a dog or rat. Here, Lear’s tragic madness culminates as he suggests that human existence is nothing more than animalistic instinct.

Both King Lear and Don Quixote experience transformative madness that seems to support their overall character development. King Lear and Don Quixote start out as absurd characters, but quickly grow to be intellectual, self-aware men. Taken from the theatrical version of Don Quixote (La Mancha), Don Quixote says, “’Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!’” (La Mancha) Although it is impossible to understand what it means to be human, King Lear and Don Quixote constantly test reality’s limits. If Don Quixote can be happy as a knight errant and King Lear a loyal father, then perhaps reality is perpetual madness: the blending of “life as it is, with life as it should be.”

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The Concept of Madness and Its Significance. (2018, May 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/necessary-madness-in-king-lear-and-don-quixote/
“The Concept of Madness and Its Significance.” GradesFixer, 23 May 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/necessary-madness-in-king-lear-and-don-quixote/
The Concept of Madness and Its Significance. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/necessary-madness-in-king-lear-and-don-quixote/> [Accessed 22 Jan. 2021].
The Concept of Madness and Its Significance [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 May 23 [cited 2021 Jan 22]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/necessary-madness-in-king-lear-and-don-quixote/
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