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As in his Hamlet, Shakespeare uses “reason in madness” throughout King Lear by using unexpected characters to help with his overall theme of recognition and realization. However, reason in madness can also refer to Shakespeare himself, because in all the chaos and tragedy throughout King Lear, he preaches to us a very real and intended message. Literary scholars often disagree about the final scene of this play, saying that the lack of redemption indicates a Godless theme. We can deduce, however, that there is reason in Shakespeare’s madness, and that the disaster and confusion that run throughout the play serve a definite purpose in his work.
In the opening scenes, we see that Lear is for the most part sane – ignorant, but sane. He knows what he is doing when he banishes and disowns the one daughter who loves him, but he is ignorant to the honesty and love behind her few words. While her sisters mindlessly and deceitfully flatter their father with empty words, Cordelia prefers to “love, and be silent” (1.1.68). Lear, however, does not see things that way, and ignorantly decides that her silence means she does not love him, and divides his kingdom between his two wicked and treacherous daughters. They strip him of his power and humiliate him as he stands by and watches helplessly.
As the Fool rudely but truthfully points out, Lear “[gave] them the rod and [put] down [his] own breeches” when he gave his kingdom to his daughters (1.4.176-178). This is the first, though minor, of many instances of agnorisis on the part of Lear. As Lear’s sanity slips away from him, he gradually gains insight and humility. In his madness amidst the throes of the storm, Lear speaks some of the most profound truths in the play: “The art of our necessities is strange and can make vile things precious” (3.2.76-77). Initially, Lear seems to have gone mad because of what Goneril and Regan did to him, and this is partially true. But more so than that, he goes mad because of what he did to Cordelia. This recognition of his sin and realization of difficult truths contributes to his humbling.
King Lear finally starts to learn from his mistakes when his wretched daughters throw him out into the storm. He recognizes his sin in disowning Cordelia and realizes the emptiness of earthly glory. He finally begins to grasp the concept of love, and that it is not about power or glory or praise. He puts the needs of others (the Fool) ahead of his own, a sign of true love. Shakespeare chooses to use a sort of unorthodox point of reversal in King Lear, with the protagonist making his mistake at the beginning of the play and learning all throughout. Lear continues to learn right up until the moment of his death. In the final scenes, with his dead daughter in his arms, he mourns, “my poor fool is hanged” (5.3.369). His final discovery is that Cordelia and the Fool both represented for him a very fundamental value: truth. It is quite possible that in his bedlam he confused the characters, or that the word “fool” here was used as an endearing term for child, but Shakespeare loves throwing reason in with madness, and the roles of Cordelia and the Fool in Lear’s life were so similar that he probably confused them. Whether intentional or not, Lear makes this connection for Shakespeare’s purpose of contributing to the distinction he makes between love and truth.
Lear is conscious of the fact that he is slowly slipping into a state of madness; he is well aware that his wits begin to turn” (3.1.73). He does try, however, to fight the descent into madness; “O, that way madness lies; let me shun that!” (3.4.24). It is the love and honesty that Cordelia, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar show to Lear that allows him to see reason in his madness and learn from his mistakes. In her literary criticism, Kim Paffenroth points out that “the Fool and Cordelia embody truth more than do Edgar and Kent”. The fool is painfully honest with the king about his faults and shortcomings, and Cordelia answers her father honestly in the opening scenes, even though she knows that it is not what he wants to hear. “Through their foolish devotion and self-sacrifice to the truth, Cordelia and the Fool teach Lear its infinite value [while he learns] of the deadly worthlessness of lies and appearances” (Paffenroth). Edgar and Kent, however, more exemplify love than truth. Both Edgar and Kent participated in some form of deceit, though their intentions were good. But both Edgar and Kent know that “love abides longer and dwells deeper within us than truth” (Paffenroth). Lear needs both truth and love in his state, and both have a different role to play in his recognition and education.
After being thrust into the horrible storm by his wicked daughters, Lear meets a bedlam beggar, or rather, Edgar disguised as a bedlam beggar named Poor Tom. In what almost seems like an epiphany, Lear understands for the first time the plight of the poor and challenges himself and others like him who take their fortune for granted to “expose [themselves] to feel what wretches feel” (3.4.39). He begins to understand that love does not necessarily lie in riches or power.
There is much debate as to whether or not justice was served in the final scenes of this play. Because it is a tragedy, a protagonist must die a pitiable death. We can say, however, that justice was served to Goneril and Regan, as well as Cornwall and Edmund. All of Regan and Goneril’s sins in the play stem from their insatiable selfishness. They give lip service to the king for their own personal gain. They dismiss all of his men so they do not have to deal with them. They fight over Edmund because they want more than what their husbands, dead or alive, can offer. Eventually they kill each other, whether directly or indirectly, with their selfish blindness.
Cornwall dies at the hand of a good man who opposes a bad deed. He does not repent, which fits, because he does not deserve forgiveness. Edmund quite clearly “gets his”. He dies at the hand of the brother he deceived and betrayed. Whether or not his final attempt at redemption comes from the heart, justice is still served. If he really has had a change of heart, then he has repented and justice has been served. If he is trying to bargain with God, it will not go unnoticed or unpunished. Whatever the case may be, we can safely say that Justice is served to the wrongdoers of this work.
Shakespeare uses the reason in Lear’s madness to emphasize the reason in his own chaotic madness throughout the play. In what seems the most scattered and pitiful of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, there is an unstructured beauty that as literary scholars we cannot allow to go unnoticed. One almost has to wonder what tempest was raging in Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote such a beautiful and poignant piece of art. We may never know, but we must learn from it, or the sufferings of the noble will have been in vain.
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