Renaissance Views of Madness: King Lear

By Adrian Ingham, December 1996

The essay that follows was researched and written by Adrian Ingham as part of the course on Shakespeare by Individual Studies, 1996; it is reprinted here with his permission. While copyright is retained by Adrian Ingham, this material may freely be used for educational and non-profit purposes, so long as the author and source are cited.
Please remember that plagiarism is not research.

Samuel Johnson describes the age of Shakespeare as a time when "speculation had not yet attempted to analyze the mind" (118), but there was a range of theories and opinions regarding madness. And although it has been demonstrated that Shakespeare's portrayal of madness parallels Bright's A Treatise of Melancholie (Wilson 309-20), that medical model alone is insufficient to describe the madness of King Lear. Shakespeare was not limited to a single book in his understanding of madness; he had at his disposal the sum total of his society's understanding of the issue. Since Lear's madness is derived from a mixture of sources, it can only be effectively described in this larger context.

Because much of Renaissance medical theory was based on premises from the Middle Ages, a starting point for our understanding of Lear's madness can be found in the 1535 translation of De Propriatibus Rerum by the thirteenth century monk Batholomaeus Anglicus. This work is based entirely on the traditional model of illness as an imbalance of the four humours: melancholy (or black bile), choler (or yellow bile), blood, and phlegm. Batholomaeus classifies melancholy and madness separately, attributing them to different humours and different areas of the brain (1-4). The condition of melancholy is caused by an excess of the melancholy humour. It makes a person "ferefull without cause, & oft sorry. And that is through the melancholi humor that constreineth & closeth the herte" (2). In extreme cases melancholy causes symptoms quite like madness, "somme fall into evyll suspections without recover: & therfore they hate - blame, and confounde theyr frendes, and sometyme they smyte and slee them" (2). But although Lear could be described as falling into "evyll suspections" he probably does not have melancholy. He is choleric by nature and it is likely that his madness is caused by an excess of that humour. Goneril describes his choler and foreshadows his madness in an early attempt to discredit him:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look from his age to recieve, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them. (1.2.294-298)
In Bartholomeus' model madness caused by an excess of choler is called "the frenesie". Its signs are "woodnes and contynual wakynge, mevynge and castynge aboute the eyen, ragynge..." (3). It is caused by the red choler "made lyght with heate of it self... ravysshyd upwarde by veynes, synewes, wosen and pypes" (2). The cure involves bleeding the patient, shaving his head and applying vinegar and ointment to the head. However it also recommends creating a calm environment for the patient, feeding him a sparse simple diet, and "above all things... men shall labour to bringe hym a slepe" (3-4). Kent seems to be aware of this most important part of the cure, and through him we realize that Lear's madness may have been shortlived had he been able to rest before fleeing to Dover:
Oppressed nature sleeps.
This rest might yet have balmed thy broken sinews,
Which, if convenience will not allow,
Stand in hard cure. (3.6.94-98)
However, not all contemporary models of madness relied solely on humours. Timothy Bright's model simplifies Bartholomeus' categorization of madness by calling all madness melancholy, but diversifies it by distinguishing two separate types of melancholy. In Brights words: "the difference is betwixt natural melancholie, and that heavy hande of God upon the afflicted conscience, tormented with remorse of sinne, & fear of his judgement" (37). Natural melancholy resembles Bartholomeus' model in that it has humoreal origins and in its extreme manifestation the melancholy humour can cause "stormes of outrageous love, hatred, hope or feare, wherewith bodies so passionate are here and there, tossed with disquiet..." (Bright 38). But unnatural melancholy has no parallel in the medieval model. Natural melancholy can be recognized from the general symptoms of madness occurring in a stable person in a stress free environment. In this case the madness can only be attributed to physical imbalances (38), while unnatural melancholy, ironically, can be recognized by its occurrence in situations when it seems more natural to go mad: situations in which the mind is tormented by worry and stress (37). The natural/unnatural distinction should not be taken to imply rarity or probability but rather physical or non-physical causes. In Bright's model, like Bartholomeus', Lear would probably not be diagnosed with natural melancholy. We have seen that he is naturally choleric rather than melancholic, and he certainly has recognizable cause to go mad from mental stress and guilt, as Kent, once again, recognizes:
A sovereign shame so elbows him: his own unkindness That 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.... (4.3.44-49)
And because Lear is suffering from unnatural melancholy, his prognosis is not good in Bright's model: "Here no medicine, no purgation, no cordiall, no tryacle or balme are able to assure the afflicted soule and trembling heart, now panting under the terrors of God" (39-40). So we see that mere rest may not have been enough to cure Lear's condition. Upon his reconciliation with Cordelia it is rest which calms his anger, but it is her forgiveness which brings him out of his depression. Had Lear not been parted from her again through her death he may well have survived his madness.

Had Lear survived, however, it would not have been to recover his former self. Lear's madness is a journey as much as it is an illness. Even in his brief interlude of lucidity before Cordelia's death he is a different man:

When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news... (5.3.10-14)
This humble speech to Cordelia is in reaction to the affront of losing a war and being led to prison; compare it to Lear's reaction to friendly advice from the Earl of Kent at the beginning of the play:
Hear me, recreant, On thine allegiance, hear me! That thou hast sought to make us break our vow -- Which we durst never yet -- and with strained pride To come betwixt our sentence and our power -- Which nor our nature nor our place can bear... (1.1.166-71)
Through his madness Lear breaks down the false illusions of his courtly world. Where the earlier speech is concerned with power and title, the later speech is concerned with humanity and friendship. Lear's madness can be seen both as a result of his arrogance and as a remedy for it: "Lear's experience is purgatorial; madness is both punishment and insight" (Byrd 7). The Fool's statement that "truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out" (1.4.111-12) foreshadows the pain that Lear will have to pass through before attaining enlightenment. This vision of madness is characteristic of Shakespeare's era. The Renaissance held the Aristotelian view that there is a fine line between madness and divine inspiration (Skultans 20), but by the eighteenth century madness was viewed as no more than degradation and shame. In testimony to this, the eighteenth century's favorite version of King Lear was a version rewritten by Nahum Tate to include a happy ending (Byrd 7-8). In this version Lear recovers from his illness, wins the battle and reigns again: by suffering madness Lear pays for his sins and is returned to health and prosperity. In contrast to this, Lear's transformation in the original play leaves him so guileless that it is unlikely that he would survive long with the intrigues of running a kingdom even if he had won the war. When Lear dies it is because he has finally learned to love; and when the one he loves dies, the intensity of his sorrow kills him. "His death is a release from suffering, but also a testimony to what he has become" (Byrd 8).

Thus Lear's madness transcends a purely medical model. Lear is a fusion of not only Bright and his predecessors, but also of Renaissance feelings towards madness. The medical model had not changed significantly by the eighteenth century, but common opinions about madness had. The fact that Tate's maudlin happy ending was ever preferred to Shakespeare's original is testimony to the difference that such attitudes can make. While the similarities between Shakespeare's mad men and Timothy Bright's A Treatise of Melancholie are evident, it would be a mistake to infer from these parallels that the characters are based solely on that model. They are, instead, derived from both medical and non-medical sources, and they can be most effectively analyzed using a simular variety of sources.

Works cited

  1. Bartholomaeus Anglicus. De Proprietatibus Rerum. Qtd. in Hunter 1-4.
  2. Bright, Timothy. A Treatise of Melancholie. Hunter 36-37.
  3. Byrd, Max. Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1974.
  4. Hunter, Richard, and Ida MacAlpine, eds. Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry 1535-1860: a History Presented in Selected English Texts. London: Oxford UP, 1963.
  5. Johnson, Samuel. "Preface." Johnson on Shakespeare. Ed. R. W. Desai. New Delhi: Orient, 1985.
  6. Shakespeare, William. "King Lear." William Shakespeare: the Tragedies, the Poems. Ed. John D. Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
  7. Skultans, Vieda. English Madness: Ideas on Insanity, 1580-1890. London: Routledge, 1979.
  8. Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967.

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This page last updated April 8 1997.