King Lear: What, art mad?

The play King Lear asks some very interesting questions in regards to madness: What is madness? What does it mean to be mad? But reading the play forces us today to ask if what we consider to be madness is what is meant by Shakespeare and his characters when they use the term.

“Madness” is used four times during the play, and in each case, the intended meaning seems closest to “mental illness or impairment, esp. of a severe kind; psychosis; an instance of this. Also spec. (now rare): rabies” (“madness, n.; 2” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 17 May 2016.):

  • “O, that way madness lies” (III.iv.21)
  • “dog in madness” (III.iv.93)
  • “His roguish madness // Allows itself to anything” ([Quarto]
  • “O matter and impertinency mixed, // Reason in madness” (IV.v.172-73)

But does that mean “insanity” should be how we use “mad” in the play?

I’m not so sure. From a 21st century perspective, we use “mad” as a kind of dual (and dueling) meaning(s): insane, plus colloquial for “angry.” But for Shakespeare and his audience? Well, while those modern denotations were there (and then), the connotations were much more nuanced. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “mad”’s major meanings were:

  • rabid (“mad, adj.; 1” OED Online.)
  • extravagantly or wildly foolish; ruinously imprudent (“mad, adj.; 2” OED Online.)
  • carried away by or filled with enthusiasm or desire (“mad, adj.; 3a” OED Online.)
  • insane, crazy; mentally unbalanced or deranged; subject to delusions or hallucinations (“mad, adj.; 4a” OED Online.)
  • stupefied with astonishment, fear, or suffering (“mad, adj.; 5” OED Online.)
  • moved to uncontrollable rage (“mad, adj.; 6a” OED Online.)
  • angry, irate, cross (“mad, adj.; 6b” OED Online.)
  • lacking in restraint (“mad, adj.; 7a” OED Online.)

I think we can safely rule out the “rabid” definition (though Poor Tom does describe his earlier life as a “dog in madness” [III.iv.93], so maybe we can’t). Those other meanings definitely can be employed. Lear is most definitely “ruinously imprudent” in both dividing his kingdom and on what grounds he divides it; and his reaction to Cordelia’s statements are absolutely “lacking in restraint” as well was “moved to uncontrollable rage” and “angry, irate, [and] cross.” Might he be actually “insane, crazy”? There are definitely moments in Acts Three and Four that could be interpreted as less than sane (particularly during the Quarto’s “trial” sequence in the hovel, as well as his wanderings on the field before happening upon Gloucester and Poor Tom). “Stupefied with suffering”? Given that those aforementioned “crazier” moments happened after his being left out on the heath during the the storm, I’d say that’s more than merely plausible.

Let’s look at the actual usages:

  • “When Lear is mad” (I.i.144): Kent, loyal as he is, certainly isn’t calling his king insane–foolish, maybe, but more likely lacking in restraint
  • “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! // Keep me in temper; I would not be mad” (I.v.45): Here, Lear may be fearing derangement, but given that he speaks of his daughter’s “monster ingratitude” (I.v.38), he may be regretting his imprudent decision to divide his kingdom; the Fool’s statements of Lear’s Fool-ishness also supports this.
  • “What, art thou mad, old fellow?” (II.ii.84): Cornwall’s query to the arguing Kent/Caius might be questioning the man’s sanity, but more likely mocking his rage, anger, or lack or restraint.
  • “I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad” (II.iv.210): Lear’s statement to Goneril, here, seems more like our modern colloquialism for “anger” than “insanity.”
  • “O fool, I shall go mad!” (II.iv.279): This exclamation by Lear as he’s about to enter the storm follows his denial of his own tears and emotional breakdown…and I think this is the first reference that can safely be related to “insanity.”
  • “Thou sayest the king grows mad; I’ll tell thee, friend, // I am almost mad myself… The grief hath crazed my wits” (III.iv.163-64, 168): Gloucester’s discussion of the king’s state leans toward insanity–the “crazed my wits” reference does seem to tilt the balance toward this–but the “grief” aspect might actually point to the stupefying by suffering.
  • “‘Tis poor mad Tom…Madman and beggar too…Alack, sir, he is mad” (IV.i.26, 30, 46): This description of Poor Tom is definitely about his sanity.
  • “as mad as the vexed sea” (IV.iii.2): Cordelia’s recounting of the descriptions she’s heard of her father is tinted (tainted?) by the idea of insanity (“vexed” is especially relevant here).
  • “What, art mad?” (IV.v.148): There doesn’t seem to be any other way to interpret this question by Lear to Gloucester except for “insane.”
  • The King is mad. How stiff is my vile sense
    That I stand up and have ingenious feeling
    Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract.
    So should my thoughts be severed from my griefs,
    And woes, by wrong imaginations, lose
    The knowledge of themselves.
    • IV.v.275-80

    Gloucester’s relating of Lear’s state to his own, filled with references to both aspects both emotional (“feeling…sorrows…griefs…woes”) and mental (“distract…thoughts…imaginations…knowledge”), is most certainly about insanity.

  • “To take the widow // Exasperates, makes mad, her sister Goneril” (V.i.49-50): Edmund’s discussion of his effect on the sisters encompasses not only sanity, but rage as well.

So where does that leave us?

In the first half of the play, the uses of “mad” seem to be less about pathological insanity and more about poor judgment–decisions, albeit bad ones, that he has made, over which he had at least some sense of control. Going into, during, and after the storm, however, control is lost. Now, whether or not his is a mental derangement or psychosis, or merely a stress-induced stupefaction is another question entirely.

If his situation is brought on by his trauma/drama, we don’t really get the opportunity to see him come out of it. His stress, the trauma, never quite ends. Yes, he’s reunited with Cordelia, but he’s still unsure of his situation, as he tells Cordelia, “Yet am I doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant // What place this is” ( “The great rage (may be) killed in him” (, but the confusion, the stupefaction, mad-ness remains.

Madness. But maybe not insanity.

More tomorrow…

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