King Lear: mad or something else?

Yesterday, I discussed the use of “mad” and “madness” in King Lear. And back in February of last year, when I was discussing Twelfth Night, I delved into the use “mad”-related language in that play. Back then, when I was diving into the concordance findings for “mad” language (and that play), I had somehow ignored King Lear altogether.

At that point, I noted

When you tally up the columns, you find that while Hamlet has the most “mad/distract” references in the Canon (as we’ll see over the course of the next couple of months, this should come as no surprise as the main character claims to be feigning madness throughout the play), Twelfth Night isn’t too far behind (with the mad confusion of the double set of twins in The Comedy of Errors making frequent reference to the concept as well).

Well, now if you take into account King Lear, you find that this play–with a mad king and a character also feigning madness–still falls a distant fourth behind the melancholy Dane and the two mad-character-less comedies.

word Twelfth Night Comedy of Errors Hamlet King Lear
mad 22 (21) 25 (19) 21 (18) 17 (14)
mads (verb) 1 (1) 0 (0) 0 (0) 1 (1)
madly 0 (0) 2 (2) 0 (0) 0 (0)
madma(e)n 7 (7) 2 (2) 0 (0) 4 (4)
madness 6 (5) 2 (2) 22 (18) 4 (4)
sub-total 36 (34) 31 (25) 43 (36) 26 (23)
distract- 4 (4) 2 (2) 6 (6) 1 (1)
total 40 (38) 33 (27) 49 (42) 27 (24)

What to make of that?

So is “madness” (whatever that may be) not as important a concept as we might believe in King Lear? Or is this part-and-parcel to that madness-may-not-be-what-we-think-it-is argument from yesterday?

If “madness” is not insanity, strictly speaking, is it mere folly? Stress-induced stupefaction?

Let’s see if the non-”mad” text can help us…

The two eldest daughters talk of Lear and “how full of changes his age is” (I.i.288, emphasis mine) and “the infirmity of his age” (I.i.292, emphasis mine). Age. Though the word “senile” wouldn’t be used for another 50+ years after the writing of this play, this could be their anticipation of that which is “belonging to, suited for or incident to old age” (“senile, adj.; 1a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 17 May 2016.). Goneril and Regan certainly expect “infirm and choleric years” (I.i.297) ahead.

The term “senile dementia” wouldn’t be coined for nearly an additional 200 years, but its definition seems apt: “a severe form of senile deterioration, in which loss of memory, disorientation in time and space, and inability to cope with everyday life are strongly marked” (“senile, adj.; 1b” OED Online.). This definition (though anachronistic) works, especially if we consider Lear’s self-aware speech upon waking in Cordelia’s camp:

Pray do not mock:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward,
Not an hour more nor less, and to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

Loss of memory? “Remembers not these garments”–check. Disorientation in time and space? “I am mainly ignorant // What place this is…nor I know not // Where I did lodge last night”–check. Inability to cope with everyday life? “I fear I am not in my perfect mind”–check. I would also argue his statement of age–”Fourscore and upward, // Not an hour more nor less”–is self-contradictory: how can his age be “upward” of 80 but still be “not an hour more”? In my reading, the short line “Fourscore and upward” forces a huge pause before “Not an hour more”… a two-and-a-half beat pause is needed to complete the iambic pentameter line. This pause could reflect a lack of certainty of his own age.

Senile dementia. It’s an interesting (though as I said anachronistic) argument. What makes this position even more interesting in my mind is that the term is now outdated, as these symptoms are no longer expected to be naturally occurring in the aging, but actually caused by some disorder, most frequently Alzheimer’s disease.

Is Lear suffering from Alzheimer’s?

Neither Shakespeare nor his characters had that word at their disposal for such a description. What they do have is the word “wit” and a wonderful variety of its use:

  • Fool: “Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav’st thy golden one away…And know not how their wits to wear” (I.iv.146-47)
  • Fool: “Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing i’ th’ middle.” (I.iv.169-70)
  • Fool: “Then I prithee be merry; thy wit shall not go slipshod.” (I.v.11)
  • Kent: “Having more man than wit about me” (II.iv.34)
  • Lear: “My wits begin to turn” (III.ii.68)
  • Kent: “His wits begin t’ unsettle” (III.iv.160)
  • Gloucester: “I am almost mad myself…The grief hath crazed my wits.” (III.iv.163-64, 168)
  • Kent: “All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience” (
  • Kent: “His wits are gone” (
  • Edgar: “Poor Tom hath been scared out of his good wits.” (IV.i.57)
  • Cordelia: “‘Tis wonder that thy life and wits at once // Had not concluded all.” (

I find it interesting that “wit” can mean not only “the mind” (“wit, n.; I.1” OED Online.) and “the faculty of thinking and reasoning in general” (“wit, n.; I.2.a” OED Online.), but also “wisdom, good judgment, discretion, prudence” (“wit, n.; II.6.a” OED Online.). This ties in well with yesterday’s “mad” meaning of “extravagantly or wildly foolish; ruinously imprudent” (“mad, adj.; 2” OED Online.). In most of the above examples, though, it does seem that we’re talking about mental faculties, and their loss by Lear.

Mental loss. So does Lear have Alzheimer’s?

Maybe. The daughters certainly offer a clue to the mental history of Lear. Though Lear may be undergoing a change, “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (I.i.292), according to Regan. That implies that though he may have only barely ever known himself (perhaps hiding this from his kingdom), they–within the family–have known him and his mental failings all too well. They have seen that the “best and soundest of his time hath been but rash” (I.i.294), and “the observation [they] have made of it hath not been little” (I.i.289).

They have seen the clues, and they know things will only get worse. Is that why Regan wants to “further think on it” (I.i.305), but the elder Goneril feels they “must do something, and i’ th’ heat” (I.i.306), quickly? Is this why Cordelia is so concerned about leaving Lear in their “professed bosoms” (I.i.272), knowing that his ongoing decline will need greater care?

This need for greater care looms ominously, like a gathering storm. Did the anticipated (or actual) stress of care-giving push the sisters over the edge of loving allowance to a more cruel-to-be-kind approach?

Did they fear themselves growing “stupefied with astonishment, fear, or suffering” (“mad, adj.; 5” OED Online.)?

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