King Lear: How many wits does it take to…

Just a quick hit…

A couple of days back, as I was discussing the nuance between “madness” in King Lear, and something more–possibly even Alzheimer’s disease–I noted the use of the word “wit” and “wits.” Most of these instances are pretty straightforward. There are two, however, that are a little more specialized.

And both are spoken by Edgar as part of his Poor Tom o’Bedlam persona.

Almost immediately upon his entrance in Act Three, Scene Four, he says, “Bless thy five wits, Tom’s a-cold” (III.iv.58). Then later in Act Three, Scene Six, he tells Lear again, “Bless thy five wits” (

So, what are the “five wits”?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the meanings of “wit” is “any one of certain particular faculties of perception, classified as outer (outward) or bodily, and inner (inward) or ghostly, and commonly reckoned as five of each kind” (“wit, n.; 3a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 17 May 2016.).

The five outer wits are what we normally think of as our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

The five inner wits, however, are something else altogether:

  • estimation (instinct)
  • memory
  • common wit (a kind of synthesis of sensory perception into a complete consciousness)
  • imagination (the imagining of something that is real and perceivable)
  • fantasy (the imagining of something that doesn’t or cannot exist)

Those five wits, taken together, encompass all of a person’s mental being. Any loss of one wit, would force the entity to be out of balance. That lack of balance would be unhealthy.

This brings to mind the concept of the humors.

Is this idea of lack of mental balance (through the loss of memory, perhaps) the key to the character of Lear?

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