The Madness of Lear and Edgar



Jonathan D. Lewis


Presented to the Chicago Literary Club

Monday, April 16, 2007

            Elizabethan scholar Johnstone Parr sternly cautions would-be critics against any attempt to construct hypotheses regarding Shakespeare’s “’personal attitude’ towards his materials.” 1   “Only an unwary critic,” Johnstone writes, would presume to attempt to establish the dramatist’s own beliefs based upon a study of his characters and their speeches. (loc.cit.)  As I am not a professional literary critic, I venture to proceed recklessly down the very path that Parr warns against.  My purpose is to polish but a single facet of Shakespeare’s multi-faceted genius.  My topic is Shakespeare’s psychology and my argument is that Shakespeare created, in his dramas and characters, a psychology that was entirely original for his time.  Shakespeare’s psychological constructs can be inferred from the speeches of his characters, in which their motivations, feelings and conflicts are revealed.  In other words, my contention is that all the elements necessary for a psychological theory can be found in Shakespeare’s plays.  Shakespeare’s psychological understanding is original in that it does not rely upon any of the theories extant in the Elizabethan era.  Indeed, Shakespeare rejects the existing ideas concerning human motivation, as I hope to demonstrate.  The text for my argument is The History of King Lear.

            This play has stimulated voluminous commentary.  It is a play that is held in the highest esteem by Shakespearean scholars.  I cite two of these.   Harold Bloom, at the opening of his essay on Lear, writes, “King Lear, together with Hamlet, like the Yahwist’s text…and the Gospel of Mark, announce the beginning and end of human nature and destiny.” 2   Stanley Wells, the general editor of The Oxford Shakespeare, in his introduction to the play, states that Lear ‘…has come to be regarded not only as its author’s finest literary achievement, but also as one of the most profound and challenging examinations ever undertaken of what it means to be human….3  Both of these writers make reference to Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature.  Shakespeare was so careful an observer of human behavior and motivation that his characters speak to us as truly today as they did when they were conceived four hundred years ago.   Shakespeare’s characters exhibit all the feelings commonly encountered in man regardless of time, place or cultural differences:  love, hate, envy, jealousy, shame, guilt, greed, vengefulness, lust and remorse all appear in my chosen text.  Shakespeare portrays these feelings in an authentic and natural fashion in his characters without recourse to theory or abstraction.  In his capacity to understand and convey human feeling and motivation with such beauty and authenticity, Shakespeare stands as one of the great psychologists, as well as one of the greatest writers, of all time.

            Although I am sure that you are all familiar with the story of King Lear, I shall begin with a brief synopsis in order to set the scene for my hypothesis and to refresh the memory of those of you who may not have had a recent brush with this work.  The play opens with the aged King Lear renouncing his throne with the intention of dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. In return for his largess, he requests of them that they compete in pronouncements of their love for him.  His two older daughters, Gonoril and Regan, are effusive in their proclamations of love for their father, flattering him in the manner that he desires.  In contrast, Cordelia, the youngest and Lear’s favorite, speaks modestly of her love, telling her father that she loves him only in accordance with the love due a father from a child.  She tells him that, unlike her sisters, she shall reserve half her love for her future husband.  Lear is enraged by what he experiences as Cordelia’s ingratitude.  His feelings are injured by this perceived slight, Cordelia’s words seeming so pale in comparison to her sisters’ hyperbole.  In vengeful rage, Lear re-divides his kingdom between Gonoril and Regan, leaving Cordelia with no inheritance.  Among several suitors for Cordelia, only the King of France is impressed with the youngest daughter’s honesty and modesty, and agrees to marry her without dowry, taking her to France as his queen.

            Abdicating his throne, Lear nonetheless retains a kingly retinue of a hundred knights to attend him, and makes known his intention to pass his remaining days as a guest of Gonoril and Regan.  However, these two beneficiaries of Britain’s realm quickly tire of what they describe as the riotous excesses of Lear’s knights.  Furthermore, they resent the expense of keeping these knights housed, fed, watered and entertained.  They plot to strip their father of this last vestige of his royalty.  At first, Lear is incredulous at the behavior of the daughters whom he has treated so generously.  Persuaded that they are serious in their intentions to deprive him of all trappings of his former greatness, he again becomes enraged.  Suffering a final blow to his self-esteem when even his daughters’ servants insult him, his mind begins to unravel.  His anger transforms to madness and even he begins to doubt his sanity.  Lear becomes progressively more delusional as he flees his treacherous daughters.  He emerges from the Duke of Gloucester’s castle, where all the principals of the drama have gathered, into a violent storm.  Lear, progressively unhinged, rails at the elements in his madness.

            In a parallel subplot involving the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar and Edmund, the illegitimate son, Edmund, plots to turn their father against the favored Edgar, in order to inherit the Dukedom.  Edgar is persuaded by his miscreant and mendacious brother that their father intends to kill him and flees for his life, disguising himself as a beggar.  As Lear is wandering about and raving in the storm, he stumbles upon Edgar’s hiding place.   Discovered, the disguised Edgar attempts to conceal further his identity from Lear by feigning madness.  The genuinely mad Lear thus encounters mock madness in the form of the dissembling Edgar.  It is this dramatic juxtaposition of both true and feigned madness that provides us with a window into Shakespeare’s conception of insanity.  Lear represents Shakespeare’s idea of what constitutes true madness, while the assumed madness of Edgar must of necessity represent notions of insanity that Shakespeare parodies as fallacious.  I shall curtail my synopsis at this point, as it is adequate to set up my discussion of Shakespeare’s psychology as demonstrated in his construction of Lear’s madness, its nature, its motive force and its reasons.  I trust that this brief introduction has also stimulated your memory as to how it all turns out.  I proceed to my argument.

            Lawrence Babb, in a treatise on concepts of melancholy in Elizabethan literature, states that any attempt to organize the body of theories that comprise the physiologic psychology of that era, risks introducing ‘an orderliness which it does not really have.’4   Be forewarned, then,

that my description of distinct Elizabethan constructs of the genesis of insanity is a distortion of reality that is meant only to organize and advance this discussion.  The ideas of madness held by the Elizabethans may be divided into three:  (1) the theory of astrological influences, (2) the notion of demonic possession, and (3) the humoral theory, which originated with Hippocrates, was refined by Galen in the 2nd century AD and which remained influential into the 19th century.5, 6, 7   Shakespeare refers to all three of these theories of madness and ultimately rejects them all.

            First, the idea that the heavenly bodies influence human emotions and events and could induce lunacy is amply represented in Shakespeare’s dramas.   Johnstone Parr notes that, ‘Shakespeare’s astrological references are ubiquitous’ (op. cit., pp 64-65) and counts more than a hundred astrological allusions in Shakespeare’s works, comprising over 400 lines of text.  It is Parr’s opinion that Shakespeare references astrological events as a poetic device, as a means for allowing his characters to express a point of view consistent with their personalities.  In this, I am in full agreement with Parr.  Of these hundred plus references to astrology, Shakespeare places the overwhelming majority in the mouths of characters who sanction astral influences.  For example, in the play Othello, the title character, aghast at having murdered his wife, opines that the heavens should sympathize with his horrible deed:

                        Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse

                        Of sun and moon, and that th’affrighted globe

                        Should yawn at alteration. (Act V, Scene ii, lines 108-110)

                        It is the very error of the moon,

                        She comes more nearer earth than she was wont,

                        And makes men mad. (V, ii, lines 118-120)

Parr further points out that there are only four instances in which Shakespeare’s characters belittle and deny the effects of the stars on man’s fate.  In All’s Well That Ends Well the character Helena exclaims:

                        Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie

                        Which we ascribe to heaven. (I, i, 212-213)

In the play under discussion, both positions, for and against the influences of the stars, are expressed.  Lear, in his rage at his daughter Cordelia, swears:

                        By all the operation of the orbs

                        From whom we do exist and cease to be,

                        Here I disclaim all my paternal care… (Scene 1, 103-105)

The astrological position is also taken by the Earl of Gloucester, who, in response to Edmund’s calumnious accusations against his brother, opines:

                        These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.

                        Though the wisdom of nature can reason thus and thus,

                        Yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects.

                        Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; (Scene 1, 101-105)

But as Gloucester speaks, and then exits, his bastard son, Edmund, quickly heaps scorn upon this notion that the music of the spheres has anything to do with human terpsichore.  In a scathingly sarcastic, yet beautiful speech, Edmund proclaims:

This is the excellent foppery of the world: that when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeit of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on.  An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of stars!  My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s tail and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous.  Fut! I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star of the firmament twinkled on my bastardy.  (Sc. 2, 110-124)

Interestingly, it is in the person of the villainous Edmund that Shakespeare chooses to enunciate the rational and humanistic position, that people are responsible for their own character and behavior.  Yet it is logical that Edmund should hold this opinion, for he has witnessed his father making light of the tryst which led to his coming into the world.  In the very opening scene of the play, Gloucester introduces Edmund to the Earl of Kent as his bastard son, saying:

                        Though this knave came something saucily into the        

                        world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair,

                        there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson

                        must be acknowledged.  (Sc. 1, 21-23)

Having been present, and perhaps humiliated, at his father’s acknowledgement of paternity in such a liaison, Edmund does not accept Gloucester’s subsequent divestment of responsibility attributing human behavior to the effect of the heavens.  Perhaps the best known example of a Shakespearean character derogating the notion of planetary influence on human events occurs in Julius Caesar, in the famous speech of Cassius,

                        Men at sometime were masters of their fates.

                        The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (I, ii, 140 – 142)

I stand in full agreement with Johnstone Parr when he concludes that Shakespeare uses astrological references as a purely artistic device, one that his audience could readily relate to and understand.  Shakespeare’s astrological allusions, as placed in the mouths of his characters, are always consistent with these characters’ personalities, beliefs and actions.  But the use of astrological references is for artistic purposes only.  In no instance does Shakespeare make planetary influences determinative of the outcome of his dramas.  It is for this reason that I contend, contra Parr, that it is possible to deduce that Shakespeare did not view astrology as a prime mover or motive force of human behavior.

 The idea that madness was the result of demon possession was wide spread among the lower echelons of Elizabethan society, and must have existed in one form or another from time immemorial.  The middle-ages were noted, however, for the systematic persecution of those unfortunates who were branded as witches.  Many of these were undoubtedly mentally ill persons and the overwhelming majority of the persecuted and tortured were women.  By the end of the 15th century, a hundred years prior to Shakespeare’s creations, theories of witchcraft and methods of prosecuting witches were codified by the fanatically misogynistic Dominican priests, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger.8, 9   The product of their practice was the Malleus Malificarum, or the ‘Witch Hammer’, published circa 1486.  This volume was a guide to the discovery of witches with instructions for the interrogation, torture and destruction of these consorts of the devil.  The two priests had a special interest in the sexual practices of witches, which they write about in detail and with great glee.  I offer a short, but illustrative, sample of their hatred for women.  “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!  By Elizabethan times, a healthy skepticism regarding  witchcraft had arisen among the educated classes in England.  Shakespeare takes up and expresses this skepticism by portraying the feigned madness of Edgar as a case of demonic possession.  Edgar disguises himself by assuming the manner and image of the Mad Tom O’Bedlam, and in this guise, rants about all the devils that pursue him and that reside in his belly.  In one scene, Shakespeare derides the notion of devil possession as a cause of madness by having Edgar say

                        The foul fiend haunts Poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.

                        Hoppedance cries in Tom’s belly for two white herring.

                        Croak not, black angel: I have no food for thee. (Sc. 13, 25-28)

Shakespeare portrays the poor hungry devil, named Hoppedance, busily possessing Mad Tom, yet completely, and comically, dependent upon its host for sustenance to survive there.  Edgar, in various speeches as Poor Tom, names the many devils that inhabit him.  By way of example, there is Smolking, the ‘fiend’, and Modo, ‘The Prince of Darkness’ (Sc. 11, 126-130).  My personal favorite is Flibbertigibbet, ‘the foul fiend’ (Sc. 11, 103)  In one speech, Edgar reveals that fully five devils are inhabiting the poor wretch at the same time (it must have been quite crowded in Poor Tom) –

                        Five fiends have been in Poor Tom at once, as of lust Obidicut,

                        Hobbididence prince of dumbness, Mahu of stealing, Modo of

                        Murder, Flibbertigibbet of mocking and mowing, who since

                        possesses chambermaids and waiting-women. (Sc. 15, 56-60)

These names for the devil, odd sounding to us, but familiar to the Elizabethan audience, were taken directly from a pamphlet entitled, “Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures”, published in 1603.10   The pamphlet was the work of Samuel Harsnet, the Archbishop of York.  A leading skeptic of the times, Harsnet believed that witchcraft mania was no product of the devil, but a plot by the Jesuits to win over simple peasants from the Church of England, “under the pretence of casting out devils”.  Harsnet writes of one supposedly enchanted woman, Sara Williams, who was said to have all of hell’s devils in her at one time.  Among these were all those mentioned that ‘vexed Poor Tom’, as well as a score of others, some with delightfully comic names such as ‘Lustie Jolly Jenkins’, ‘Cornered Cappe’, ‘Delicate’, ‘Pudding of Thame’ and ‘Bonjour’.  Harsnet, with great satiric style and logic, reasons that, “these were all in poore Sara at a chop, with these the poor soul traveled up and down full two years together: so as during those two years, it had been all one to say, one is gone to hell, or he is gone to Sara Williams, for she poor wench had all hell in her belly”.  That Shakespeare’s source for the feigned madness of Tom O’Bedlam was satiric in nature makes credible the argument that Shakespeare did not take devil possession seriously as a cause of insanity.

            Of the Elizabethan concepts of insanity, the humoral theory was perhaps the most widely accepted and was often referenced by Shakespeare in his dramas.  The humoral theory was composed of an elaborate and complex system of hierarchical and interacting elements, utilized in an attempt to explain the human essence through an integration of medical physiology, philosophy and religious necessity.11   In essence, the humoral theory was based on the idea that the elements, humors and qualities that composed the body were responsible for the differences in mental capacities and temperaments, both among individuals and within an individual under changing circumstances.

            The four humors of Hippocratic medicine were blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.  Each of these was associated with an element and a bodily organ.  Thus, the analogs of blood were air and liver, and so on.  This system was elaborated by Galen in the 2nd Century A.D. by associating an individual’s temperament with a predominance of particular humor.  The resulting qualities are retained in contemporary language.  Thus a surfeit of blood resulted in a sanguine temperament, while an excess of black bile led to melancholy.  Excess yellow bile caused one to be choleric, and as you may readily imagine, an excess of phlegm produced a phlegmatic temperament.  A balanced mix of humors resulted in an ideally healthy individual, while imbalances were held to be the cause of all manner of illnesses, both physical and mental.  This system could become quite complex and elaborate in that food, temperature and degrees of moisture all affected the balance of humors in the body.  Treatments followed upon theory, so that blood letting, purging and emesis were utilized to mitigate the harmful effects of a surplus of humors in the system.  If a disease was thought to result from the influence of cold and moisture, then foods, herbs and other treatments were given with the intention of warming and drying the body.  A patient with fever, who was hot and moist, must be cooled and dried. 

In this system, reason, an aspect of the animal faculty, could be unseated by any number of disturbances or ‘perturbations’ of the lower elements, especially the passions.11,12  Ample examples can be found in our text.  Upon discovering that his daughters were conspiring against him, Lear cries out:

                        O how this mother swells up toward my heart!

                        Hysterica passio!  Down, thou climbing sorrow!

                        Thy element’s below.  (Sc. 7, lines 224-226)

This passage is likely influenced by the writing of Samuel Harsnet, from the same text noted above.  Harsnet was the first writer to use the term hysterica passio (Latin: ‘suffering of the womb’) for the illness known as hysteria.  While this was known as a condition that usually affected women, Harsnet discovered men who suffered from the condition and described it as a wind that arose in the bottom of the abdomen, and “proceeding with a great swelling, causeth a very painful colic in the stomach and an extraordinary giddiness in the head’ (quoted by Wells, op. cit., in a footnote to the Oxford edition of King Lear, page 165).  In other words, Lear bids the passions that derive from the lower organs to remain in their proper place, so as not to disturb his reasoning and mental stability.  As hysterical symptoms were considered a female malady, such feelings of sorrow and grief were not apt in a manly king; as Lear exclaims in response to his own distress:

                        Touch me with noble anger,      

                        And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,

                        Stain my man’s cheeks.  (Sc. 7, lines 434-436)

            Viewed from a modern perspective, the humoral theory was not based on rational science, and in fact was not even consistent within its own terms.  For example, in the Elizabethan ethos, the aging process was generally thought to make the organs of the body cold and dry, characteristic of melancholy.  The heat of youthful choler was often lost with age.  We encounter Sir John Falstaff, in conversation with the Lord Chief Justice in the second part of Henry IV, first making reference to his study of Galen and then saying:

                        You that are old consider not the capacities of us

                        that are young: you do measure the heat of our livers

                        with the bitterness of your galls. (I, ii, lines 174 -177)

Age also brings a weakening of the power of rationality and a greater tendency to submit to the passions.  Lear had always been of choleric temperament and Gonoril observes that his age

makes him more subject to rash ‘unruly waywardness’, which impairs his judgment.*  Thus Lear, in his senility, heated up in a manner that was in opposition to the prevailing notion that age produced a cooling of the body. 

            These are only a few illustrations from the many that could be adduced to demonstrate how Elizabethan physiological psychology was integrated into Shakespearean drama.  When Gloucester says, “Grief hath craz’d my wits”, the psychologist of the day would have understood this to mean that grief had in a literal and concrete manner clouded the ‘outer wits’ or senses, so that false images would be presented to the imagination, and the faculty of reason disturbed.  Thus was madness produced.   We appreciate this speech as poetic metaphor.




*(Sc. 1, 284 – 288)     

            The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look to receive from his age not alone the imperfection of long-engrafted condition, but there-withal unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.



I believe that Shakespeare used the imagery of astrology, of the humors and of demonic possession, metaphorically and artistically, all the while presenting a quite reasonable and meaningful picture of madness.  The characteristics of Lear’s psychosis, as portrayed by Shakespeare, are entirely compatible with our contemporary understanding of the illness: (1) Lear’s fragmentation of mind occurs slowly and he maintains for a time enough self-observing capacity to recognize the process for what it is; (2) in his psychosis, the rational and irrational are realistically inter-twined; (3) even his irrational, psychotic ravings have symbolic meaning;  and (4) Lear’s mental fragmentation occurs in reaction to understandable stresses upon his self-esteem and equilibrium.

             Lear’s slow descent into madness begins following the injury to his esteem from Gonoril’s ingratitude.  As the Fool attempts to distract him from his melancholy, Lear blurts out;

                        O, let me not be mad, sweet heaven!

                        I would not be mad.

                        Keep me in temper.  I would not be mad. (Sc. 5, 42 – 44)   

Later, as he rushes out into the storm, tormented by thoughts of hurt and revenge, Lear remains cognizant of the turmoil within him and its origin:

                        When the mind’s free,

                        The body’s delicate.  The tempest in my mind

                        Doth from my sense take all feeling else

                        Save what beats there.  Filial ingratitude! (Sc. 11, 11 – 14)

                        O Regan, Gonoril!

                        Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave you all -

                        O, that way madness lies: let me shun that!

                        No more of that!” (Sc. 11, 18 – 21)                 

Thinking on his injuries only increases Lear’s disturbance and he suppresses these thoughts that are driving him insane.  It is clear from these lines and from others that I will get to shortly, that Shakespeare presents insanity as the result of injuries to one’s self-esteem, injuries that are all the more hurtful as they arise from Lear’s own children.

            There is ample evidence that Lear is aware that his madness originates in his reaction to his betrayal by Regan and Gonoril.  It is helpful to turn to the famous scene in the storm, in which Lear rails at the elements.  It is particularly instructive to attend closely to Lear’s words as he addresses the tempest, words which are often lost to an audience when a director is more taken by technical displays of thunder and lightening than by Lear’s beautiful speech:

                        Rumble thy bellyful: spit, fire; spout, rain.

                        Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.

                        I task not you, you elements, with unkindness.

                        I never gave you kingdom, called you children.

                        You owe me no subscription.  Why then, let fall

                        Your horrible pleasure.  Here I stand your slave,

                        A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man,

                        But yet I call you servile ministers,

                        That have with two pernicious daughters joined

                        Your high engendered battle ‘gainst a head

                        So old and white as this. O, ‘tis foul! (Sc. 9, lines 14-24)

It is clear, both here and following, that Lear identifies the actions of these two daughters as the cause of his rage and madness.  Shortly after this speech, Lear likens the storm to the tempest in his mind, which he observes obliterates all feeling and awareness except for his preoccupation with ‘filial ingratitude’.  So much is the trauma of his betrayal in the forefront of his mind, that he interprets subsequent events in this light.  When he meets Edgar disguised as Mad Tom, Lear immediately assumes that the poor beggar must have been driven mad by his daughters.

                        What, has his daughters brought him to this pass?

                        Couldst thou save nothing? Didst thou give them all? (Scene 11, lines 56-57)

And when his companion and protector, the disguised Earl of Kent, informs Lear that Mad Tom has no daughters, Lear responds angrily;

                        Death traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature

                        To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.  (Scene 11, lines 63-64)

            The notion that a child’s betrayal can lead to madness in the parent is reinforced by the parallel story, in which Gloucester is duped into believing that his son Edgar has also betrayed him.  As Gloucester and Kent witness the unraveling of Lear’s mind, Kent observes that Lear’s ‘wits begin to unsettle’ (Scene 11, Line 147).  Gloucester responds,

                        Canst thou blame him?

                        His daughters seek his death… (lines 147-148)

                        I am almost mad myself.  I had a son,

                        Now outlawed from my blood; a sought my life

                        But lately, very late.  I loved him, friend;

                        No father his son dearer.  True to tell thee,

                        The grief hath crazed my wits.  (lines 151-155)

Here is a second example then, in which it is made clear that a devastating loss of love leads to mental disarray.  The injury evoked by such a loss can lead to attempts to defend against the hurt and repair the injury through revenge.  The psychoanalyst, Harold Searles, in a beautifully crafted article entitled “The Psychodynamics of Vengefulness”, demonstrates that revenge can serve to defend against the painful feelings of grief resulting from separation and the loss of love13.  Searles notes at the end of his article that Shakespeare had poetically portrayed this very concept in Lear.  Indeed, Shakespeare described many psychological truths three centuries prior to the discovery of psychoanalysis by another literary genius.  Lear’s attempt to reconstitute his sanity through revenge takes the form of placing Regan and Gonoril on trial. But in his delusional state, Lear misperceives two wooden stools for his treacherous daughters.  He addresses the first stool, saying, ‘Arraign her first. Tis Gonoril.  I here take my oath before this honourable assembly she kicked the poor King her father’ (Sc. 13, lines 41- 44).  Then hallucinating three dogs, Lear proclaims, ‘Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart.  Is there any cause in nature that makes this hardness?’ (Sc. 13, lines 70-72)  Finally, exhausted by the mental strain, Lear’s falls into a sleep.

            I contend then that Shakespeare attributes human folly and madness to understandable events and their emotional consequences.  While referring repeatedly to the influence of the stars, bodily humors and demon possession, Shakespeare utilizes these references as poetic, artistic devices that illuminate the characters who give them voice.  As Johnston Parr states, the Elizabethan audience was quite familiar with these concepts and could readily identify and relate to them as a part of the cultural fabric (op. cit., pages 68-69).  Parr acknowledges that the Elizabethan dramatists, Shakespeare in particular, while focusing ‘upon human character as a progressive shaper of destiny…did not neglect to dwell often upon other forces which shaped ones ends’ (ibid, page ix).  I go further in maintaining that it was not just human character that explains the dynamic of Shakespeare’s dramas, but that Shakespeare, as an exquisitely keen observer of human behavior, was able to construct in his plays an entirely coherent and realistic psychology of human motivation and its emotional consequences.

            Hence, Lear, filled with pride at his generosity towards Regan and Gonoril, suffers a massive blow to his narcissism upon being betrayed by them.  The intense emotional hurt and grief as a result of his daughters’ betrayal leads to Lear’s madness.  This construct is completely understandable in terms of contemporary analytic psychology. 

            As the play moves towards its denouement, Lear begins to regain a sense of reality and realizes what he has done in banishing his faithful daughter.  Cordelia is about to be reunited with her father, but Lear hesitates, refusing at first to see her.  Kent explains the reason for Lear’s hesitation:

                        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 that burning shame

                        Detains him from Cordelia.  (Scene 18, lines 43-48)

Again we are witness to Shakespeare’s deeply intuitive and profound understanding of human psychology.  For Shakespeare, it is the realistic and very human emotions of shame, grief, rage and deep emotional hurt which disturb mental equilibrium.  In the end, the intensity of the conflicting feelings of sorrow, shame and joy upon reunion bursts the hearts of both Lear and Gloucester when they come to recognize the consequences of their actions. 

            This play abounds with evidence of Shakespeare’s deep understanding of psychology and human behavior expressed creatively in the most beautiful and eloquent of words to be found in the English language.  I urge you to rediscover this for yourselves as my paper does little justice to the bounty, the beauty and the creativity to be found in this play.  I shall end as the play ends.  Most of the principals have died and Gonoril’s widowed husband, the Duke of Albany, has inherited the kingdom.  He gives the last speech of the play, which begins:

                        The weight of this sad time we must obey,

                        Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.  (Scene 24, lines 318-319)

Three centuries prior to the discovery by Freud of psychoanalysis, Shakespeare enunciates one of the most profound truths of that psychological science – that only in giving voice to our deepest feelings can one hope to protect oneself from madness.





Note: All attributions of scenes and lines for quotes from King Lear are taken from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The History of King Lear, edited by Stanley Wells, Oxford University Press, 2000.


All attributions of acts, scenes and lines from other plays by Shakespeare are derived from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998.


  1. Parr, Johnstone; Tamburlaine’s Malady and other Essays on Astrology in Elizabethan Drama, University of Alabama Press, 1953, p. ix.


  1. Bloom Harold; Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, New York, 1998, p. 476.


  1. Wells, Stanley, ed.; William Shakespeare: The History of King Lear, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 1.


  1. Babb, Lawrence; The Elizabethan malady: A Study of Melancholia in English Literature from 1580 to 1642, quoted by G. More, Historical and theoretical trends in psychiatry, in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry-II, 2nd edition, Vol. 1, by A.M. Freedman, H.I. Kaplan and B.J. Sadock, Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1975.


  1. Thomas, Keith; Religion and the Decline of Magic, Scribners, New York, 1971.


  1. Jobe, T. H.; Medical Theories of Melancholia in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries, Clio Medica, vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 217-231, 1976.


  1. Kocher, Paul; Science and Religion in Elizabethan England, The Huntington Library, 1953.


  1. Summers, M., ed: The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger (1488), Dover Press, New York, 1971, p. 43.


  1. Zilboorg, Gregory; The Medical man and the Witch During the Renaissance, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1935.


  1. Harsnet, Samuel: Declaration of egregious popish impostures, London, 1603.


  1. Anderson, Ruth; Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare’s Plays, Universtiy of Iowa, Humanistic Studies, Vol. III,  No. 4, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1927.


  1. Campbell, Lily; Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1952.


  1. Searles, Harold F.; Chapter 5: The Psychodaynamics of Vengefulness (1956) in Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects, International Universities Press, New York, 1965 (First published in Psychiatry, Vol. 19, pp. 31-9.)