Can someone help me with suggestions for a seminar on madness in King Lear?

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Here's a good question to ask in your seminar for King Lear:

  • Some readers and critics consider Lear to be insane at the beginning of the play. Others see his madness growing, or suddenly sprung at a later moment. How do you consider the question of the king's mental and emotional stability?

Here's what Enotes says:

A central issue relating to Lear's madness is the question of when it begins. This question has drawn responses from physicians and psychologists as well as literary critics. Some earlier commentators suggested that Lear shows evidence of insanity in the first scene of the play. They contended that giving up his royal title, challenging his daughters to a love test, and banishing Kent and Cordelia are symptomatic of senile dementia. Most modern critics, however, take a different view of Lear in this scene, fixing the responsibility for his behavior on pride, arrogance, vanity, misjudgment, or some other characteristic. The majority see his madness as progressive: his moments of irrationality in the first two acts represent a prelude to his madness in the scenes on the heath. Many commentators identify Lear's abrupt encounter with Edgar as Poor Tom as the moment at which he loses his hold on sanity. There is a minority, however, who argue that his madness is not fully evident until he appears in Act IV, scene vi.

  • We first see signs of madness in 1.5.11-39 when the Lear laughs and the Fool says: ("Shalt see thy other daughter ...").
  • Lear's kingdom is very much like his mind.  As he splits it up, so too does his mind split between reason and emotion, sanity and madness, sight and blindness.
  • In 3.2.1-24 ("Blow, winds, ...) we see the storm as Lear's storming mind. He curses, and nature responds with a pathetic fallacy (outward, natural symbolism that mirrors inner torment).
  • Lear must go mad in order to see the truth.  Just as Oedipus must be blind in order to see, Lear must go crazy in order to think straight.
  • More from Enotes:
Critics have suggested several causes including his daughters' ingratitude, his frustration in confronting the lack of justice in the world, and guilt when he realizes the consequences of his actions. A number of commentators have called attention to the correspondence between the storm on the heath and the storm in Lear's mind. Many have also remarked on the theme of "reason in madness," verbalized by Edgar in Act IV, scene vi. And while most critics agree that the reconciliation with Cordelia shows Lear restored to sanity, a few have suggested that he is driven mad once again by Cordelia's murder.

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