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What was the state of King Lear's mind when he asked 'poor Tom', 'Did you give all to...

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bobbyroychoud... | Salutatorian

Posted February 9, 2013 at 10:51 AM via web

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What was the state of King Lear's mind when he asked 'poor Tom', 'Did you give all to your daughters?'

King Lear Act III, scene iv

KING LEAR
    Thou think'st 'tis much that this contentious storm
    Invades us to the skin: so 'tis to thee;
    But where the greater malady is fix'd,
    The lesser is scarce felt. ...
    ... When the
    mind's free,
    The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind
    Doth from my senses take all feeling else
    Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude! ...
    ... But I will punish home:
    No, I will weep no more. In such a night
    To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
    In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
    Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,--
    O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
    No more of that.

KENT
    Good my lord, enter here.

KING LEAR
    Prithee, go in thyself: seek thine own ease:
    This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
    On things would hurt me more. But I'll go in.
[...]

    Enter EDGAR disguised as a mad man [Tom]

EDGAR
    Away! the foul fiend follows me!
    Through the sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind.
    Hum! go to thy cold bed, and warm thee.

KING LEAR
    Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?
    And art thou come to this?

EDGAR
    Who gives any thing to poor Tom? whom the foul
    fiend hath led through fire and through flame, and
    through ford and whirlipool e'er bog and quagmire;
[...]

KING LEAR
    What, have his daughters brought him to this pass?
    Couldst thou save nothing? Didst thou give them all?

1 Answer | Add Yours

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K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted February 9, 2013 at 5:25 PM (Answer #1)

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It is necessary to analyze the text of this very complex section in order to answer this question. We have Lear, cast out, blinded and wandering like Oedipus Rex, with Kent (disguised as Caius) and the Fool stopping in front of an empty hut on a hill in a fierce storm. Lear draws a parallel between the storm and the afflictions that beset him, "Filial ingratitude," and calls to mind his former subjects who, living in poverty, are like him in his roofless, ragged state:

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

Lear replies to Kent that he will wait a bit in the storm to pray before going in to sleep because the external storm can do him no harm compared to the harm being done to him by his internal (mental) storm as he tries to understand what his daughters have done to him and why:

The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!

This is the context. Now, what is Lear's state of mind when Edgar is found in the guise of a mad beggar called Tom? First, note the parallel between Tom's and Lear's (1) similar physical conditions and note that the parallel extends to their (2) similar mental conditions (though Tom's mental condition is the disguise of Edgar): (1) ragged homelessness and (2) madness.  

There are three particular clues in the text to help us determine Lear's state of mind, and they seem confusing. One clue is that, after comparing his daughters' betrayal to self-harm, Lear says, "But I will punish home." At first, to a modern reader, this sounds like he means, "But I will punish my daughters." If we recall that metonymy is a standard Shakespearean poetic device, we can understand that this actually means: "But if I continue these thoughts, I will only punish myself." To refresh your mind, metonymy is a device for substituting a general concept for a particular thing. An oft used example is the metonymy "Capital Hill" to substitute for the U.S. legislative branch of government. In Lear's metonymy, "home" substitutes "myself": "But I will [only] punish myself [if I continue these thoughts]."

Another clue is that Lear says, "O, that way madness lies; let me shun that." This would seem to indicate that, in this context, Lear is not yet mad. But does it indicate this? At the end of his "Poor naked wretches" speech, Lear rejects medical aid ("physic") and splendor ("pomp") and admonishes himself to expose himself as the poor wretched are exposed so he can pour out an overabundance of material good on them ("superflux"). Here, despite the cautionary warning Lear makes to himself, is sound evidence that Lear's state of mind in madness.

When this is combined with the third clue, which is the parallel between Tom and Lear noted above, we have strong evidence that (1) Lear's cautionary words against madness are a case of "too little too late" and that (2) Lear's state of mind is madness when, as his first reaction to a wild and scantly clothed raving madman, he illogically says: "Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?"

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