What is the significance of the mock trial in King Lear?

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In act III, scene 6, Lear—with his new, exiled "court" consisting of his Fool, Edgar, and Kent—stages a mock trial of his treacherous daughters, Goneril and Regan. On one level, the scene shows, as Kent says of Lear, that "His wits are gone." Yet it functions as far more than...

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In act III, scene 6, Lear—with his new, exiled "court" consisting of his Fool, Edgar, and Kent—stages a mock trial of his treacherous daughters, Goneril and Regan. On one level, the scene shows, as Kent says of Lear, that "His wits are gone." Yet it functions as far more than an illustration of Lear's madness.

While there is humor in referring to the Fool as "sapient" or wise, this "upside down" trial continues to reinforce the Fool's role as a clear-sighted and practical advisor. From the moment Lear gives away his kingdom in act I, the Fool tells him he is the biggest fool of all. Now the Fool continues as a truth teller, informing everyone that Lear's Goneril is a "joint-stool." This both indicates that Lear is addressing a stool and is an accurate insult aimed at Goneril, suggesting she is crude and not refined.

The scene also helps raise our sorrow and pity for Lear, who was once a mighty king and is now reduced, as a child might be, to play-acting a trial that relieves some of his anger at how he has been mistreated. He is a royal, even if deposed, and we are not meant to treat him as a joke, as we might a "rustic." As Edgar says in aside, prompting how we are supposed to feel:

My tears begin to take his part so much,
They’ll mar my counterfeiting.
Further, as Edgar also states, sharing one's grief and pain is therapeutic. It helps Edgar to hear Lear's sadness and know he, Edgar, is not alone in having been betrayed by a heartless family member, and it helps Lear (who at the end of the scene is able to fall asleep) to enact his suffering around sympathetic friends. Edgar says: "Who alone suffers, suffers most i' th' mind." He then points out that friends make any sorrow easier to bear.
Finally, we see that while Lear has given up the power and outward trappings of monarchy, he still feels inside as if he is king. This is a key to his "madness:" to him, his authority is divinely derived, and his great shock is that other people, such as his daughters, see it crudely as only based on the land and money he once had, not as a quality integral to his being.
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The mock trial of Regan and Goneril in act 3, scene 6 of King Lear is significant in that it highlights once again how far Lear has descended into madness. More crucially, it emphasizes how divorced from the real world he's become since he made his fateful decision to divide his kingdom between the daughters against whom he now rails so violently.

In Lear's rapidly disintegrating mind, he is still the master of all he surveys, still king of the land that he so foolishly gave away. The presence of the Fool merely serves to highlight the utter absurdity of these ridiculous mock judicial proceedings. As Lear is no longer king, he no longer enjoys any judicial power. All that's left is for him to perform in a giant masquerade, in which he plays the part of a hanging judge.

But there is method to Lear's madness. What he's attempting to do in the mock trial of his errant daughters is to make some sense of what's happened to him. His sudden loss of power has come as a very great shock to him, and with whatever little energy he has left, Lear desperately wants to get at the truth by imposing himself on events. But it's much too late for that. Lear's no longer in a position to shape events; on the contrary, he is at the mercy of them.

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This is a very poignant scene within the play. First of all, it indicates the depths of madness to which Lear has fallen—but at the same time, it demonstrates how much his real life situation is preying upon his mind, in that it is externalized as part of the scene he enacts, even while it is ridiculous. He designates his Fool "sapient sir," which reflects the way the Fool is presented elsewhere in the play as a "wise Fool," perhaps the only person Lear can trust to speak the truth to him and the wisest person in his circle. The scene exemplifies the theme in Lear that all is not what it seems to be: Edgar, who is here undressed as Tom o' Bedlam, is the "robed" judge, just as the Fool is deemed "sapient."

Lear is trying a "joint-stool," but he is addressing it as if it were his daughter, Goneril. Lear challenges them with "corruption." Even as he watches, Edgar notes to the audience that he is so sorry for Lear in this moment that he fears it will "mar [his] counterfeiting," or ruin his disguise—the scene encourages us to take pity on Lear, even as we watch Tom trying to match his madness. Tom's madness is feigned, comedic; Lear's is pathetic and genuine. The Fool emphasizes the topsy-turvy nature of Lear's muddled thoughts when he notes that he will "go to bed at noon," as if the world around them has been turned upside down.

All in all, this scene is a pivotal one in the play and shows the relationships between Lear, Edgar, and his Fool, as well as the state of Lear's mind.

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The mock trial in this play occurs in Act III scene 6, and is a moment that blends tragedy and comedy. The function of this mock trial overall is to shown the descent of Lear into a state of madness from which it is uncertain that he will never be able to regain his sanity. The absurd nature of the trial of the two stools, which Lear addresses as "she-foxes," is grotesque in its humour, especially when Lear makes Tom o' Bedlam his "robed man of justice," which, as the audience can visually see, is hilarious given that this title represents a pun on the only article of clothing he has on. The ridiculous nature of the mock trial is continued when the Fool is appointed as "yoke-fellow of equity," which, given his nature as a Fool is rather inappropriate, to say the least. The scene as a whole shows the way in which Lear, in his madness, has converted the tragedy of what has happened to him into something of a farce, which interestingly does not make us feel his tragic situation is one that he faces with dignity. We do feel sorry for him and for what he has endured, but such comments as the following, when he is talking about Goneril, hardly imbue him with tragic nobility:

Arraign her first. 'Tis Goneril. I here take my oath before this honorable assembly, she kicked the poor king her father.

The scene is deliberately intended to demonstrate the depths of madness and insanity into which Lear has plunged, problematically challenging our perceptions of him as a tragic hero.

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