Insanity and the Necessity of Madness in King Lear Essay

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The Necessity of Madness in King Lear

At the beginning of “King Lear,” an authoritative and willful protagonist dominates his court, making a fateful decision by rewarding his two treacherous daughters and banishing his faithful one in an effort to preserve his own pride. However, it becomes evident during the course of the tragedy that this protagonist, Lear, uses his power only as a means of projecting a persona, which he hides behind as he struggles to maintain confidence in himself. This poses a problem, since the audience is prevented from feeling sympathy for the king. Shakespeare’s ironic solution is to allow Lear’s progressing madness to be paired with his recognition of truth, thereby forcing Lear to shed his persona, and
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In working so hard to project this persona, Lear is untrue to himself, and loses sight of who he is. Even the scheming Goneril and Regan notice that their father “hath ever but/ slenderly known himself.” (I, i, 282-283) This makes Lear a very insecure person, which explains in part why he insists that his daughters stroke his ego before receiving any of his kingdom. His identity crisis is highlighted when he asks who can verify who he is, and the response by the Fool is: “Lear’s shadow.” (I, iv, 251) At this point in the play, Lear is sane and is still the monarch of the kingdom. Nevertheless, the Fool’s insightful comment insists that Lear is nothing more than a shadow of his true self. Plato would say that he is trapped in the shadow world of the cave, unable to grasp the true forms.[5] This self-imposed persona estranges Lear from his audience; his vulnerability as a human is masked by his rash behavior and unjust decisions. Bloom says that “before he goes mad, Lear’s consciousness is beyond ready understanding; his lack of self-knowledge, blended with his awesome authority, makes him unknowable by us.”[6] Without understanding a character, an audience is most definitely unable to sympathize with him, and here we run into a potentially problematic issue. Aristotle believes that
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