Permeable borders

King Lear asks questions about what it means to be mad. The borders between sanity and insanity in the monarch himself seem particularly permeable. 
As far as Elizabethans were concerned, one of the principal ways in which human beings were distinguished from animals was that of rationality. Human beings could think, use their powers of reason and use those powers to rein in their physical desires. See Chain of Being

Unstable from the beginning?

King Lear 1769 artist unknownLear may not be mad when the play opens, but he is far from rational. Given that he has already divided his kingdom between his three daughters, his public love-test makes no sense. After he leaves the stage, both Goneril and Regan question his abilities, regarding him as a mentally failing old man. He has rejected a biological and social bond (with Cordelia) without any reflection. However, they are perfectly willing to pander to his ‘unconstant starts’ as long as it leads to their own acquisition of power.
The love-test reveals Lear’s disturbed mind: his undisguised need for affirmation and respect; his unsubtle appeal to greed (i.e. most love equals biggest share of the kingdom) and his addiction to power (his apparent relinquishment of this is shown to be hollow once reality bites).
So is Lear mad from the outset of the play? His state of mind is certainly called into question. Goneril remarks that 'he hath ever but slenderly known himself' and later in Act 1 Scene 5 the Fool says, ‘You should not have been old before thou hadst been wise.' Most interestingly, Lear himself says, 'Let me not be mad, sweet heaven.' Notice that he does not say 'go mad' - which would imply the future. The present tense suggests that Lear fears he may be mad already. 

Sane but stupid

If we grant that Lear is sane at the beginning of the play, then that sanity is characterized by very challenging behaviour. He simply will not accept his physical and mental fragility. His words are full of denial. He protests at the way he is treated; he indulges in self-pity and he evades the truth about his condition.

The grace of insanity

Shakespeare demonstrates that a loss of rational powers can have some merit in it, despite the pathetic condition to which it renders people. For example, a fragmentation of the mind can actually be a means by which the body protects itself from the effects of stress. Lear’s madness is a shield from the pain of too much reality as he learns about suffering and the depravity of human nature. Furthermore, it is only through madness that Lear ‘sees’ himself for what he is. It gives him a form of detachment from his former self and he himself begins to perform the same function that the Fool had had prior to his master’s descent. 

Wisdom and foolishness

Shakespeare’s audience would recognise that a biblical injunction is being played out here in which conventional attitudes to wisdom are overturned. In 1 Corinthians, Paul explains how sophisticated worldly ‘wisdom’ doesn’t comprehend the ‘foolish’ death of Jesus on a cross, although Christians believe that this is the means of salvation:
      18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written:
 ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
 the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’
20Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? .. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:18-20     
Paul maintains that in the kingdom of God distinctions about status and worldly intelligence are rightly overturned:
      26Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 
1 Corinthians 1:26-29     
It is thus that the insignificant Fool speaks wisely, the lowly servant enacts retribution on powerful Cornwall, the despised Edgar defeats Edmund.

Lear’s ‘foolish’ wisdom

The same process is seen through the figure of the ‘foolish’ King. When Lear enters ‘mad’ in Act 4 Scene 6 his perception of Goneril and Regan displays insight (which he lacked when ‘wise’):
      They flattered me like a dog … they told me I was everything; ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.
His weakness ‘shames’ their unwarranted aggression. 
And the insights continue to flow: ‘A man may see how this world goes with no eyes; look with thine ears.’ (Act 4 Scene 6) Now Lear can perceive the difference between true respect for an individual and fear of the authority wielded by those with power: ‘A dog’s obeyed in office.’
When Lear wakes in Act 4 Scene 7 he asks: ‘Where have I been?’ Ironically, madness has taken him to a place of comprehension, where he has seen himself for what he is – ‘a very foolish fond old man .. / .. not in my perfect mind.’ This perception stays with him until his death.
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