Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The Madness of King Lear

Abbey, King Lear, 1898

Freud has offered Shakespeare as one of his authorities on the nature of mental illness. It seems then to be avoiding the evidence if we do not examine Shakespeare’s one play that is most clearly about madness: King Lear. Indeed, Lear has been called “the primary enactment of psychic breakdown in English literary history.”[i] If Shakespeare had some special insight into the nature of insanity, the essence of it would be here, rather than in Hamlet.

And it seems right to look to Shakespeare for insight here. His literary talent demonstrates that he was one of the greatest minds who ever lived. He is especially good on human nature. He may have been specifically the greatest psychologist in history.

Freud knows the play. He deals with it in his essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” And he ascribes to it an effect on the imagination comparable to that of Oedipus Rex: he calls it one of Shakespeare’s “most powerfully moving dramas,”[ii] and the final scene “one of the culminating points of tragedy in modern drama.”[iii]

Oddly, however, even though it deals with mental illness, and this is Freud’s specialty, Freud does not mention mental illness in his essay. And even though it deals with the relationship of a father with his children, and this is where Freud says mental illness comes from, Freud says, “The relationship of a father to his children, which might be a fruitful source of many dramatic situations, is not turned to further account in the play”[iv] This is not true: the entire play is about the relationship of fathers to children, Lear and Gloucester. Surely what Freud is really saying here is that the relationship is not what he expects, that it lends no support to his Oedipus complex.

And it does not. To begin with, it is the parent, not the child, who goes mad. And at the age of eighty plus, too late to discover an unresolved desire for your dead mother or an urge to kill your long-dead father. By Freud’s theory, Lear’s daughters should want to marry him; instead, they try to kill him.

Freud sees the play as a meditation on death. It is the story of an old man, Lear, who fears his end. Cordelia, Freud suggests, is the “Goddess of Death.” In the last scene, Lear becomes reconciled to the idea, and expires.

There are a few problems with this reading. For one thing, there is no “Goddess of Death” in most cultures, and not in Lear’s or Shakespeare’s. But even before we consider that point, it seems arbitrary to view one character in the play, Cordelia, as less real than the others, as allegorical. Yes, plays can be allegorical, but generally not one character in an otherwise realistic play, and not without some clear indication that this is so. Why should we not believe Cordelia to be just as much a living, breathing, albeit fictional, person as Lear, or Gloucester? Is there anything that sets her apart as symbolic?

Freud’s evidence is that she is silent, and one of three sisters. “Psycho-analysis will tell us,” he explains, “that in dreams dumbness is a common representation of death.”[v]

This does seem sensible enough: if someone does not speak, it is indeed a clue that they are dead. And if a character never speaks, that they are symbolic. However, Cordelia is not, in fact, silent. She is not dumb. She does not say nothing in the play; she says “Nothing.” And proceeds to talk like all the other characters. She is also inclined to stand, enter, exit, and walk about the stage. She is, to all appearances, a human being, and not a thing.

We also have to take Freud’s word that dumbness is a common representation of death in dreams. We are not privy to the evidence he claims to have. But would we normally think so in a literary work? “Dumb” can have other connotations: most obviously, as common usage implies, stupidity. For a Christian audience, the first association of a voluntary silence, like Cordelia’s, might be religious: Christ’s silence before Pilate, or the silence of the cloister. One also thinks of the right to remain silent in English common law―in what is set up as something like a trial before a judge.

The Fates: Ghisi, 1558

Freud then points out that the Moerae or Fates of classical Greece were three sisters—and Cordelia is also one of three sisters! And the last of the three Moerae cut the thread of life, determining the time of death. Ergo, Cordelia, the third sister, is the “Goddess of Death.”

But the motif of three sisters does not obviously suggest the Moerae. The three sisters motif is everywhere in Greek myth: there are also three Graces, three Horae, three Hesperides, three Gorgons, three Graeae, three Erinyes. Psyche was one of three sisters; so was Cinderella; so was Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” Paris judged three goddesses. And then there is the Christian Trinity. There is no reason, given all these classic sets of three, to assume the Fates to be the fundamental reference. And the Fates are not always shown as three: sometimes there is one Fate, sometimes there are two, sometimes an indefinite number. The Moerae are often portrayed as old and ugly; some of these other trinities are young and lovely, as are Cordelia and her sisters.

The Moerae, moreover, do not preside over death. They preside over pregnancy and birth. Atropos indeed cuts the thread of life; but this is as a prophesy. She is not the “Goddess of Death,” and does not appear at death. Death is usually a male figure: in Greece, home of the Moerae, he is Hades, as god of the underworld, or Thanatos, a winged young man. In Jewish tradition, he is the Angel of Death, Azriel. For Christians, he is St. Michael, or the Grim Reaper. In India and China, he is King Yama, also male.

Grim Reaper

Freud suggests the image of the Valkyries here, and they are indeed female.[vi] In Nordic tradition, they appear at death in battle to sweep the fallen soldier from the field. And Norse myth does, rare among mythologies, know a Goddess of Death, Hel. That may be significant to Freud, writing in a Germanic milieu. But neither Lear, Shakespeare, nor his audience were Norse. Lear would have been a Briton, a Celt; Arawn, the British death god, is again male. The other gods Shakespeare has him mention are Graeco-Roman. And there is a further problem: neither Lear nor Cordelia die on the battlefield. Nor is it Cordelia who carries Lear’s corpse at the end of the play. It is Lear who carries hers. It is Lear in the role of the Valkyrie.

Hughes, Valkyrie, 1902

There is another problem with seeing Cordelia as Atropos, the Fate who cuts the thread of life. Atropos is the oldest of the three sisters. Cordelia is the youngest. That makes her Clotho, the spinner. If the sisters are the Moerae, Atropos is Goneril.

One is left to suspect that Freud felt he had to deal with King Lear in some way, since it was so obviously pertinent; and this is the best he could do.

But do we have evidence here of the Dymphna complex?

We do; especially if we accept one premise: Lear is in the position of the child, and Goneril and Regan of the abusive parents. This is a reversal of the usual situation, but it is a reversal the play itself acknowledges. The fool says

“Thou madest thy
daughters thy mothers ... when thou gavest them
the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches.” (Act 1, Scene 4)

Goneril says drily, “Old fools are babes again.” (Act 1, Scene 3)

And Lear himself says, of Cordelia:

“I loved her most and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

He is suddenly wholly dependent, like a child, on the good intentions of his daughters. And they, being narcissistic, have none.

As he often does, Shakespeare gives us a second example of his theme: Gloucester, who is similarly made dependent, like a child, on being blinded. And he is, like Lear, betrayed by a child now in the position of a parent: Edmund, who has assumed his title.

In fact, we have four examples of the dynamic of abuse. At the outset of the play, Lear and Gloucester are parents who abuse their children, who treat them unjustly, and Cordelia and Edgar are the abused. But then tables are turned, and Lear and Gloucester are abused, at the hands of the now all-powerful Goneril, Regan, and Edmund.

Lear and the Fool Scheffer 1834

Cordelia flees into exile; Edgar feigns madness; Gloucester becomes depressed and tries suicide; Lear goes mad.

These are perhaps the four possible outcomes Shakespeare sees for the abused.

Let us then examine the play through the lens of our Dymphna Complex:

1. The parent is king or queen

This is literally true of Lear when he abuses Cordelia, then of Goneril and Regan when they abuse Lear. Gloucester is a noble of high degree, an Earl, when he abuses Edgar; Edmund holds the same title when he abuses Gloucester.

We have posited that kingship here is symbolic of two things: narcissism, and holding total power over the victim. The latter is plain enough. What of the former?

The opening scene of the play shows Regan and Goneril as spectacularly insincere and manipulative in their speech, like Polonius in Hamlet. They are ready to say anything, make any promise, that will further their interests, with no thought of keeping it. This is classic narcissistic behaviour. DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual): “Mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain” (DSM 5). “Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends” (DSM 4).

Lear, in turn, is narcissist at this point in demanding their praise: “Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking” (DSM 5). “Requires excessive admiration” (DSM 4).

Their actions as well as their words suggest Regan and Goneril see others as objects and not as humans. Their father means nothing to them, once he is no longer able to give them things. Shakepeare’s source material, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of England, sums it up in an observation by Lear: “While I had anything to give they valued me, being friends, not to me, but to my gifts: they loved me then, but they loved my gifts much more: when my gifts ceased, my friends vanished.”[vii]

Goneril’s husband too means nothing to her, once she finds someone she considers better.

Lear in turn—the imperious Lear of Act 1—shows that he thinks of Cordelia as a possession. He says,

“Better thou
Hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

She exists and has any right to exist, in other words, only to please him.

Cordelia, Yearnes, 1888

That Gloucester is a narcissist is less apparent. He takes great personal risk, after all, to help Lear in his distress. This, however, happens after he has come to believe himself abused by his child, Edgar. It may show a change in character caused by this experience, not his original narcissism. Before this point, he shows the same tendency to spy and to manipulate that Polonius does in Hamlet. He demands to see the letter Edmund carries, which was not addressed to him (Act 1, Scene 2). Without assuming extreme narcissism, it is difficult to account for him being so ready, with so little evidence, to suspect Edgar. DSM 4: “Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.” Would a normal parent assume so quickly that their son is plotting to kill them, and put out a death warrant without first wanting to question him? After all, why, as Shakespeare has pointed out in Hamlet, would a son chance trying to kill his father, even with no love lost, when he is going to inherit anyway? Besides the inherent risk, it would set a dangerous precedent. There is no motive.

Yet the tendency to spy and to suspect Edgar is so ingrained in Gloucester that Edmund can count on them to work his plot.

Gloucester also seems callous towards the feelings of others in quite unnecessarily introducing his son Edmund, in the latter’s presence, as a bastard—almost his first lines in the play:

“His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge: I have
so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am
brazed to it.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

He then blames first Edmund’s mother, then Edmund, for his bastardy, and avoids placing any blame to himself:

“Sir, this young fellow’s mother could: whereupon
she grew round-wombed, and had, indeed, sir, a son
for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.
Do you smell a fault?” (Act 1, Scene 1)
“… this knave came something saucily into the
world before he was sent for.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

This should strike the audience as odd and dishonourable behaviour. DSM 4: “Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” DSM 5: “Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” Narcissists will always blame others, never themselves.

Edmund says things that are similarly odd, marking him too as narcissistic. He makes much of being a bastard, and considers himself unfairly treated as a result. And we are inclined to sympathize, since his father has been so inconsiderate. But his claim makes little sense.

Gloucester claims he loves Edmund as much as his legitimate son, Edgar. We might otherwise doubt this, but Edmund himself attests to it:

“Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,―legitimate!” (Act 1, Scene 2)

So he does not have reason to feel slighted by his father. Nor does he have good reason to feel discriminated against in his inheritance. Legitimate or not, Edgar is introduced as the elder son. Whether they were both legitimate, or both illegitimate, the rule of primogeniture means Edgar would inherit. The only way Edgar might not were if Edmund were legitimate, and Edgar illegitimate.

Whatever we might think today in distant lands of everything going to the eldest son, Shakespeare’s original audience would probably have found this fair, since it was the standard practice; and there were reasons for it. It was the way to keep large estates intact, and great families great. It was more shocking to divide your kingdom among your daughters.

Indeed, this is another example, and perhaps the grossest example, of Lear’s narcissism. In doing this, he is treating the kingdom as his personal possession; at the probable cost of future civil war. This is forecast within the play, and prevented only by the death of his daughters.

So Edmund’s claim of being mistreated and denied his rights seems wrong. It perhaps counts as what a psychiatrist calls grandiosity. DSM 4: “expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.” “Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.” DSM 5: “Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert.”

Like Goneril and Reagan, too, Edmund has no concern for his father as a human being; nor for his brother. Just as Gloucester, in power, shows shockingly little concern for his son Edgar.

2. The parent wants to have sex with the child, or wants to kill them

Goneril and Regan want to kill their father. It is not just that they turn an octogenarian out on the heath during a raging storm. Gloucester reports a definite plan to kill Lear:

“His daughters seek his death… Good friend, I prithee, take him in thy arms; I have o’erheard a plot of death upon him.” (Act 3, Scene 6)

Gloucester, still in power, similarly puts out a warrant on his son Edgar.

Edmund, then in transition to the role of the parent, betrays his father Gloucester, with reason to believe it will mean his death. Gloucester predicts that this as the likely result: “Though I die for it, as no less is threatened me” (Act 3, Scene 3).

It is common for commentators, influenced by Freud, to suggest that Lear’s interest in Cordelia is incestuous. Although it contradicts his own earlier theory that the play is about death, Freud himself endorses this in a letter written in the 1930s: “the repressed incestuous claims on the daughter’s love” are “the secret meaning of the tragedy.”[viii]

This may take a metaphor too literally. Lear’s possessiveness, like Polonius’s in Hamlet, is no doubt imaginatively comparable to incest in seeking to own the child in every sense, and in seeing the child as existing for his pleasure. This need not mean we are talking about the literal sex act. And even if Lear had in mind literal incest, note that the desire is of the parent for the child, not the child for the parent: like Dymphna, Cordelia repels the advance.

Cordelia Disinherited; Herbert, 1850

To read this as supporting Freud requires inverting the evidence. It is the Dymphna Complex.

Cordelia makes the possessiveness of Lear’s demand clear, and almost seems to refer to incest:

“Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

Lear is demanding a declaration of love that would seem to include the love properly due to a husband.

Note the opening situation; it looks significant. Two suitors are in the palace to seek Cordelia’s hand. Why is it this moment that Lear chooses to divide his kingdom and give his children their inheritance? Doesn’t it look as though he is trying to forestall her engagement? It would be obviously hypocritical of her to declare her undying and total love for her father immediately before accepting a marriage proposal, requiring her to leave him and the country. The Book of Genesis describes marriage as “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife”; so too for daughters.

There is a hint that the result of this trial is preordained. It is in the first words of the play:

I thought the king had more affected the Duke of
Albany than Cornwall.

It did always seem so to us: but now, in the
division of the kingdom, it appears not which of
the dukes he values most; for equalities are so
weighed, that curiosity in neither can make choice
of either’s moiety.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

They say nothing, and have apparently heard nothing, about a third portion going to Cordelia. The kingdom is to be divided between Albany and Cornwall.

Herbert: Lear and Cordelia

Lear seems therefore to be gaslighting Cordelia; a typical abusive behaviour. He perhaps wants to refuse her a dowry in hopes she will then not be able to marry. But he wants to shift the blame for this to her, to make it appear her own fault. He wins either way: if she says she loves him more than life itself, she has implicitly rejected marriage. If she says anything less, he has the excuse to deny her a dowry, so she cannot marry. His plan is disappointed when the King of France wants to wed her anyway.

It seems significant too that, in then casting her out, Lear declares himself kin to those who devour their own children:

“The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

Goneril similarly gaslights Lear when she turns on him. In demanding he surrender half of his retinue, she blames them and him:

“You strike my people; and your disorder’d rabble
Make servants of their betters.” (Act 1, Scene 4)

It is all his fault.

Given the example of Hamlet, we must postulate that incest in this and similar works serves two purposes. The incest in Hamlet, after all, does not involve the child. On the one hand, it is an image of a parent overly possessive of a child, seeking to own, manipulate, and control; and seeing the child as existing only for his or her pleasure. On the other, it suggests a character whose first allegiance is to his own desires, wants, and urges, without concern for the rights of others. What he wants, he must have.

Lear’s “incestuous” demands on Cordelia suggest both meanings.


There is one other example of incest in the play, more literal than that of Lear with Cordelia. Edmund is involved with two sisters, Goneril and Regan. This is the same incest as is condemned in Hamlet.

“To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder” (Act 5, Scene 1)
“I was contracted to them both” (Act 5, Scene 3).

For Goneril and Gloucester, there are other sexual indiscretions, which can equally stand for someone wedded to their desires. The first thing we know about Gloucester is that he violated his marriage with an adulterous relationship. And Goneril wants Edmund to kill her husband so she can have him instead:

“You have
many opportunities to cut him off: if your will
want not, time and place will be fruitfully offered.
There is nothing done, if he return the conqueror:
then am I the prisoner, and his bed my gaol; from
the loathed warmth whereof deliver me, and supply
the place for your labour.
‘Your―wife, so I would say―’” (Act 4, Scene 6).

Goneril says plainly enough to Regan what Edmund represents to both sisters: “Mean you to enjoy him?” (Act 5, Scene 3)

She then poisons her sister as a rival.

Regan is not guilty of such a violation of sexual ethics. She may be in unseemly haste to transfer her affections from Cornwall to Edmund, but she does at least wait decently until her husband is dead. She is, however, in violation of the obligations of hospitality, in seizing and torturing Gloucester in his own home. This may be an equivalent offense: Shakespeare makes much of such a violation of hospitality in MacBeth, and a violation of hospitality figures also in Laius’s rape of Chrysippus in the Oedipus cycle.

“Gloucester: These hairs, which thou dost ravish from my chin,
Will quicken, and accuse thee: I am your host.” (Act 3, Scene 7)

She breaks the laws of hospitality too by putting Kent, as Lear’s messenger, in the stocks.

“’Tis worse than murder,” says Lear, “To do upon respect such violent outrage.” (Act 2, Scene 4)

3. The child shows symptoms of depression—sorrow, anxiety, suicide, mental suffering—as a result.

Unlike Hamlet, Lear’s madness—psychosis—is indisputable, and finely rendered. And Shakespeare seems to show it as beginning immediately as a result of the trauma of being turned on by his daughters. Hazlitt saw the core of the play as “the severing of the nearest ties of natural affection.”[ix] There can be no question: Shakespeare holds that mental illness is or can be the result of an emotional betrayal.

Dyce: Lear and the Fool in the Storm

As soon as Goneril turns on him her serpent tooth, Lear experiences the classic symptom of depression called “depersonalization”:

“Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! waking? ‘tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Act 1, Scene 4)

Depersonalization; DSM 4: “Persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from, and as if one is an outside observer of, one’s mental processes or body (e.g., feeling like one is in a dream).” DSM 5: “Experiences of unreality, detachment, or being an outside observer with respect to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, or actions (e.g., perceptual alterations, distorted sense of time, unreal or absent self, emotional and/or physical numbing).”

It is a loss of sense of self.

Lear next feels helpless grief, the most familiar symptom of what we call depression:

“Life and death! I am ashamed
That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus;
That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
Should make thee worth them.” (Act 1, Scene 4)
“You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
... let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall―I will do such things,―
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!” (Act 2, Scene 4).

Lear isolates the emotional shock itself, the pain of the betrayal: it is “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.”

“O Regan, she hath tied
Sharp-tooth’d unkindness, like a vulture, here.”

Points to his heart

“… struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent-like, upon the very heart.” (Act 2, Scene 4).

Later, on the heath, Lear declares “My wits begin to turn” (Act 3, Scene 2). Depression progresses to the more serious “illness” of schizophrenia.

He then describes the dynamics of becoming psychotic, of losing touch with the physical world that surrounds him:

“The tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there.” (Act 3, Scene 4).

By the time he encounters Edgar as Mad Tom, he has gone completely mad. Seeing Tom, he asks,

“Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?
And art thou come to this?” (Act 3, Scene 4)

Gloucester, under the shock of a similar emotional betrayal, proceeds only as far as depression. He attests, on learning (falsely) that Edgar wants to kill him, “The grief hath crazed my wits” (Act 3, Scene 4).

He laments that he cannot, like Lear, escape his grief by going mad:

“The king is mad: how stiff is my vile sense,
That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract:
So should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs,
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
The knowledge of themselves.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

Since he may not, following Lear, escape into madness, Gloucester tries suicide. About to leap off the Cliffs of Dover, he says

“O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out.” (Act 4, Scene 6)
Shakespeare’s understanding of madness here seems clear: emotional betrayal causes depression, and depression causes psychosis. Psychosis exists as a way to escape depression.

4. The child is unusually beautiful, unusually intelligent, unusually moral, and/or unusually athletic.

We posit that the usual motive for child abuse is either greed or envy: greed to possess the child, or envy of the child for his or her exceptional gifts. Accordingly, the abused child is most often exceptional in some way. It is the exceptional child who will evoke such emotions in a narcissistic parent.

For Lear, whatever his personal qualities, the fact that he is rightful king is cause enough. So long as he exists, Regan and Goneril cannot be secure in their rule. The same is true for Gloucester: as the rightful Earl, his existence is a threat to Edmund.

For Edgar, the fact that he is eldest and legitimate makes him the obvious rival in Gloucester’s mind. He is, of the two brothers, by dint of this the exceptional child. It is striking, otherwise, that Gloucester should so easily suspect him, despite his known honesty, and never suspect Edmund. He also shows significant athletic prowess, and specifically greater athleticism than his brother: he is able to defeat both Edmund and Oswald in direct combat. He also shows striking intelligence, in being able to conceal himself as Mad Tom.

Which leaves Cordelia.

Does the play identify Cordelia as the most beautiful of the sisters? Not explicitly; but the fact that the King of France and Duke of Burgundy, foreign powers, seek her hand, attests to this. This is a step up in suitors from Goneril and Regan, who have married local nobles already subject to Lear. Moreover, France still wants her when she has no dowry. One may make a reasonable inference from this.

More obviously, Cordelia is exceptionally honest. She refuses to exaggerate her love for her father. She could, after all, have lied, as her sisters did. She even had a model to follow: she could almost have said “Me too,” more or less as Regan does. Granted that this might have been a trap, giving Lear the implicit right to forbid her marriage; if so, she still had reason to prefer this option and to lie. It would perhaps have left her unmarried, but with a third of the kingdom. Insisting on honesty was likely to leave her unmarried, and with nothing.

The same passion for honesty is characteristic of Edgar, according to Edmund:
“… and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so
far from doing harms,
That he suspects none: on whose foolish honesty
My practises ride easy.” (Act 1, Scene 2)
This honesty and righteousness may well itself evoke envy. But a conscience like this can also be a consequence of having been abused. To begin with, the experience of being oneself abused naturally makes you more sensitive and sympathetic to the sufferings of others. If love, as Jesus attests, is the root of all morality, this will make you moral.

Edgar points to this learned sympathy in the play. In a life of wandering as Mad Tom, he describes himself as:

“A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows;
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity. Give me your hand,
I’ll lead you to some biding.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

We see this transformation in both Lear and Gloucester: being, at the start of the play, callous and self-centred, through suffering they develop a sensitivity to the sufferings of others.

At the first blow, at first betrayal, by Goneril, Lear is still imperious and intolerant:

“Darkness and devils!
Saddle my horses; call my train together:
Degenerate bastard! I’ll not trouble thee.
Yet have I left a daughter.” (Act 1, Scene 4)

But when Regan and Cornwall do the same later, he is more patient:

“Fiery? the fiery duke? Tell the hot duke that―
No, but not yet: may be he is not well:
Infirmity doth still neglect all office
Whereto our health is bound; we are not ourselves
When nature, being oppress’d, commands the mind
To suffer with the body: I’ll forbear;
And am fall’n out with my more headier will,
To take the indisposed and sickly fit
For the sound man.” (Act 2, Scene 4)

Now he is more tolerant of Goneril as well:

“I’ll not chide thee;
Let shame come when it will, I do not call it:
I do not bid the thunder-bearer shoot,
Nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove:
Mend when thou canst; be better at thy leisure:
I can be patient; I can stay with Regan,
I and my hundred knights.” (Act 2, Scene 4)

On the heath, once he declares that “his wits have begun to turn,” he expresses concern for the fool and not himself, while both are experiencing the same hard weather:

“Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.” (Act 3, Scene 2)

Offered shelter, he now insists that others take precedence:

“In, boy; go first.
You houseless poverty,―
Nay, get thee in.
I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
... Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

Note too with newfound kindness the parallel call for justice. Having experienced unkindness, he has become kind. Having experienced injustice, he now craves justice for all. With his suffering in the play, Lear has grown spiritually.

In the same way, Gloucester, formerly insensitive to the feelings of Edmund, once blinded and turned out, is now more concerned about a farmer offering him help than about himself:

“Away, get thee away; good friend, be gone:
Thy comforts can do me no good at all;
Thee they may hurt.” (Act 4, Scene 1)

As we see, with this newfound sympathy comes a parallel passion for justice. Just as Hamlet felt no remorse over killing Polonius, Rosencrantz, or Guildenstern, abused Edgar feels none over killing Oswald. Oswald, after all, was a villain, slain while attempting murder.

“He’s dead; I am only sorry
He had no other death’s-man.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

Lear plainly develops this craving for cosmic justice:

“Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace.” (Act 3, Scene 2)

And so does Gloucester. He appeals to heaven:

“Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.” (Act 4, Scene 1)

As with Oedipus, Dymphna, and Hamlet, this very commitment to morality and justice is a cause of the downfall of the abused: they are martyrs. This is most obviously true for Cordelia: her honesty is the crime that condemns her. Gloucester meets disaster because he tries to help Lear, showing kindness. Lear does not come to harm because of the harm he does to Cordelia, but for the good he does to Goneril and Regan. Edmund attests that Edgar suffers because he is too trusting.

5. There seems to be a motif of exile.

Lear is forcibly exiled from the castle onto the heath. He heads south, as if by instinct, for Dover and the nearest border.

Gloucester is cast out in the same way. He strikes out then in the same direction.

Cordelia enters exile at the beginning of the play. Her exile is the most complete and extreme; and, it seems, perhaps for this reason, the most successful (excluding Edgar) at preventing mental illness.

Edgar too is exiled from his home, obliged to live in disguise on the roads; a permanent state of wandering. In his case, it is a kind of internal exile.

But he too heads for Dover.

6. The child has some special ability to intercede with the spiritual realm.

As soon as he is thrown out by Goneril, Lear appeals to heaven. This reveals an innate assumption that the spirit world—even the pagan spirit world known to Lear—will enforce justice. For Christians, the certainty that God is just produces this faith. But the conviction does not seem limited to ethical monotheists. The Hindu or Buddhist concept of karma is a similar guarantee.

So is the pagan Greek doctrine of hubris. This, according to Aristotle, is the core idea behind the tragic genre. It is the power producing all tragedy.

We often think of hubris as a synonym for “pride.” It is not. It is much closer to a synonym for “narcissism” as this is diagnosed by psychiatry. In Athenian law, “hubris” was an act designed to harm or humiliate another, done not out of anger, but for pleasure. This is virtually definitive of abuse. Aristotle says that hubris “consists in causing injury or annoyance whereby the sufferer is disgraced, not to obtain any other advantage for oneself besides the performance of the act, but for one’s own pleasure.... The cause of the pleasure felt by those who insult is the idea that, in ill-treating others, they are more fully showing superiority.”[x]

Aristotle gives us an analysis of abuse and why it occurs. The root of hubris is self-love; this is most clearly demonstrated in being abusive.

This self-love was considered an offense against the gods. It makes sense: at its core, narcissism is setting one’s self up as one’s god. The real gods would naturally exact vengeance for it.

The concept of cosmic justice, therefore, seems universal.

And so Lear’s appeal to heaven. The spirit world is now on his side:

“Hear, nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen: that it may live,
To be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains, and benefits,
To laughter and contempt...” (Act 1, Scene 4).
Lear and Cordelia

As his sufferings increase, he feels closer to blessedness. Being led away to prison, he says

“Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

As with Hamlet and Oedipus, there is a suggestion that the sacrifice of the abused brings benefits to the larger society. Albany describes the rule of Lear’s daughters as oppressive not just to Lear and Gloucester, but to all of Britain. It follows that the actions of Lear, Cordelia, Gloucester and Edgar in fighting it are heroic.

“The king is come to his daughter,
With others whom the rigor of our state
Forced to cry out. Where I could not be honest,
I never yet was valiant: for this business,
It toucheth us, as France invades our land,
Not bolds the king, with others, whom, I fear,
Most just and heavy causes make oppose.” (Act 5, Scene 1)

7. Analysis—knowing what went on in one’s childhood—is not a cure.

Gloucester drops dead on hearing the truth of things. Edgar reports:

“Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

The doctor advises that Lear should not be told what is really going on:

“Be comforted, good madam: the great rage,
You see, is kill’d in him: and yet it is danger
To make him even o’er the time he has lost.” (Act 4, Scene 7).

Even Kent seems to go temporarily mad on recounting his experiences:

“He fastened on my neck, and bellow’d out
As he’ld burst heaven; threw him on my father;
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear received: which in recounting
His grief grew puissant and the strings of life
Began to crack: twice then the trumpets sounded,
And there I left him tranced.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

This does not sound promising for the basic premise of analysis.

Possibly, when Freudian analysis does alleviate the symptoms of mental illness, it works not because it uncovers its true cause, but because it substitutes for it a comforting alibi, in the Oedipus Complex. This opiate covers the pain, at least temporarily, enough to keep the analysand coming back for another dose.

8. The child, even though abused, does not turn on the parent.

Cordelia is the perfect example of this. Despite everything Lear expects and fears, it is she, the child who was rejected, who proves loyal.

So too with Edgar.

Goneril and Regan are perfectly selfish. But Cordelia cares more for her father than herself:

“For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.” (Act 5, Scene 3).

To prove this, she has, after all, gone to war in his behalf.

Lear Mourns Cordelia's Death

Edgar, put in a position where he might take any revenge he likes on the father who wanted to kill him, instead does everything he can in his father’s interest, including battling Oswald to the death.

This may surprise many, as it does Lear. But it stands to reason. The abused child is in effect raised from first consciousness to always put the interests of others before their own, and in particular to consider the interests of their parent paramount. Why would they not have internalized this message? Despite just deserts, the abused child is probably the least likely to turn on the parent.

An objection may be raised here that it is unclear Cordelia and Edgar have been systematically abused. In the events we witness on the stage, Cordelia and Edgar are certainly abused children. But were they abused before this point? They seem to be shown as having been favoured: Edmund makes much of Edgar being the legitimate son; both France and Lear say Cordelia has previously been Lear’s favourite.

Lear says “I loved her most.” The King of France says that Cordelia

“even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
Most best, most dearest.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

As to Edgar, however, we have Edmund’s admission that he was not preferred. We see Edgar easily suspected and abused; while everything Edmund says is taken at face value. It is only logical to assume this is not for the first time. How could it be?

As for Cordelia, what looked like being favoured may be simply the option of possessing the exceptional child instead of killing her—King Damon’s preference. The narcissist has two possible responses to the exceptional child: greed or envy. Greed is more likely towards a child of the opposite sex, until or unless the option of possession is ruled out, usually at puberty or marriage. And so it appears with Cordelia. Greed then turns to envy, and the desire to eliminate, when thwarted. A child may up to that point seem pampered, yet only be loved as a possession. A sports car might be similarly pampered; a farmer might similarly fatten a lamb for the slaughter. In exchange for this supposed favouritism, Lear seems to demand ownership. Everything came with a debit note attached. Being owned and controlled, up to this point, might have meant nice dresses, but would not have been fun.

Let us not move on without making another point, too often, I think, missed by modern psychiatry. A tendency to complain about one’s parents is not a clear indication that one has been abused. A narcissist is in the business of blaming others. If they cannot blame their children, they are naturally just as happy blaming their parents. An abused child, by contrast, will find it difficult to blame anyone but themselves, and especially difficult to blame their parents. Oedipus could not bring himself to do it. This is not a situation in which one can take the “victim’s” word.

At the same time, this reticence to blame the parents may explain why the Oedipus Complex seemed satisfying to many of Freud’s patients, assuming it did. It avoids blaming the parents; this seems to be its primary purpose. The victim can take all the responsibility on themself, on their “subconscious,” and pretend to themselves that the emotional betrayal never happened. Their parents were right all along; the fault was theirs! They are flawed in their essence. They are mentally ill. The fundamental world view on which they grew up is preserved. At least temporarily, a mental peace is restored, and the betrayal not felt.

Over the long term, however, this has to be destructive rather than helpful. Note the visceral demand of the abused for honesty, truth, and justice. Offering such a gaslighting on top of gaslighting violates this, and so must provoke a worse reaction once the ruse is seen through. The drug would not be worth the hangover.

9. Mental illness may be a rational survival strategy

If madness is an escape from suffering, an analysis genuinely seeking the truth of affairs and seeking to end the delusions or hallucinations, would, without some skillful techniques, most probably bring the suffering back…

Lear stays out in the storm because, he says:

“This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

If this is right, it is not just a true and straightforward analysis that is harmful to the mentally ill; the same would hold for “anti-psychotic” medicines. The hallucinations are, Shakespeare suggests, like a scab over a wound. Such chemical solutions, it seems, if all they do is prevent hallucinations, just rip the scab off again to expose the underlying injury to the open air, allowing it to fester to gangrene.

There may be other benefits to psychosis. By feigning madness, Edgar doesn’t just avoid the symptoms of depression felt by Lear and Gloucester. He avoids the death warrant that targets him, and further abuse in general. As one observer remarks,

“His roguish madness
Allows itself to any thing.” (Act 3, Scene 7)

It may be the same for the schizophrenic. If you are being targeted for abuse within the family, or indeed within society, being visibly crazy may take the pressure off. You are now no longer a threat or a possible rival to the narcissists. You are just old pitiful Mad Tom.

The Fool: Visconti

It may also for other reasons be wrong here to think in terms of a “cure” for mental illness. If emotional betrayal is the underlying issue, and what we call “mental illness” only a symptom, does it make sense to speak of “curing” it?

Hazlitt, writing in 1817, scoffs at the previous century’s attempts to give King Lear a happy ending. This, he feels, is just not credible. “As if the living martyrdom that Lear had gone through,―the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him…. As if the childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over again his misused station.”

If Hazlitt is right, the same must apply to all those who are “mentally ill” from abuse. Curing those symptoms does not seem to be the point. Get rid of the suicidal thoughts and the panic attacks, get rid of the hallucinations and delusions, and the injustice remains, will remain until death, and cannot really be remedied. Whatever else might happen, that happy childhood and supportive family others knew can never be known. That is an incomparable loss.

Narcissistic personalities have little incentive to reform. Narcissism may be called a mental illness, but most often, the person who has it does not suffer: everybody else around them does. Accordingly, they have zero incentive to change. Less than zero: dispensing with the narcissism will oblige them to confront their own guilt, which may be huge.

But even if they do repent, they are unlikely to be able to repair or to compensate for the damage they have done. King Lear shows two narcissists, Edmund and Oswald, repenting at the moment of death. But by this point, there is little they can do. Their deathbed confessions help no one.

It may be misguided, then, to speak of any cure other than Lear’s appeal to heaven; and to hopes of an afterlife.

At the same time, however, are there things that might be done to reduce the present suffering?

The doctor in Lear prescribes “repose”:

“There is means, madam:
Our foster-nurse of nature is repose,
The which he lacks” (Act 3, Scene 4).

This meshes with the theme of exile: first, get away from the cause of the trauma. Then avoid all further stress for a time to allow for healing. Cordelia, so far as we can see, seems to deal with her experience of emotional betrayal well by starting a new life in far-off France.

Solitude and repose is also Lear’s instinct. Approached by Kent soon after he realizes that his wits are going, he responds, “Let me alone” (Act 3, Scene 4). He is not sad to be sent to prison:

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

This is a monastic vision.

Edgar, having experienced a similar betrayal, feigns madness as Tom o’Bedlam; as Hamlet feigns madness in that play.

This, perhaps, is the play’s most interesting proposition. The obvious reason, for both Edgar and Hamlet, is practical: it protects them from being killed or targeted for further abuse. But it also seems to insulate Edgar from the emotional agonies experienced, under similar blows, by Lear or Gloucester.

In pretending madness, Edgar is, literally, an actor. Shakespeare was an actor; this parallel was doubtless meaningful to him. Is he suggesting that acting, pretending to be someone else, the arts, the play, or play-acting, are a useful response to abuse, and a possible protection from the pains of melancholy or of madness?

He seems to be doing exactly that. Edgar in disguise involves Gloucester too in a bit of performance, a bit of imaginative art, pretending he has seen him fall from the Cliffs of Dover. He does this explicitly to shake him of suicidal thoughts.

“Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.”

And it works. Gloucester says,

“I do remember now: henceforth I’ll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
‘Enough, enough,’ and die.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

Art in general, then, perhaps, and this play in particular, is apt and meant to soothe the pains of emotional abuse, for those who are abused; of injustice, for those who have known injustice; of emotional betrayal, for those who have been emotionally betrayed. Acting, becoming wrapped up in watching a play, or participating in or appreciating any other of the arts, after all, draws us away from our own lives and our own sufferings, for a time. It takes us into a different world; a sort of internal exile; and a world in which we need not play for keeps. One can understand both why this would soothe the anguish of depression, and why this would substitute for the hallucinations of the mad.

In the play, it is Edgar, the artist, who most fully overcomes the effects of abuse, if at the cost of a diet of frogs. Lear, Cordelia, and Gloucester all lie dead at the curtain. Edgar inherits the earth.

There is an odd, almost uncanny, similarity between the stories of St. Dymphna and King Lear. When Dymphna flees her father’s court, two characters stand by her: the old priest, Father Gerebernus, and the court fool. When Lear is turned out into the elements, two characters stand by him—and one of them, again, is the court fool.

Court fools, we have noted, were professional performers: comics, jugglers, actors, and musicians. We have suggested that Dymphna’s fool might therefore represent the artist and the arts, as one vital source of support for the depressed and mentally ill.

This is plainly true with the figure of the fool in Lear. He is no fool in the natural sense. He is a professional comic.

It is often noted that the fool disappears in Act 3 of King Lear; what happened to him?

Hazlitt suggests this is because the fool and Edgar are essentially the same character: “The character is dropped in the third act to make room for the entrance of Edgar as Mad Tom.” Both are artists; both are feigning madness, although with the fool this is purely an artistic convention. The implied identity cements the message that Edgar is the paradigm of the artist. Edgar = fool = performer, artist.

Is Kent, then, as the second ally in exile, representative of religion? Is he cognate to Father Gerebernus in the Dymphna legend?

The Kent character cannot be a priest, like Gerebernus. Lear lived before Christ. Nevertheless, there are clues that Kent is a priest after the order of Melchizedek. While everyone else in the play appeals to “the gods,” he alone seems to be a monotheist:

“Good king, that must approve the common saw,
Thou out of heaven’s benediction comest
To the warm sun!
Approach, thou beacon to this under globe,
That by thy comfortable beams I may
Peruse this letter!” (Act 2, Scene 2)

As if an exorcist, and reminiscent of the apostles in the New Testament, he does not fear demons, and casts them out:

Come not in here, nuncle, here’s a spirit
Help me, help me!
Give me thy hand. Who’s there?
A spirit, a spirit: he says his name’s poor Tom.
What art thou that dost grumble there i’ the straw?
Come forth.” (Act 3, Scene 4)
It may be significant, too, that Kent is the county of Canterbury, historic seat of Christianity in England.

At the end of the play, offered half the kingdom, Kent declines:

“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

His king is dead. Who else could be his master, but the one true God? And the latter’s kingdom, he seems to imply, is not of this world.

And so, by the final curtain, there are two viable survival strategies for the abused: religion and the arts.


[i] Brown, Dennis (2001). "King Lear: The Lost Leader; Group Disintegration, Transformation and Suspended Reconsolidation". Critical Survey. Berghahn Books. 13 (3): 19–39.

[ii] Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913), p. p. 291

[iii]ibid., p. 300.

[iv]ibid, p., 300.

[v]ibid., p. 294.

[vi]ibid., p. 300.

[vii]Thompson and Giles, trans. Book 2, Chapter 11.

[viii]Ernest Jones, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 3 (New York, 1957), pp. 457-58.

[ix]Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, London: Hunter and Ollier, 1817

[x]Rhetoric 1378b; Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22, trans. J. H. Freese. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd. 1926.

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