Madness is normally known for ruining the lives of the people that have it and the people close to them. In Shakespeare’s King Lear it initially appears that the same formula is going to be followed with Lear, a broken old king who has lost everything, running out into a violent storm unprotected. However, Shakespeare does something unexpected with Lear’s madness that keeps readers interested in the story hundreds of years after it was written. In King Lear, Lear’s madness is actually beneficial because of the enlightenment it brings him and because of what his madness leads other characters to do in response.
King Lear’s madness is beneficial because of the revelation it brings Lear about his life. Lear showed that he was accustomed to a lavish lifestyle while he was a Goneril’s house. He couldn’t handle having a servant not give him the utmost respect, he refused to dismiss his entourage of a hundred knights, and he had his own private fool to provide a running commentary on his predicament. This coupled with his vain nature meant that Lear never considered how the destitute of his kingdom were doing and that he wouldn’t spare a thing. That is until Lear has gone through the violent storm unprotected and forced to take cover in a hovel. It is hear that Lear’s sanity begins to deteriorate with him saying that “This tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling else save what beats there.” (III.iiii.15-17) It is a direct result of his reflection on his own sanity and his situation that causes Lear to realize that the homeless of his kingdom must be going through a similar experience.
It is this that causes Lear to cry out to the world “Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou may’st shake the superflux to them.” (III.iiii.38-40) This is a beneficial change because it’s a step on his way to realizing that he was wrong about which of his daughters loved him the most. This is because this is the first time that Lear has had to admit that he did something wrong as a ruler. By openly admitting that he did one thing wrong he subconsciously admits that he made other mistakes which will help Lear to admitting that he was wrong to banish Cordelia. Lear’s insanity is also beneficial in that it puts him in a position to be a better ruler than he was before he was driven insane. Lear was probably good as a leader for the most part as he was in power for a long amount of time and people had a great amount of respect for him, as demonstrated by Gloucester’s indecision on whether to betray Lear. However he didn’t have any of the humility he shows when he’s finally reunited with Cordelia.
He admits that he wronged her by calling himself a “very foolish fond old man” (IV.iiiiiii.69) and says he will accept any punishment for his actions. This humility would serve Lear well as a ruler because he would be more likely to listen to his advisors and he wouldn’t try to keep the image of great self importance he did before. This along with the fact that he would now try to help those less fortunate than him would have made Lear a great king. While it’s true that Lear didn’t get the chance to rule again Albany and Cordelia had set up the war for Lear to take the throne again, meaning if the war hadn’t been lost or the hanging been stopped sooner Lear would have taken the throne. It’s therefore clear that Lear’s insanity did a lot of good.
Lear’s insanity was also beneficial because it started Edgar’s transformation from Poor Tom to the hero he became at the end of the play. When Edgar first takes up the disguise as Poor Tom he makes it clear that he has no reason to return to his old life by saying “sometimes with prayers, enforce their charity. Poor Turlygood! Poor Tom! That’s something yet. Edgar I nothing am.” He believes that his old life as Edgar has been ruined and that this new life as a beggar is the only option available to him. However, this changes when Edgar meets Lear in the storm. As Edgar talks to Lear he begins to feel sorry for him and wants to help him but he fears that helping Lear will “mar my (his) counterfeiting.” (III.iiiiii.64)
As a result Edgar decides to help Lear in a small way by playing along with Lear’s visions but keeping up the appearance of being mad himself. Through this Edgar takes his first steps towards the hero he is by the end of the play by going out of his way to help Lear even though it ruins his disguise somewhat. It’s only natural then for Edgar to try and help his father Gloucester, even though it ruins his disguise as a beggar because it’s only a small continuation from his helping of Lear. Since each step in Edgar’s progression in becoming a hero was started from his helping of Lear, it’s clear that Edgar’s all of the good that Edgar does can be credited to Lear’s insanity.
Lear’s insanity was beneficial for saving Gloucester’s life. After Gloucester tries to kill himself, Edgar, attempts to convince him that he shouldn’t try to kill himself again by saying it was a miracle he survived and that a devil had led him to the cliff so he could take his life. While Gloucester did seem convinced that he shouldn’t try to take his life he didn’t have any reason to live. The only thing that he had left was the hope that Lear would recover to take the throne again. If he had heard that the war with France had resulted in either Goneril or Regan staying in power and Lear was dead he probably would kill himself because he would have nothing to live for after that.
Gloucester still had all the original troubles he had before his attempted suicide; he had let his illegitimate son betray him, he had exiled his other son that loved him, and he was still helpless due to the loss of his eyes. It’s not until he sees the full extent of Lear’s insanity that he really reconsider his attempt at suicide. After speaking to Lear Gloucester is still unhappy with his life but he won’t kill himself, as evidenced by “gods, take my breath from me; Let not my worser spirit tempt me again to die before you please. This is because seeing Lear’s insanity showed Gloucester that his troubles were nothing compared to the kings so he felt he had no real right to kill himself. This means that once again, Lear’s madness unintentionally did some good.
Lear’s insanity was actually a benefit to many people in the play, instead of harmful which would be expected. It showed to Lear how to be a humble and caring ruler to his subjects. It also caused Edgar to start coming out of his pretended insanity which allowed him to become a hero by the end of the play. Finally it saved Gloucester from another attempted suicide by putting his problems in proportion to Lear’s. It’s because of surprises like these that Shakespeare’s work has survived into the modern age.