In the beginning, Lear displays perhaps one of his most fatal errors in the entire play. When Cordelia refuses to lie as her sisters did of her affection for him, he refuses to have her in his kingdom. A quote from Act I shows Cordelia being honest to her father.
“Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me…
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.” (Act I, scene I lines 94-104)
Cordelia clearly explains that she will always be there for his father, and that she loves him as any true daughter should. Lear is so blind to Regan’s and Goneril’s false love, that Cordelia’s affection seems to pale in comparison. He then divides his land in two, and gives each half to one of his unfaithful daughters. It is already clear here, that he displays unclear and rash decision making before he goes mad. Any man fit to be King knows that a strong empire cannot be divided in two so easily and keep its glory. Kent has witnessed Lear’s decision, and as his loyal friend tries to help him understand his mistake before it is too late. Another quote from Act I has Kent trying to reason with the King.
“Do, kill thy physician, and the fee bestow
Upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy gift,
Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,
I’ll tell thy dost evil.”(Act I, scene I lines 63-66)
Kent clearly asks him to take back his gift to both Albany and Cornwall, as he knows it will be the demise of his kingdom. Lear will have none of this and quickly banishes his most loyal friend, only reinforcing the idea that he is acting like a madman, while he still has his sanity.
Not only does Lear prove that he shows madness in reason, but throughout the play he demonstrates some reason after he has gone mad. After Regan and Goneril treat him with disrespect and deviate from their promises of eternal love, he sees the error in giving them so much power and leaving himself without any. When Lear made this mistake, he left himself completely reliant on his two daughters that could not be trusted. This mistake coincides with the fact that he banished his one truthful and loving daughter, Cordelia. He is left completely helpless, and his daughters exile him from their homes, the same castles Lear previously gave them. This quote has Lear reacting to the fact that he has been thrown into a dreadful storm by his daughters.
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to‘t? But I will punish home.
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on, I will endure. (Act III, scene iv lines15-18)
It’s clear that he understands the mistake he made, and that his daughters feed him lies until they get what they need from. In between his fits of insanity, Lear speaks of Goneril’s and Regan’s betrayals. It is apparent that in some ways he can see more truth than when he had his sanity, an obvious sign that King Lear shows much reason in madness.
A different perspective of Lear’s obvious reason in madness, is when he is in forest enduring the storm, with the help of Kent and the Fool. When they find the hut to use as shelter, Lear encounters a handful of homeless people in the same situation he finds himself in. This quote shows Lear’s feeling towards the homeless of his kingdom.
“Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm…
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just. (Act III, scene iv lines 28-36)
Lear can see that the impoverished citizens of his kingdom stand no chance of survival. He realizes that he had the resources to help these people when he was in power. Lear understands that these people cannot afford food, shelter, or clothes, while he and his family live in luxury. A fact that he chose to ignore throughout his reign of power, and most importantly, while he was capable of making sane decisions. Once Lear has lost his mind, he comprehends the issue with much more wisdom and knowledge than before. This isn’t the only instance where Lear demonstrates improved wisdom throughout his spell of madness, here is a quote of Lear showing more insight and wisdom.
“Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold…
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal th’accuser’s lips. (Act IV, scene vi lines 152-158)
Lear is considering the sins of the rich and wealthy, in comparison to the sins committed by the lowly and poor. He understands that someone with wealth and influence will never be charged with the crimes they have committed, whereas the less influential citizens, will be charged and many times sentenced to death. Lear is quoted as saying everyone sins and that no one should be sentenced unfairly. A very true remark, yet different from the way he ruled his kingdom while rational. While under the grips of mental illness, Lear is analyzing his kingdom and the way it is being run, and he makes very wise comments on how it should be improved. This quote is Edgar’s response to Lear’s surprising outbursts of good sense.
“(aside) O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in
madness!” (Act IV, scene vi line 162)
Edgar is amazed by the fact that Lear is making these comments, as he is unmistakably insane. He even uses the statement reason in madness, to perfectly explain the fact that Lear is proving himself to be more wise than before despite his insanity.
Lear ultimately proved that sometimes sanity is in the eye of the beholder as he made the grave error of banishing Cordelia and Kent, however he became a better father and King during his break from sanity. While Lear is sensible he is blind to the fact that Cordelia is the only truthful daughter, and would care for him should he need it. Once Lear is completely mad, he can finally see that his kingdom is flawed and he should have done more to help the starved citizens. He is also aware of the fact that there is corruption everywhere, and that the poor citizens are treated unjustly. In reflection it has become very clear that the famous oxy-moron penned by Shakespeare is a perfect encapsulation of King Lear himself.
Lear (leer), the king of Britain. Obstinate, arrogant, and hot-tempered, he indiscreetly plans to divide his kingdom among his daughters, giving the best and largest portion to his youngest and best-loved, Cordelia. When she refuses to flatter him with lavish and public protestations of love, he casts her off with unreasoning fury. Disillusioned and abandoned by his older daughters, he is driven to madness by his age and exposure to internal and external tempests. During his suffering, signs of unselfishness appear, and his character changes from arrogance and bitterness to love and tenderness. He is reunited with his true and loving daughter until her untimely murder parts them again.
Goneril (GON-uh-rihl), Lear’s eldest daughter. Savage and blunt as a wild boar, she wears the mask of hypocritical affection to acquire a kingdom. She has contempt for her aged father, her honest sister, and her kindhearted husband. Her illicit passion for Edmund, the handsome illegitimate son of the earl of Gloucester, leads to Edmund’s, Regan’s, and her own death.
Regan (REE-guhn), Lear’s second daughter. Treacherous in a catlike manner, she seldom initiates the action of the evil sisters but often goes a step further in cruelty. She gloats over Gloucester when his eyes are torn out and unintentionally helps him to see the light of truth. Her early widowhood gives her some advantage over Goneril in their rivalry for Edmund, but she is poisoned by Goneril, who then commits suicide.
Cordelia (kohr-DEEL-yuh), Lear’s youngest daughter. Endowed with her father’s stubbornness, she refuses to flatter him as her sisters have done. In his adversity, she returns to him with love and forgiveness, restoring his sanity and redeeming him from bitterness. Her untimely death brings about Lear’s death.
The earl of Kent
The earl of Kent, Lear’s frank and loyal follower. Risking Lear’s anger to avert his impetuous unreason, he accepts banishment as payment for truth. Like Cordelia, but even before her, he returns to aid Lear—necessarily in disguise—as the servant Caius. The impudence of Oswald arouses violent anger in him. For his master, no service is too menial or too perilous.
The earl of Gloucester
The earl of Gloucester, another father with good and evil children, parallel to Lear and his daughters. Having had a gay past, about which he speaks frankly and with some pride, he believes himself a man of the world and a practical politician. He is gullible and superstitious. Deceived by Edmund, he casts off his loyal, legitimate son Edgar. His loyalty to the persecuted king leads to the loss of his eyes, but his inner sight is made whole by his blinding. He dies happily reconciled to Edgar.
Edgar (in disguise, Tom o’ Bedlam), Gloucester’s legitimate son. He is forced into hiding by his credulous father and the machinations of his evil half brother. As Tom o’ Bedlam, he is with the king during the tempest, and later he cares for his eyeless father both physically and spiritually. Finally, he reveals himself to Gloucester just before engaging in mortal combat with Edmund, who dies as a result of Edgar wounding him.
Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate younger son. A Machiavellian villain governed by insatiable ambition, he attempts to destroy his half brother and his father for his own advancement. Without passion himself, he rejoices in his ability to arouse it in others, particularly Lear’s two evil daughters. He has a grim and cynical sense of humor. His heartlessness is demonstrated by his plotting the murders of Lear and Cordelia, in which he is only half successful. He shows signs of repentance at the time of his death, but hardly enough to color his villainy.
The duke of Cornwall
The duke of Cornwall, Regan’s husband. An inhuman monster, he aids in heaping hardships on the aged king and tears out Gloucester’s eyes when the earl is discovered aiding the distressed monarch. His death, brought on by his cruelty, leaves Regan free to pursue Edmund as a potential husband.
The duke of Albany
The duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband. Noble and kind, he is revolted by Goneril’s behavior toward her father, by Gloucester’s blinding, and by the murder of Cordelia. He repudiates Goneril and Regan and restores order to the kingdom.
The fool, Lear’s jester, “not altogether a fool.” A mixture of cleverness, bitterness, and touching loyalty, he remains with the old king in his terrible adversity. His suffering rouses Lear’s pity and leads to the major change from selfish arrogance to unselfish love in the old king. The fool’s end is obscure; he simply vanishes from the play. The line “My poor fool is hanged” may refer to Cordelia.
Oswald, Goneril’s doglike servant. Insolent, cowardly, and evil, he is still devoted to his mistress, whom, ironically, he destroys. His last act of devotion to her is to urge his slayer to deliver a letter from her to Edmund. Because the slayer is Edgar, the letter goes to the duke of Albany as evidence of Goneril’s and Edmund’s falsehood.
The king of France
The king of France, a suitor of Cordelia. Captivated by her character and loveliness, he marries her with only her father’s curse for dowry. He sets up an invasion of England to restore the old king but is called back to France before the decisive battle, leaving the responsibility on his young queen.
The duke of Burgundy
The duke of Burgundy, a suitor of Cordelia. Cautious and selfish, he rejects Cordelia when he finds out that she has been cast off by her father.
The first servant of Cornwall
The first servant of Cornwall, who, moved by Cornwall’s inhuman cruelty, endeavors to save Gloucester from being blinded. Although his appearance is brief, he makes a profound impression as a character, and his action in mortally wounding Cornwall alters the course of events and leads to the overthrow of the evil forces.
An old man
An old man, Gloucester’s tenant. Helping the blinded man, he delivers him to the care of the supposed mad beggar, actually Edgar.
A captain, employed by Edmund to murder Lear and Cordelia in prison. He hangs Cordelia but later is killed by the aged king, who is too late to save his beloved daughter.
A doctor, employed by Cordelia to treat her father in his illness and madness. He aids in restoring Lear to partial health.
Curan, a courtier.