Foolishness, blindness and lack of sanity feature throughout Shakespeare’s play. The theme of ignorance and madness is reflected in the play’s chaotic and seemingly unjust finale. A number of King Lear’s characters demonstrate the gradual transfiguration from wisdom into foolishness, or from foolishness into wisdom. These transformations not only mark the fragility of the human mind, but also the true impotence of humans, be they Kings or peasants, in the eyes of nature and Fortune.
King Lear begins the play metaphorically blind to the truth. He orders his daughters to declare their love for him so that the “largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge.” He is deceived by Goneril and Regan’s insincere and exaggerated protestations of love. Goneril claims that she loves him more than “word can wield the matter”, and Regan declares: “…I am alone felicitate / In your dear highness’ love.” Only Cordelia’s love is honest and true (she says: “I am sure my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue…”), and yet she is banished. Lear’s blindness to the truth is emphasised by his ignoring of Kent’s interruptions (“Peace, Kent!”), and indeed the fact that he takes Cordelia’s honesty for pride: “Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.” Kent even goes so far as to call Lear mad (prophesising the play’s later events) and accuse him of rashness. Kent also adds that those “whose low sounds / Reverb no hollowness” are not empty-hearted. Here he is suggesting that Cordelia’s modest protestation of love is sincere, and that Goneril and Regan’s are not. Lear’s metaphorical blindness is also demonstrated by his demands for both Cordelia and Kent to get out of his sight, to which Kent replies: “See better, Lear; and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye.” France even refers to Lear’s actions and immediate loss of love for his daughter as “most strange”. Shakespeare is clearly keen to insinuate the foolish and imprudent nature of Lear’s decisions.
The Fool’s strange and occasionally incomprehensible speeches help the King to slowly realise his mistake. The Fool seems to know from the start that Lear was wrong, and indeed he claims that “wise men [Lear] are grown foppish”. He goes onto say:
“…for when thou gav’st them the
rod and putt’st down thine own breeches,
Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep,
And go the fools among.”
It is almost as if the two men’s roles have swapped around: while the Fool knows the truth, Lear is still ignorant and has himself become the Fool. The King then begins to question why his daughters are treating him so cruelly, saying: “Does any here know me? This is not Lear: / Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?” and indeed this reference to his eyes emphasises his previous blindness. He then admits: “I did her [Cordelia] wrong…” Thus his blindness is slowly lifted. Moreover, Lear’s argument with Kent in Act 2 Scene 4 shows his steady realisation of his daughters’ cruelty. His repeated exclamations (“You!” and “Return with her!”) when talking with Regan and Goneril demonstrate his surprise and outrage. The Fool’s wisdom of Lear’s mistake suggests that, despite being a King, Lear can still be a Fool. In fact, the Fool says to Lear: “Thou should’st not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”
Lear’s realisation of the truth and emergence from his metaphorical blindness is, however, accompanied by his slow descent into madness. The first hint of the threat to his sanity comes with his exclamations: “O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” Furthermore, in Act 2 Scene 4 the King ironically says to Goneril: “I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad…” and that is exactly what his daughters’ cruelty does. The storm that Lear is inevitably forced to face in Act 3 not only represents the chaos and madness of his mind, but also the chaos that his Kingdom has descended into. Now that Lear has given up his authority, the country is at the mercy of the play’s villains. Lear’s descent into madness becomes ever more obvious throughout the storm scene, beginning with his refusal to enter the hovel:
“…this tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there – filial ingratitude!”
He goes onto exclaim: “O that way madness lies! let me shun that; / No more of that…” and his swift change of mind again shows the turbulence of his thoughts. Then, at Edgar’s appearance, Lear is completely overtaken by madness, asking Edgar whether he too gave all his possessions to his daughters.
His speech then becomes almost incomprehensible; however, Lear’s madness is marked by his deepening sensitivity to other people, possibly caused by his exposure to human cruelty. For example he prays to the gods to help “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” He reproaches himself for his heartlessness, and attempts to tear his clothes off to show that clothing offers no protection from Fortune and the gods. He realises that only garments mark the difference between a King and a beggar (Edgar), and that everyone must face the world’s cruelties. Moreover he sympathises with the Fool, asking him if he is cold, saying: “I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry yet for thee.” Thus, since his metaphorical blindness, Lear has moved from arrogance and pride, to humility and pity. In many ways Lear is growing wiser, rather than more foolish. For instance, despite his mad ramblings he is still able to determine the cause of his woe (“filial ingratitude!”), and to differentiate the storm of his thoughts from the physical storm around him. In fact, Edgar notes that Lear’s apparent ramblings are “matter and impertinency mixed! / Reason in madness!” For example, it is only in his madness that Lear realises: “They flattered me like a dog… To say ‘aye’ and ‘no’ to everything that I said!” Moreover, just as in the storm he realised no amount of clothing or power can protect you from life’s cruelty, so he realises that flattery and praise can save nobody: “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all.” It is only in his madness and foolishness that Lear actually speaks wisdom: now that he is released from the trappings of wealth, he can see the truth.
Gloucester, too, begins the play in metaphorical blindness. He is tricked by Edmund’s forged letter and manipulative plans. Edgar, however, truly loves his father. Gloucester’s great error is made clear by Edmund’s words:
“A credulous father, and a noble brother,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy!”
Thus both Lear and Gloucester mistake the unloving for the loving, banishing the loyal children and making their disloyal, cruel children their heirs. Edgar, tricked by Edmund, is then forced to flee into hiding, while Gloucester is completely fooled by Edmund’s manipulations. Again Shakespeare is demonstrating that despite Gloucester’s wealth and title, he can still be foolish.
Just as Lear realises his mistake as he turns mad, Gloucester only discovers Edmund’s trickery once he is blind. Gloucester’s gruesome (Cornwall cries: “Out, vile jelly!”) blinding marks a turning point in the play: cruelty, betrayal and even madness are reversible, but blindness is not. The play’s chaos and confusion are now irreversible. After his eyes have been gouged out, Gloucester ironically calls: “Where’s my son Edmund?” Regan then reveals that it was Edmund who was the treacherous and plotting son, saying: “Thou call’st on him that hates thee; it was he / That made the overture of thy treasons to us, / Who is too good to pity thee.” Thus, as he is made blind he is simultaneously made to see the truth, and he exclaims: “O my follies! Then Edgar was abus’d.” This realisation is almost identical to that of Lear when he laments: “I did her wrong…” Both Lear and Gloucester’s errors are epitomised in Gloucester’s words:
“I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen,
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities.”
Edgar is another character who moves in and out of sanity, although he is pretending. After his banishment, Edgar assumes the identity of poor mad Tom, who is haunted by devils and “foul fiends”. However Edgar’s ravings are so convincing, and the environment of the plain so unusual and haunting that we are unsure whether his madness is really feigned. This is also because of the similarities between his and Lear’s (who actually is mad) situations; in fact, Edgar says: “He childed as I fathered.” Both have been exiled, albeit for different reasons, one by their father, the other by their children. It is Edgar’s nakedness that aids Lear’s humanization, and indeed Lear takes an immediate liking to Edgar, possibly because of his craziness. He says: “With him; / I will keep still with my philosopher.” Why Edgar continues to feign his madness when leading his father to the Dover cliffs is unsure, but it is probably for this reason: by letting Gloucester think that he fell from the cliff but was miraculously saved, Edgar is giving meaning to his father’s life. Before he tried to kill himself, Gloucester saw life as nothing but a game of the gods: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’gods; / They kill us for their sport.” But afterwards, Gloucester accepts Edgar’s explanation that the gods have preserved him, and he resolves to endure his blindness and suffering. The play’s subplot of Edgar and Gloucester shows that anybody can be a fool, and that it is only once foolishness is realised that true wisdom is found.
Shakespeare makes such obvious use of the wisdom-foolishness parallel in order to reinforce the play’s ultimate message: that all are equal to nature. This truth is only realised by King Lear in the midst of his madness, and indeed both Lear and Gloucester only realise the truth once they become ‘fools’ (e.g. mad and blind). Perhaps this is Shakespeare’s way of bringing to life the famous line in his play As You Like It: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Lear and Gloucester begin the play as fools thinking they are wise, but end the play wise, in the knowledge that they are fools. The Fool, however, is wise throughout, and there is truth in his seemingly silly ramblings. It seems as if only those whose speech is crazed and incomprehensible actually speak any reason. It is only once they realise that they are under nature’s control and have escaped the trappings of power and wealth that they begin to speak truth. As Edgar notes, there is reason in madness.