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King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most revered tragic plays of all time and even deemed by many critics as the most tragic. The play’s tragic end was so harshly condemned by the audiences that other writers wrote alternative “ happier” endings that were even played on stage for quite some time. However, the play’s true essence lies in the original end and this was realized by critics and audiences alike and since then has been performed worldwide in its original form (Shakespeare and Halio). It is clear that King Lear’s character is a complex, yet simple one. His character and the effects of his decisions on all the rest of the characters can be understood if he is analyzed psychologically. King Lear’s character is a man who makes decisions that seem rash to the audience, to the readers and more importantly, his kingdom which he rules. Lear is an old man which is why he becomes delusional about his surroundings. He forms his opinions of right and wrong and hence acts upon them. His paranoia that everyone in the kingdom is his enemy and wishes to see him harm in any possible way is mostly derived because of his old age (Hess). He makes decisions throughout the play that contribute to his downfall yet at the same time carry the narrative of the play forward. King Lear is suffering from paranoia, triggered by his old age, which is evident from his delusional decision of passing his kingdom on solely on the basis of his emotions and sentiments, his inability to see Cordelia’s sincerity over Regan and Goneril’s buttering, and his reaction to his daughters’ mistreatment, all show that he is suffering from paranoia.
Paranoia is a condition in which a person’s thought process is heavily influenced by their fear or anxiety. The actions derived out of this fear or anxiety often reaches the level of irrationality and delusion which makes it hard for an individual to function normally (Chadwick, Birchwood and Trower). The above-given examples from the play clearly affirm the fact that King Lear suffered from this condition. Most of his decisions that carried the narrative forward were products of his anxiety and paranoia which were derived out of old age.
Lear, in all honesty, is a superficial man. In his old age, he is unable to make sense of right and wrong and instead takes the aid of what seems to be right or wrong in order to make his decisions. This clearly registers him as delusional (Hess). Firstly, no ruler should be careless enough to pass on the rule of his kingdom based on emotion and sentiment. As he holds court, we see Lear say this to his daughters:
“ And here are to be answer’d. Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest-born, speak first”
Secondly, Lear fails to see the sincerity behind Cordelia’s words and instead is wooed by Regan and Goneril, who use empty endearing words to gain favor, despite the fact that she is his favourite child. At this point, audiences and readers wonder how it could be that a ruler as great as Lear has a lapse in judgment so harsh? The psychological answer for this is clear, Lear being in his old age does not want to dwell upon what lies beyond appearances. We also witness the old King in earnest try to persuade Cordelia to mend her fate by playing the same superficial game which her sisters are playing. He says:
“ How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes”
Cordelia, not wanting to gain favor by mere empty words sincerely replies that she holds his love and upbringing in high regard but also owes much of it to whomever her future husband will be. Cordelia’s psychology and the stark difference between the two characters can be further analyzed by this following dialogue between them:
King Lear: “ So young, and so untender?”
Cordelia: “ So young, my lord, and true”
This example reaffirms that Lear is paranoid and delusional. He does not want to comprehend what he cannot see or hear from Cordelia’s lips plainly and has his notions of the level of affection his daughters have. When Cordelia refuses to reaffirm his beliefs, he turns full of rage and condemns her:
King Lear: “ With my two daughters’ dowers digest this third:
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.”
We can see Lear’s pride and anger derived out of paranoia quite clearly here. He accuses Cordelia of being proud as she does not play along the game that her sisters play to fool their father. However, it is he who is exhibiting pride. He is failing to see beyond his temper that is also a fruit of his old age and his delusion that Goneril and Regan are the rightful heirs for his kingdom (Hess). It is these unwise decisions which force Cordelia away from him, his only devoted child.
Lear still enraged at what he thinks is Cordelia’s ingratitude, imagines Goneril and Regan to be his devoted daughters. Due to this belief, he decides to live with each daughter a month, together with 100 of his most trusted men, not knowing that they plan to mistreat him. He is still delusional that these daughters of his will care about him and provide him the comfort a father needs in his old age. This is another serious lapse in his judgment for he does not understand that his men will not be welcome in his daughters’ palaces. Soon, his men are laid off, and Regan and Goneril show him his true colors. They ascertain that the old King is left alone, with no men to protect him. Lear’s actions and dialogues after this are the third re-affirmation of how this man is taking decisions based on his paranoia.
King Lear: “ To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And 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”!
Instead of watching Lear be remorseful and come to his senses, we watch him driven helpless by his paranoia. He now is doubtful of the whole world. He does not trust anyone and if it had not been for his fool and servant’s (Kent disguised as Caius) insistence, he would roam the wild in the terrible storm without them. He does not see his lapse in judgment and instead lets his paranoia takeover him completely at this point. Never do we see him emerge as his former self, the Great King, who once ruled Britain that affirms the fact that his actions are purely based on his old age (Hess). Realizing that he trusted the wrong daughters, he should be filled with determination to fix his actions. The fact that Lear fails to do so ensures his fate being controlled by every other character except him. This becomes a point when Lear can no longer make any rash decisions solely because his fate shifts out of his hands and into those given undeserving power by him.
The analysis of Lear’s character is the only way to understand the themes of the play. Even though he makes mistakes, it is these actions that reveal the true natures of those around him and carry the narrative forward. His old age, paranoia, and the sense of entitlement, despite so casually giving away his kingdom foolishly, are what land him in trouble in the first place. He is the central character, and it is the key to understand that no matter how foolish his decisions are, it is due to his actions that the rest of the events happen in the play. Till the end of the play, he does not see that he was responsible for Cordelia’s death. When he carries Cordelia’s lifeless form in his arms:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.
Lear is as responsible for Cordelia’s death as Edmund and Albany are, but because he is delusional and paranoid of everyone’s actions except his, he blames the cruelty of the world but not himself. Lear remains till the end of the play, a delusional and paranoid man who sees only what he wishes to see.
Holly, Marcia. ‘King Lear: The Disguised And Deceived’. Shakespeare Quarterly 24. 2 (2014): n. pag. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Shakespeare, William, and Jay L Halio. The Tragedy Of King Lear. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.
Hess, Noel. ” King Lear and Some Anxieties of Old Age.” British Journal of Medical Psychology 60. 3 (1987): 209-15. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Chadwick, Paul, M. J Birchwood, and Peter Trower. Cognitive Therapy For Delusions, Voices, And Paranoia. Chichester: Wiley, 1996. Print.