Viewed from a psychoanalytical perspective, King Lear is a Shakespearian tragedy involving madness, in more than one sense, and the causes and effects of this. There are many individual concepts to explore, and this exposition will investigate the following: the madness in Lear and how it progresses, absence of the mother, and the sexual relationship between Lear and his daughters. Lear lacks responsibility in terms of actively and willingly approaching his situations and confrontations blindly. This and his lack of self awareness and lack of awareness toward others, prove that the king is not a man “more sinned against than sinning”.

It seems quite clear that Shakespeare uses the word “mad” for at least the first part of the play in the sense of “extremely angry”, and only later, when Lear does lose touch with reality, does it then mean “not in his right mind” (insane). Lear is moving on a continuum that begins with extreme anger and progresses to a hallucinatory world. It is here Lear begins to recognise his wrongdoings, and why he is not a man “more sinned against than sinning”.

Lear’s madness is often seen simply as a man losing his head, but a closer psychoanalytical reading suggests that Lear’s madness is much more sharply focused in cause and effect, a particular manifestation of psychological breakdown carefully developed by Shakespeare. The following statements justify Lear’s madness, and although tragic, his mental state is a contributing factor in the King’s rash decisions and how he is not a man “more sinned against than sinning”.

The very first suggestion that Lear is confusing reality is in fact a jest. He pretends not to know Goneril – “Your name, fair gentlewoman?” (1.5.). He is actually playing the fool, with the Fool, and continuing the fool’s jesting. The next is a critical line – “Let me not be mad/keep me in temper” (1.5.37). Obviously Lear is using the word “mad” in the sense of extreme anger. Willing to expect loss of temper, the selfish king is not a man “more sinned against than sinning.”

It is Edgar who first introduces the idea of genuinely mad people – “The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who with roaring voices strike” (2.3.14-15) (Bedlam means lunatic asylum) The disguise that Edgar adopts – of a “lunatic” – is materially different from the “madness” that Lear will descend into. As is clear from the lack of coherent deductive content in EdgarТs feigned speech, he is taking on the disguise of someone who, in contemporary times, has an inherent severe mental disorder.

Lear at this stage is simply under the sway of extreme anger. Lear himself then makes this distinction, talking about Cornwall – “We are not ourselves/When nature, being oppress’d, commands the mind/To suffer with the body.” (2.4.100-103) The point is that physical or emotional suffering comes before the “madness” and is a cause of it. In a way Lear is allowing this destruction, and this weakness in his character suggest a man who is not “more sinned against than sinning”.

It is Regan, talking to Lear, who actually makes the connection between extreme anger and the loss of reason that can result – “Nature in you stands on the very verge of his confine” (2.4.139-140). (Evidence supporting Goneril’s dislike of her father – “Of other your new pranks” (1.4.193) Goneril’s terminology reflects her attitude toward her father, and how she feels he misbehaves childishly.)

In the same scene Lear still fears uncontrollable anger – “I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad” (2.4.211); this concept – of extreme emotion, rather than biological loss of reason – is reinforced by two other characters.

Gloucester points out – “The King is in high rage”. (2.4.288) and Kent combines cause and effect in his comment to the Gentleman – “how unnatural and bemaddening sorrow/The King has cause to plain” (3.1.). The King’s madness at this point suggest he is not a man “more sinned against than sinning”.

Later in the play, Albany will recognise the connection between “mad” as extreme anger, and “mad” – loss of reason – as the consequence of that extremity, when he accuses Goneril of making Lear mad (5.2.). Lear recognises the danger of extreme anger turning into loss of reason. He says to the fool – “O fool, I shall go mad!” (2.4.). Take note of the critical change of language here. “Mad” has been used in conjunction with “make me mad”, make me really angry, as in our modern sense – an outside person or factor causing the extreme anger. Here Lear uses the expression “I’m going mad”. The factor is internal , and just as we would use this to express a fear that we are losing our reason, so surely Lear at this moment is using the word not in the sense of extreme anger, but in the sense of the loss of sanity.

Lear then starts his descent into a loss of connection with reality.
He himself recognises this – “My wits begin to turn” (3.1.65). This is very different language to describe his state of mind, and for confirmation, this is exactly the point where the storm, symbol of transformation and of raw nature (as opposed to the more rational, human-created environment of the castle/court he has just left) starts to work on him. His inability to overcome this state of mind proves Lear is a man not “more sinned against than sinning”.

Indeed, Lear equates the storm with his state of mind – “The tempest in my mind/Doth from my senses take all feeling else/Save from what beats there.” (3.4.12-15). That the transformation is not complete, but a gradual one, is indicated by Lear’s own recognition of the dangers of extreme anger unhinging reason – “O, that way madness lies; let me shun that!” (3.4.21).

The real sign that Lear’s outwardly directed emotions are turning inward into a state of mind that loses connection with external reality is his single-mindedness in talking about the wickedness of his daughters, when with Edgar and the Fool in 3.4. He has lost connection with those he is talking to, this being evidence for the statement he is not “a man more sinned against than sinning”. This situation is made all the more disturbing by the presence of Edgar feigning a different kind of madness.

To confirm the situation, Lear then tear’s off all his clothes. Kent now recognises that the situation has changed, in language that makes this change quite clear – “His wits begin “Тunsettle” (3,4,146), and then tells us of that continuum from extreme anger to loss of the sense of reality – “All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience”. (3.6.5). By 3.6., Lear has lost all connection with reality, and by 4.6. he has totally withdrawn into an imaginary world of his own.

A pattern of ageing is evident in King Lear, he is moving from the first half of his life into the second half of his life. This movement is characterised by Jung as a reversal of everything held consciously true in the first half of life. Lear begins this journey as a contrasting example of Jung’s “extroverted, thinking” type, and so must become the opposite “introverted, intuitive” type. This general guideline effectively informs “Lear’s transition from a wilful, almost tyrannical figure, who desires to control the reality of the external world by imposing his rationality on those around him, to a withdrawn old man who is unconnected to the external world.” The King’s egotistical actions led him to a dysfunctional mental state, justifying that he is in no way a “man more sinned against than sinning”.

Perhaps Lear acts the way he does because of the absence of having a mother, he may have missed out all together on Freud’s theory of the “Oedipal” stage. (stage in early childhood where young child’s sexual desire for the parent collides with the competition, rivalry and overwhelming power of the parent of the same sex. According to Freudian theory, the ghosts of this Oedipal crisis haunt us our entire lives. ) All his earlier noted childlike deranged behaviour and statements make for good evidence to support this theory, and the statement that he is a man “more sinned against than sinning”.

“Despite the absence of literal mothers, King Lear records the horrific discovery of the suffocating mother at the centre of masculine authority and the terrible vengeance taken upon her. Lear’s confrontation with his daughters “leads him to the mother ostensibly occluded by the play: in recognising his daughters as part of himself he will be led out to recognise not only his terrifying dependence on female forces outside himself but also an equally terrifying femaleness within himself – a femaleness that he will come to call “mother” (2.4.56). Lear’s “naked vulnerability” can only be expressed by simultaneously allowing the self-preserving and self-enclosing male rage that provokes it.”

A Freudian argument is that Cordelia, as the third daughter, is death itself, and that the “silent goddess” who destroys Lear is the last of the three forms his relations with women must take. Since nearly everything in Freud’s database relates back to the Oedipal theory, it’s not surprising that Lear, an elderly patriarch who manages to attain a true transcendence of his personal miseries, should nevertheless be seen this way – “it is in vain that the old man yearns after the love of woman as once he had it from his mother; the third of the Fates alone” will take him into her arms.”

In the many notes available on King Lear, it is often after the above theories where another idea, the one of Lear’s sexual indications with his daughters, begin to be questioned.

In the beginning of the play, Goneril and Regan use their sexuality, flattery and false praises to manipulate Lear into seeing them as loyal and honest, which are actually true qualities found in their banished sister, Cordelia. Goneril reflects and plays upon her father’s desires when she pledges to her father a love “that makes breath poor, and speech unable” (1.1.55) And Regan promptly chooses to follow her sister’s footsteps by focusing on “my very deed of love” (1.1.66) Lear’s accusations invariably sexualize his daughters when they refuse to defer him, although he was the one who commanded them to perform their love for him. This in terms of society is definitely a sin, and King Lear is definitely not a man “more sinned against than sinning”.

An argument put forward by Janet Alderman reads that Goneril and Regan are “invented” by Lear’s “need”, and she argues that they are “the cannibalistic children that Lear’s own rage has made. They are distorted children of his own appetite, born from his hunger for Cordelia”. Again his greed represents the reasoning for the statement that he is most certainly not a Уman more sinned against than sinning.”

It does not seem totally clear why the sisters’ cruelty to their father should be related to sexual desire, or why Lear should speak of “divorcing the tomb” of his dead wife, unless madness may be used to account for all his excesses. Yet he is not “mad” in the first act of the play, in which he threatens Goneril with the “kindness” of her sister: “I have another daughter/I have cast off forever” (1.4.327)

Lear is not “more sinned against than sinning”. He has managed to reduce himself from a noble King to a shelterless victim of his own misjudgements. He comes to realise that he is a mere mortal capable of mistakes. All of his own choices lead to his tragic misfortune, and not being “more sinned against than sinning”. His journey from sane to insane is parallel to the subplot. Lear is blind to his enemies deception when he holds the throne, yet after enduring months of painful realisation he manages to see the wrongdoings in Goneril and Regan, and his foolishness in banishing his truly loyal Cordelia. In this sense, King is not a man “more sinned against than sinning”, but certainly suffers by having to watch his favourite die.


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