The theme of madness in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Othello
In the works of William Shakespeare there are many themes that are common amongst the bard’s plays. It seems that Shakespeare was fascinated with certain aspects of human nature, including love, marriage, friendship, and tragedy; however, one of the most interesting of these universal themes is that of madness. The theme of madness is present in many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, but perhaps two of the most famous of these is King Lear and Othello.
The main character in each of these plays is plagued by madness and we, as the audience, are able to watch each character descend into madness, creating a storyline full of tragedy and intrigue. The descent into madness by Othello and King Lear are written skillfully by the writer, and the theme of madness becomes the key focus of each story because it is the vehicle by which each play leads to its conclusion.
The play King Lear follows an aging ruler whose dysfunctional family is torn apart by greed and lust for power. In this play we see the slow descent of Lear as he realizes that his family had turned against him and are not the way that he thinks they are. King Lear is a play wrought with emotions and tragedy, and this is not more apparent than in Act 2 of the play. In this particular part of the play, we can visibly see the character fall into madness. He does so because he cannot trust the children he dearly loved, cannot understand why his daughter’s are turning their back on him, and is upset by their greed. As Lear descends from denial to rage to isolation we see a man who is not a mean ruler or someone that we cannot understand, we begin to see a man who wants love and acceptance and finds none from the daughters that he so dearly loves. Shakespeare creates this madness as a natural progression because of the situations around him. In this scene we are best able to understand the complexity of King Lear himself as he shows the audience the bitterness and pain that resides in the main character. Shakespeare’s talent is to create real people from words on a page and he succeeds in doing that in this play.
Like King Lear, the main character in Othello also feels the affects of deceit from his inner circle, in this case deceit that is created by the motives of his advisor, Iago. Iago sets out to drive Othello into insanity by setting him up to believe that all of the people that he holds dear, including his wife Desdemona, are betraying him. Iago, through sheer trickery and manipulation of the faith entrusted in him by Othello, takes great pains to convince Othello that his good friend, Cassio, is having an affair with his wife, Desdemona. With each passing day, Othello becomes more and more suspicious of his friend and wife, not because there is really something happening between them, but because Iago puts doubts into his mind so that even the smallest interaction between his friend and wife begins, in Othello’s mind, to look like proof of Iago’s advice. Othello begins to fall into despair and then madness because of this.
Both Othello and Lear can trace their descent into madness from denial to rage and then to isolation. Once each character perceives the isolation as a finality, each character then quickly descends into madness. The journey to madness for Lear begins when he becomes defensive of his daughter, not wanting to believe what he is hearing from Kent, who has been put in the stocks, to Lear’s dismay: “What’s he that hath so much thy place mistook / To set thee here?” Kent’s response is that it was Lear’s own daughter and son, and to this Lear becomes extremely defiant: “They durst not do ‘t/ They could not, would not do ‘t; ’tis worse than murder/ To do upon respect such violent outrage” (Act 2, scene iv). In this simple discussion we see the denial in King Lear, who has always trusted his children and loved them dearly. Lear’s denial turns to a sense of betrayal as he finally begins to accept the truth, saying, “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!/ Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow/ Thy element’s below! Where is this daughter? (Act II, scene iv)”. Just as Othello feels the sting of betrayal, so does Lear who senses that if what he finds out about his loved ones is really true, then he has to accept that he has been betrayed by those that he trusted. The betrayal for Othello is double-sided, on the other hand, because while he perceives the betrayal as being on the part of Cassio , Roderigo, and Desdemona, the true betrayer is Iago. While Othello does seem to be in denial about the supposed suspicions of his advisor, he quickly begins to believe the lies as Iago sets up situations that would prove to Othello that his wife had a lover and that his friends were out to cuckold him. The fight that Iago orchestrates between Roderigo and Cassio over Desdemona, for instance, helps to prove to Othello that his wife is in love with Cassio, thus changing his denial to rage.
The rage experienced by both Othello and Lear leads to their eventual madness because it puts them on the slippery slope to not being able to trust anyone around them and having to question everything. In King Lear, the element of rage becomes apparent in Lear’s demeanor when his children refuse to see him, giving him excuses of being tired and sick. Lear continues to rage, crying out that he demands a different excuse and that he is entitled to speak with his daughter and son-in-law. He continues his rage, saying, “Vengeance! plague! death! confusion!/ Fiery? what quality?
Why, Gloucester, Gloucester,/ I’ld speak with the Duke of Cornwall and his wife (Act II, scene iv).” In Othello, Desdemona quickly becomes the focus of many jealous rages on the part of the Moor, who starts to question everything and everyone, except for the one person that is out to harm him, Iago. Othello also becomes so full of rage that he sets out to murder his wife because he is so filled with jealousy over her supposed affair. Othello goes to her and says, “If you bethink yourself of any crime Unreconcil’d as yet to heaven and grace/ Solicit for it straight/ I would not kill thy unprepared spirit”. It is in this moment that we see Othello’s rage take over, but while many can argue that this is his madness, there is another point at which Othello truly descends into madness out of the rage that he experiences.
In each Othello and King Lear there comes a moment when they descend into madness, not because of their rage but because of the isolation they feel. The real trigger for Lear is Regan’s refusal to take him in and care for him, despite his strong love for her. The arrival of Goneril, and the subsequent insistence from Regan that he return to her sister drives him into a state of desperation and feelings of isolation, and he begins to show his frailty through his words. His rage worn off, he begins to show how deeply his feelings of isolation have become as he says, “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” (Act II, scene iv). He has finally realized that he is unwanted by the one person that he felt would be his salvation and in this moment he shows his sadness and his feelings of abandonment. He is frustrated and frightened, suddenly, because he realizes just how alone he is and it is from this point that he lets himself go mad with grief and loneliness. The King Lear that exits this scene is not the man that entered it; his spirit has been made to feel distraught because of the rejection of his daughter and what he perceives to be betrayal.
For Othello, the moment of insanity comes after he has already killed his wife. Feeling he was justified in murdering her because of her infidelity, he confronts her maid Emilia with what he has done, and she quickly refutes him and confronts her lover, Iago. It is at this point that Othello realizes that his demise was orchestrated by the one person that he continued to trust through the entire fiasco and that not only had he murdered the love of his life, but Roderigo was dead as well. Seeing his fatal error, and feeling the sting of betrayal, Othello falls into insanity at this moment, faced with what he had done in rage and feeling the complete isolation of having gotten rid of the only people that were truly dedicated to him and being betrayed by his friend Iago. In his final scene, Othello says, “When you shall these unlucky deeds relate/ Speak of them as they are. Nothing extenuate/Nor set down in malice. Then must you speak/Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well;/Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,/Perplex’d in the extreme, of one whose hand… threw a pearl away …”. Othello’s insanity forces him to kill himself.
In these two famous Shakespearean tragedies the main characters face madness because of the betrayal and dishonesty of the people around them. With King Lear, it is the deceit of his daughters and sons-in-laws that send him into insanity and with Othello it is his dearest friend, Iago, who creates the illusion that the world is against him, therefore sending him into madness. The theme of madness becomes the main focus of each play because it gives the audience a look into how fragile humankind’s sanity really is and how fragile each of us are when it comes to those that we love. Shakespeare is able to create characters who are not just insane, but is able to allow the audience to watch the progression towards madness by each character so that we can feel that we are truly experiencing it along with the characters.
Clark, William G., and William A. Wright, eds. The Unabridged
William Shakespeare. Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1997.
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