Air, Water, Fire, Woman; An Analysis on the Psychology of King Lear

King Lear

Throughout his reign, Lear has grown to harbor a distaste for women precipitated by his mental illness. This distaste is exacerbated into full blown misogyny by the women in his life and culminates in Lear’s speech in Act III Scene II. His comparison of his daughters to the wild elements, his relationship with the fool, and his alarming mental state illuminate his discontent with the female race. This discontent with women is greatly unfounded and highly sexist if compared to the actions of men, but such is life in Lear’s England. With this unfounded sexism, Shakespeare seems to make a larger argument about gender relations, primogeniture, and the unfair bias in the favor of men.

While meandering in the ensuing storm after being ejected by his daughter Goneril, Lear makes associations between the wild elements and his daughters. Lear addresses the natural elements, “Spit, fire! spout, rain! … I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness” (III.ii.13-15). Lear claims that he has never wronged the elements and is not resentful of the storm and the weather’s misconduct. Lear proceeds, “I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children, You owe me no subscription” (III.ii.16-17). Here the king continues by saying that he didn’t wrong his daughters either, yet he is at the mercy of their unkindness. Lear sets up a comparison between his daughters and the natural elements; both being wild and uncontrollable, pitting men at their mercy. Lear becomes so irate that he curses his “pernicious” (III.ii.21) daughters and beckons the elements to smite him and the mold that creates “ingrateful man” (III.ii.9). Lear feels as though his daughters are ungrateful and out of control, with nothing he can do to yield substantial results. However, the problem of nature versus nurture presents itself here. His daughters act only in the manner in which they were raised by their father. If this is the case, which is more than likely, Lear has no basis to complain, as this is a problem he himself has created. Lear is also very unreasonable in his expectations of his daughters. Lear believes that because he gave his daughters his lands, they are obligated to be obedient, or it is somehow implied. Lear expects that Goneril can house him and his accompanying half-army, comprising of 100 knights. Regan attempts to compromise with Lear and settle on 25 knights, but the king refuses to budge, and instead chooses to drive himself out into the storm. This is not an end result typical of a rational individual.

The unwillingness of Lear to compromise, his past behavior, and his manic episode in the storm reveal troubling aspects concerning his mental health. Lear asks that the storm, “singe his white head” (III.ii.6), which would symbolically represent the complete destruction of his sanity. He has run out of patience and begins to go into a mania cursing his daughters and calling out to Nature’s forces. Dr. Somasundaram Ottilingam of the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, in his article, diagnoses King Lear with, “brief reactive psychosis with a background of organic mental disorder accompanied by attacks of what could be described today as acute mania as demonstrated by his faulty judgment, disorientation and irrational behavior.” Even Lear’s fool, who, for the entirety of the play has been joking, laughing, and throwing around quips, urges that the king reason with his daughters and go inside. The fool, who establishes himself as a reasonably sane and wise character after he has thrown out all sorts of adages, reasons, “Here’s a night pities nether wise men nor fools” (III.ii.12). With his fool urging him to go make amends and avoid the storm, we sense that Lear’s sanity has gone awry. Lear’s opinion of his daughters is most likely a result of his mental illness and his psychosis may very well be the overall source of his misogyny.

The fool’s role also serves to highlight a very thought-provoking aspect of Lear’s character. Lear seems to not listen to anyone or consider any sort of advice, as seen in the case of the banished Kent. Lear establishes early that he cares only for what he wants to hear, giving lands to Goneril and Regan for kissing his feet, while honest Cordelia is sent off to France. He does not take flak from anyone, and yet he always bears an open ear to what his fool says. The fool spouts some very out-of-line comments towards the king, yet Lear takes it all in good stride and laughs along. If his daughters were to say something along the lines of the fool, Lear would undoubtedly fly into a rage as he is wont to do throughout the play. This sets up a juxtaposition of just what men and women are allowed to do in the presence of the king. What if Lear’s daughters had instead been sons? He would recognize that they had some sovereignty after giving them the lands. Clearly this is very little method in it if neither Kent nor his daughters can instill sense into Lear’s mind, but his fool can. He bears an endearing view of the fool, asking the fool if he is cold during the storm, and showing remorse when he claims his fool has been hanged. Lear likely views the fool as a proxy son, one that his wife could not bear him.

One final point of contention is Lear’s wife, who, aside from one brief and vague account, is never mentioned in the play. She never bore him any sons and consequently no real heirs to the kingdom of England. This supports the notion that Lear projects the character of a son upon the fool. Perhaps Lear’s distaste for women springs from the discontent that his wife never bore him sons, though this is nothing she could control. Lear’s psychosis would indicate that he would, in fact, become angry over something neither he nor anyone else has control over, like his wife bearing him no sons. We have returned full circle to the comparison between women and the elements. He cannot control the elements, nor can he control the outcome of the gender of the children his wife bears. Lear calls upon the elements to smite his white-haired head, just as he subconsciously believes his wife smote him with daughters and not sons.

Lear’s unrealistic expectations, brought upon by his mental illness, leave a sour taste in his mouth with regard to his outlook on the women in his life. He expects his daughters, who now hold sovereignty over his lands, to be ready to accommodate his every whim. When this is hardly the case, Lear degenerates into a psychotic mania and curses his daughters and asks the ensuing tempest to smite him. Compounded by the lack of male offspring, Lear’s distaste can be summed up as blatant misogyny. Lear’s relationship with the fool and his daughters reveals an unfair double standard in Lear’s England, one that questions gender roles and challenges the established norms.

Works Cited

Ottilingam, Somasundaram. “The Psychiatry of King Lear.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Medknow Publications. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2900000/&gt;.

Truskinovsky, Alexander M. “Literary Psychiatric Observation and Diagnosis Through the Ages: King Lear Revisited.” Medscape. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/431614_2&gt;.

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