The phrase trinity of madness is very much heard in connexion with King Lear. This phrase simply means three mad persons which in the context of King Lear are Lear, Edgar, and Lear’s Fool. Shakespeare consummately assembles them together on the heath in the storm scenes to show among others the three types of madness, semi madness or feigned madness. Each of these mad characters belongs to different strata, and stations of society, and each type of madness differs from the other in its nature, degree, and purpose. A critical examination of each type will clarify the issue.
Coming to Lear’s madness first, we are confronted with the wranglings of eminent critics as to the exact moment when Lear went mad. Dr. Bukhnill, a medical authority, is of the opinion that Lear is mad from the beginning of the play up to its end with lucid intervals in between Bradley holds that despite the physical and mental ravages of old age, Lear was in full possession of his senses. Some critics say that Lear becomes mad at the moment he meets Edgar in the storm.
In dealing with madness, we should never forget that irresponsibility goes with madness. Lear’s division of kingdom in the beginning of the play is cited as an act of madness, being taken as totally irresponsible based on an absurd trial of affection. This madness-from-the-start thesis is countered by. Bradley who shows that the original plan of Lear was not half so insane as it turned out to be. He had already decided on the territories to be assigned to his three daughters and hoped to rest in peace with Cordelia. One may challenge the wisdom of a reigning king to abdicate but the scheme as made by him does not speak of madness in any sense. Cordelia’s stubbornness undoes the plan and we find Lear in an onrush of anger changing his plans in a hurry and in the process showing his weakness of character which was dominated by an “opposeless will”. As a monarch in absolute control of the state for many decades, he was not expected to display much patience or self-control at four score years or more. Thus at the start, we have a Lear who is old, impulsive, irritable, and a self-willed king whose opposeless will brooks no opposition or unpleasant truth.
From Cordelia’s stubbornness, Lear comes to face the authority of Goneril, which shocks him more, accustomed as he was to exercise authority himself. The anger and bitterness in his heart goes up as he feels the remorse in banishing his good Cordelia and he utters an awful curse at Goneril. Treated similarly by Regan, Lear’s impotent wrath knows no bounds. He rushes out into the storm with the fool as his only companion. His wits now begin to turn. His senses have still not fully left him because we find him frantically trying to drive away from his mind all thoughts of his ungrateful daughters and exclaiming pathetically, “That way madness lies.” The external shock administered to him by the pelting of the pitiless storm, and the stimulus of imitation provided by Edgar disguised as Tom O’Bedlam complete the maddening process by shattering the old man’s brain which is now seized by hallucinations. He suffers now from an obsession that poor Tom’s present wretched state is due to the vile machinations of his “ingrateful daughters” and the forces of Nature, the storm and the lashing rains have hatched a conspiracy against them. This is followed by the mock trial of the daughters with Tom and the Fool as justicers.
Medical authorities find a method in the madness. There is in every madness a contradiction which is also apparent to us in the case of Lear. The contradiction lies in his abdication of kingdom without abdicating his authority. But there is also an association of ideas in each madness very much as normal men have their own association of ideas in the healthy working existence. The association of ideas that runs through the mind of mad Lear centers around his “ingrateful daughters” and the exercise of unopposed power. The other medical aspect of Lear’s madness lies in the necessity of sleep–a recurrent theme in Shakespeare. Even before the final shattering of his brains, perhaps a little sleep and rest could have saved Lear’s reason, Instead, the infectious touch of a gibbering Edgar proved the last straw on the back of Learean reason, In this connexion, it is well to remember that Lear regains his reason after an artificially induced sleep. Insomnia is a common accompaniment of madness for which, therefore, sleep is a sound medicine.
The kingly lunacy of Lear is a genuine madness progressing in stages as stated above. As against that we have a nobleman in Edgar feigning madness with a definite purpose. He deliberately lays the part of a Bedlam beggar which means a “Partially convalescent lunatic, once an inmate of Bedlam !” The refrain which he frequently uses : “Poor Tom’s a-cold” was the badge of this tribe. Edgar assumes this pose and position to protect himself from the wrath of his father, Gloucester. In him, we are given the picture of a nobleman turned mad and a beggar. The nature of his artificial madness is made clear by his many asides and also by his slightly artificial talks over fiends and vices. He also throws off his assumed madness when it is no longer needed.
The Fool and his madness belong to a very different category. He is neither a king nor a rich noble but a domestic servant enjoying a privilege by virtue of his profession. Some people hold that the Fool in King Lear is absolutely sane. This is not correct as the Fool is a very clever variation of court clowns who were generally drawn from the ranks of naturals. As we know on medical authority, a natural is very often sharp intellectually in many matters, and this is the thing with the Fool. The strange mixture of simplicity and acuteness in the mental make-up of the Fool goes well with the concept of the natural from the rank of which he is drawn. There is much wit and shrewdness in his talk, but the pronounced vein of whimsicality that we encounter in him is not always assumed. We observe a tendency on his part to disjointed thinking of no particular consequence. The law of association of ideas plays queer tricks with him and we find him uttering truths in a cloud of nonsense. The mixture of sense and non-sense, of sanity and insanity, in his conversations, keeps him apart from both Lear who goes completely mad, and Edgar for whom lunacy is a pretension for the sake of his protection. All his endeavours to help his master in the hours of direst distress are “efforts of a being to whom a consistent and responsible course of action, nay even a responsible use of language, is at the best of times difficult”( Bradley ). Thus is the nature of madness of the Fool, that quick-witted but not whole-witted lad whose only concern remains to the end his great mad master.
Thus in analyzing the trinity of madness, we get more than a glimpse into the golden world of Lear. It is contrasted against the wicked world of satanic sisters and their paramour, Edmund. They also serve to intensify the tragic gloom and pathos not only of the stupendous storm scenes but also of the play as a whole. The madness of the Fool provides much of the poetry of the play against the stark background of Learean madness whose uninterrupted sway on the stage would otherwise become unbearable on the other hand Edgar’s pretended madness has unique dramatic effects. First, it accentuates and completes the king’s total madness and then in his naked state, reminds old Lear that man, the unaccommodated man, is finally a poor forked animal. This is certainly a step towards the regeneration of Lear advancing the theme of redemption as finally unfolded in the play.
Also read; Structure of “King Lear” by Shakespeare