Reason in madness, madness in reason; this double paradox is used throughout Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, and demonstrates the downfall of both the King and a family of greatness. Lear’s family and kingdom demonstrate a parallel as they are torn apart and conflicts arise immediately.

When a person unfit to lead is given power, chaos will ensue, and this is precisely what happens in the play.  To reiterate, the paradox explains how the sane characters act with insanity, and the characters that have gone mad, show more insight and act normal-minded. King Lear is a perfect example of a character that reveals this double paradox to be true.

Before he goes mad, he banishes both Kent and Cordelia; however, during his lapse insanity, he sees the error of his ways and grows as a King and as a father.

In the beginning, Lear displays perhaps one of his most fatal errors in the entire play. When Cordelia refuses to lie as her sisters did of her affection for him, he refuses to have her in his kingdom. A quote from Act I shows Cordelia being honest to her father.

Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me…

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.” (Act I, scene I lines 94-104)

Cordelia clearly explains that she will always be there for his father and that she loves him as any true daughter should. Lear is so blind to Regan’s and Goneril’s false love, that Cordelia’s affection seems to pale in comparison. He then divides his land in two and gives each half to one of his unfaithful daughters. It is already clear here, that he displays unclear and rash decision-making before he goes mad.

Any man fit to be King knows that a strong empire cannot be divided in two so easily and keep its glory. Kent has witnessed Lear’s decision, and as his loyal friend tries to help him understand his mistake before it is too late. Another quote from Act I has Kent trying to reason with the King.

“Do, kill thy physician, and the fee bestow

Upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy gift,

Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,

I’ll tell thy dost evil.”(Act I, scene I lines 63-66)

Kent clearly asks him to take back his gift to both Albany and Cornwall, as he knows it will be the demise of his kingdom.  Lear will have none of this and quickly banishes his most loyal friend, only reinforcing the idea that he is acting like a madman, while he still has his sanity.

Not only does Lear prove that he shows madness in reason, but throughout the play, he demonstrates some reason after he has gone mad. After Regan and Goneril treat him with disrespect and deviate from their promises of eternal love, he sees the error in giving them so much power and leaving himself without any.

When Lear made this mistake, he left himself completely reliant on his two daughters that could not be trusted. This mistake coincides with the fact that he banished his one truthful and loving daughter, Cordelia. He is left completely helpless, and his daughters exile him from their homes, the same castles Lear previously gave them. This quote has Lear reacting to the fact that he has been thrown into a dreadful storm by his daughters.

Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand

For lifting food to‘t? But I will punish home.

No, I will weep no more. In such a night

To shut me out! Pour on, I will endure.  (Act III, scene iv lines15-18)

It’s clear that he understands the mistake he made, and that his daughters feed him lies until they get what they need. In between his fits of insanity, Lear speaks of Goneril’s and Regan’s betrayals. It is apparent that in some ways he can see more truth than when he had his sanity, an obvious sign that King Lear shows much reason in madness.

A different perspective of Lear’s obvious reason for madness is when he is in the forest enduring the storm, with the help of Kent and the Fool. When they find the hut to use as shelter, Lear encounters a handful of homeless people in the same situation he finds himself in. This quote shows Lear’s feeling towards the homeless of his kingdom.

“Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm…

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just. (Act III, scene iv lines 28-36)

Lear can see that the impoverished citizens of his kingdom stand no chance of survival. He realizes that he had the resources to help these people when he was in power. Lear understands that these people cannot afford food, shelter, or clothes, while he and his family live in luxury.

A fact that he chose to ignore throughout his reign of power, and most importantly, while he was capable of making sane decisions. Once Lear has lost his mind, he comprehends the issue with much more wisdom and knowledge than before. This isn’t the only instance where Lear demonstrates improved wisdom throughout his spell of madness, here is a quote of Lear showing more insight and wisdom.

“Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;

Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold…

Take that of me, my friend, who have the power

To seal th’accuser’s lips. (Act IV, scene vi lines 152-158)

Lear is considering the sins of the rich and wealthy, in comparison to the sins committed by the lowly and poor. He understands that someone with wealth and influence will never be charged with the crimes they have committed, whereas the less influential citizens, will be charged and many times sentenced to death.

Lear is quoted as saying everyone sins and that no one should be sentenced unfairly. A very true remark, yet different from the way he ruled his kingdom while rational. While under the grips of mental illness, Lear is analyzing his kingdom and the way it is being run, and he makes very wise comments on how it should be improved. This quote is Edgar’s response to Lear’s surprising outbursts of good sense.

“(aside) O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in

madness!” (Act IV, scene vi line 162)

Edgar is amazed by the fact that Lear is making these comments, as he is unmistakably insane. He even uses the statement reason in madness, to perfectly explain the fact that Lear is proving himself to be wiser than before despite his insanity.

Lear ultimately proved that sometimes sanity is in the eye of the beholder as he made the grave error of banishing Cordelia and Kent, however, he became a better father and King during his break from sanity. While Lear is sensible he is blind to the fact that Cordelia is the only truthful daughter, and would care for him should he need it.

Once Lear is completely mad, he can finally see that his kingdom is flawed and he should have done more to help the starved citizens. He is also aware of the fact that there is corruption everywhere, and that the poor citizens are treated unjustly. In reflection, it has become very clear that the famous oxy-moron penned by Shakespeare is a perfect encapsulation of King Lear himself.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


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