Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Madness of Lear

On Saturday I attended a superb production of King Lear at the Old Globe in San Diego's Balboa Park. Sample this luscious insult:

What dost thou know me for?

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.

Lear's madness is already the topic of conversation in the first scene of Act I, when our main character retires as king in all but title, leaving him to the tender mercies of his two scheming eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril. Lear compounds his bad judgment by impulsively disowning his youngest and most beloved daughter, Cordelia. When his faithful retainer Kent objects  - "When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?" - Lear, in a rage, banishes him.

In private, Regan and Goneril take note of their father's mental instability, knowing full well they may be his next target, and the scheming begins in earnest.

Later on, the houseguest from Hell (Lear) meets the hostess from Hell (Goneril). In a rage, Lear takes leave, cursing his daughter thusly:

Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her!

Meanwhile, his fool counsels:

thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,
when thou gavest thy golden one away.

Lear, in a moment of clarity, realizes he has wronged his youngest daughter. "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven," he pleads. "Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!"

But Regan turns him out (in the company of his fool) into the stormy night, a broken man, raging into the fury:

Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man

Out on the heath, Lear encounters Edgar, a victim of a frame-up and fugitive from his father's wrath, disguised as a mad man. A surreal dialogue ensues, with Lear referring to the fake madman as "philosopher" and "learned Theban," a conversation that continues indoors, with the fool fitting right in. In an aside, Edgar empathizes with Lear, confessing:

My tears begin to take his part so much,
They'll mar my counterfeiting.

Soon after, in an ironic twist of fate, our storm-drenched band encounters Edgar's father and dupe in the frame-up, Gloucester, who has recently had his eyes plucked out and consequently fails to recognize his wronged son. He takes a liking to the youth, and engages him as his guide. In a commentary on the sad state of affairs in the world, he utters: 

'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind.

The action picks up further afield in Dover, with Lear thoroughly mad and disheveled. Cordelia and her army manage to get to her father before the armies of her scheming sisters. A doctor advises Cordelia, watching over her sleeping father:

Our foster-nurse of nature is repose.

On awakening, a more settled Lear reconciles with his daughter. The doctor advises:

Be comforted, good madam: the great rage,
You see, is kill'd in him: and yet it is danger
To make him even o'er the time he has lost.
Desire him to go in; trouble him no more
Till further settling.

The good old fashioned rest cure, based on the ancient principle that much of mental illness is stress-based. A number of years ago, I came across an article in the very first issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry (then the American Journal of Insanity) from 1844 that noted with approval:

Now we confess, almost with shame, that although near two centuries and a half have passed since Shakespeare thus wrote; we have very little to add to his method of treating the insane. To produce sleep and to quiet the mind by medical and moral treatment, to avoid all unkindness, and when patients begin to convalesce, to guard, as he directs, against everything likely to disturb their minds and to cause a relapse is now considered the best and nearly the only essential treatment.

Alas, tragedy is about to unfold. We were watching the production under a night sky, with the ghostly eucalyptus trees as a backdrop. Lear appeared as if from the trees, carrying his beloved dead daughter. The only sound that could be heard was the sickening thud in our hearts.

No one does literature better than Shakespeare. Ditto for psychology.

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