Dementia In King Lear

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Madness and nature often go in same path in strange ways. Nature can lead man to madness and madness can take a man to nature, in Shakespeare’s King Lear both of these were true. William Shakespeare was one of the most intuitive and a sharp observer of human race it is evident that King Lear’s character could have been shakespeare’s observation of Dementia of his era. It is shown that Shakespeare positions Lear on the brink of madness from the very first. Lear’s madness is one of the root strife in the play, when deeply analyse the character, one can see that his madness is already seeded in his nature because of his age. Lear does not suffer the any general madness of Shakespeare’s day, but a more specific version of mental illness. King Lear exhibits all the signs of an elderly person dealing with a progressive Lewy Body Dementia. Studying Lear’s character in the context of being diagnosed with an actual mental illness proves two things. First, his mental condition allows to justify his rash decisions and actions and secondly it show how mental illness were treated in that time.

In Dennis Seloke’s article The Aging Mind: Deciphering Alzheimer’s Disease & Its Antecedents, he asserts that “In the popular mind, and even among scientists and philosophers, the idea that great age inevitably brought about an inability to think clearly was widely accepted…reinterpretation of the nature of the ageing mind has profound implications on both the personal and societal levels.” Reinterpreting from the perspective of mental illness, Lear’s actions share a great many similarities to the behaviour of dementia patients, such as; vicious mood swings, confusion, depression, inability to deal with change, sleep disorder, hallucination, delusions etc. His actions towards and treatment of his court and his own daughters is similar to the common occurrence wherein dementia patients lash out at those who take care of them, or those with whom they have a closer relationship. It is seen that Lear’s mental instability was seeded in him from the start of the in Act 1. Throughout Act 1 Lear is slowly declining into madness.It can be argued that he could be mostly just foolish than being mad, but as the act progresses his behaviour is not any more foolishness but insanity and rash judgments. Especially the division of his kingdom is not based on the ability or with right judgement, but rather on just some flattery words “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge. “(Act 1, Scene 1, 52-53), this proves that Lear’s fading mental sharpness ruined his ability to rule his kingdom. In Scene 4 of Act 1 Lear shown questioning his own identity when he ask Goneril “Are you our daughter?” (Act 1, Scene 4, 215) Does any here know me? This is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes? Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied – Sleeping or waking? Ha! Sure ’tis not so! Who is it that can tell me who I am? (Act 1, Scene 4, 222-226) , all this show the symptoms of dementia like confusion and mood swings. At the end of Act 1 it is clearly evident that Lear is going mad. At one point Lear admits himself of his mental condition when the fool says “ Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.” and Lear replies by “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper. I would not be mad” (1.5 43- 46) He knew he is deteriorating in his condition. Going forward, Act 4 of the play clearly portrays Lear at the worse state of mental illness. In Act 4, at first he is shown running around a field with a crown of flowers on his head, the he believes Gloucester to be Goneril with a beard then he also briefly believes to be in Hell “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption.” (Act 4, Scene 6, 138-139). At the end of the scene, Cordelia’s servants come to get the King, but he runs off telling them they can take him back if they can catch him first “Then there’s life in’t. Come, an you get it, you shall get it by running. Sa, sa, sa,sa!” (Act 4, Scene 6, 200-201). In these scenes Lear is showing symptoms such as hallucinations, memory loss and delusion. By end of the play Lear is shown his confused nature about where he is in both time and place. In an exchange with Kent nearer the end of the play, Lear demands to know where he is.

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“Lear: Am I in France?

Kent: In your own kingdom, sir.

Lear: Do not abuse me.”(King Lear, Act 4, Scene 7). Losing time or mistaking time and place are common among LBD patients,

Lear’s actions, especially that of fleeing to the heath and throwing a tantrum, are very childlike in their own way which is a common symptom of LBD patience. On the heath, Lear rages against a terrible storm; this is an allegory for Lear raging at his own nature and the nature of his disease. He laments that “Here I stand, your slave, A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.” (King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2, 19-20). Lear speaks not only to the Storm and Nature, but to himself and his own mental illness of dementia. He is the slave of Nature and his own nature, and both have made him a shadow of who he once was, who he wishes he still was.

This idea of senility and inability in old age is pervasive, and some of Lear’s company, including his daughters, treat him like a doddering old man past his prime. Regan, when Lear arrives at Gloucester’s castle, even tells him: “O, sir, you are old; Nature in you stands on the very verge Of her confine. You should be ruled and led By some discretion, that discerns your state Better than you yourself.” (King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4). Rather than taking Lear’s emotional and mental legitimacy as a person into consideration, they treat him as an unworthy mad blight to be cast away; it is analogous to the way that many dementia patients are committed to memory facilities long before their mental power are far gone. Lear’s relationship with his daughters is a problematic one at best, his relationship with Goneril and Regan is a tempestuous one, but they do not seem to care about Lear outside of what he had to offer them of the kingdom. After Lear banishes Cordelia, Goneril says to Regan “You see how full of changes his age is,” (Act 1, Scene 1, 290). They remark in a cold and calculating manner on the shifts in Lear’s actions as he is old, wondering how it would affect them after their inheritance of the kingdom. Goneril plots with Regan about how to hit Lear down; “Pray you, let’s hit together,” (Act 1, Scene 1, 304). They agree that Lear has to be put away and that he shall not be allowed to roam around in their homes. They treat him not with the affections one would wish from loving daughters, but rather with an air of disposal and uselessness.

Cordelia, on the other hand, sees Lear’s progression into madness. She, as the favourite daughter, would more closely understand the changes Lear has been experiencing in his disposition over the time. Later in the play, when Lear is brought to Cordelia, he has a moment of clarity about his state of being: “And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man; Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant,” (Act 4, Scene 7, 63-66). He also realizes whom he is speaking to; “I think this lady To be my child Cordelia…If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong,” (Act 4, Scene 7, 70-71, 73-75). Although he is not entirely correct about Cordelia’s feelings towards him, he is lucid; periods of lucidity are not uncommon among dementia patients. Although he is not so far gone as to no longer remember anything, his dementia is still progressed enough to make this bout of clarity rare.

Lear’s treatment is similar to many elderly people of modern time. The elderly, even in this day and age, are treated as somewhat frail. The treatment of the elderly is usually fraught with disrespect and mockery, and in Shakespeare’s day this seems to be the case as well. Lear’s character in the play is incredibly rash. Identifying King Lear as a character with mental illness somewhat changes the play’s nature in accordance to his character. Audience tend to focus on the effects of Lear’s madness, and the actions it perpetuates, has on the play rather than on Lear himself. Lear is obviously tortured by his older daughters’ actions and inhumanities and his youngest daughter’s refusal to play to his ego, but he is also tortured by the loss of himself.

Lear’s death is tragic; he is having a rare moment of clarity about Cordelia and her state, and right as he believes her to be breathing and not dead, he dies. The end of his life was traumatic and fraught with the descent into an illness that seems to have been creeping in for years before the beginning of the play. Edgar, at the close of the play, poignantly states why the elderly should be treated with dignity, even in the clutches of illness; “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” (Act 5 scene 3)    


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