The mental disintegration of Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear is marked, in much of Lear’s dialogue from the play’s latter three acts, by madness interspersed with moments of lucidity. Yet, just before that madness becomes dominant, one can see a pivotal moment in the dramatic action at once figuring and presaging Lear’s breakdown by examining the final scene of the play’s second act.
More particularly, this pivot can be witnessed by paying close attention to the portion of Act II Scene iv which features Lear’s last speech prior to his passionate invocation of the storm on the heath. This speech, delivered in response to the final stripping of his attendant knights by Goneril and Regan, showcases a Lear concerned with dignity, identity, and sanity.
Rather than madness interspersed with lucidity, this speech comes across instead as lucidity tinged with madness. A motion can be traced from logic toward passion and from sanity toward madness via attention to the speech’s employment of poetic techniques.
While grief encroaches on the logical concerns and addresses of the speech’s content, the precise metrical and musical constructions of Shakespeare (much like the constructions of Robert Browning that I have previously covered in this series) reflect the motion of the content—both in the moments when Lear is in total control of his faculties, as well as when he feels his mental control slipping.
Music be the Food of Madness: