William Shakespeare was a playwright who created timeless tales. His works examined universal subjects that are relatable to by all of humankind. Although written centuries ago, countless themes explored in King Lear are still relevant in the contemporary day, including: delirium, misogyny, and sibling rivalry. Throughout history, human beings have struggled with mental illness. Shakespeare’s use of the theme is portrayed in King Lear as the eponymous leader faces obstacles and suffers from delirium. The play indicates older patients are especially susceptible to delirium, and that it can be caused by severe emotional disturbance. After Lear’s deceitful daughters abandoned him in the storm, he revealed his madness through his cries to nature, “here I stand, your slave,/ A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man./ But yet I call you servile ministers,/ That will with two pernicious daughters join/ Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head/ So old and white as this” (Shakespeare 3.2.19-24). Lear’s anagnorisis was when he realized he had been fooled. As he discovered he handed his throne to his evil daughters and banished his only genuine hearted daughter, his delirium sprouted from fear and lead to exhaustion.
The use of pathetic fallacy allowed Lear to curse at nature for partnering with his evil daughters. Modern psychiatrist, William Lishman defines delirium as “a syndrome of impaired consciousness along with intrusive abnormalities derived from the fields of perception and affect” (Lishman 64). The sudden series of events that bombarded Lear disturbed him emotionally, causing his insanity. Lear demonstrated various features of delirium including incoherency and irrationality. A key influential factor in the development of his insanity was also the simple fact that he was weakening in his old age. Lear stated, “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion/ I would have made them skip: I am old now,/ And these same crosses spoil me” (5.3.289-291). Lear’s final speech with Kent allowed him to admit that the obstacles he faced were even harder on him because of his elderliness. A professor who wrote from a psychiatric viewpoint on Lear’s situation stated that aging “contains the threat of helplessness, dependency and loneliness, which is often defended against by a tyrannical control of the elderly person’s world and his objects” (Huss 60:209-211). Huss’ theory describes how Lear’s increasing loneliness, feelings of vulnerability, and dependency were causing him to change as a person. In literature, becoming insane is often a metaphor for one changing the way they look at them self and the world. Arguably, Lear’s lunacy was initiated by arguments with his disobedient daughters.
The misogynistic hate towards women has been a universal issue since the beginning of time. King Lear exemplifies Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril in a powerful and manipulative manner. The two are shown as power hungry and selfish. Once Lear had been rejected and abandoned by his daughters, full of regret and hate he cried out, “you unnatural hags” (2.4.275). Ironically, Lear’s plan to divide his throne between his daughters in a peaceful manner ended up in chaos. He referred the woman as ‘unnatural’ because even after he mentioned his weakness and need for their love, they were ruthless and only verified that women are cruel and heartless. Similar misogynistic views are seen in the basic writings of Christianity. Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, wrote: “Do you know that you are each an Eve? …you are the first deserters of the divine law; you are she who persuades him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack”(Mace 80-81). According to Christian beliefs, women have been menaces since their creation. Eve, being the woman who led society toward misogyny, was accused of unleashing the devil, and caused eternal suffering for all of humanity. Christianity commands women to be ashamed of their gender. Similarly, Albany was ashamed of Goneril and accused her of being the spawn of satin, “See thyself, devil! Proper deformity shows not in the fiend/ So horrid as in woman” (4.2.60-61).
Albany was repulsed that Goneril was so wicked to her family, and his words coincide with the everlasting belief of the diabolical woman. A misogynistic theory, as discussed in the bible, says that a woman must be controlled by her husband. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:22–23). Many believe that women tempt men, are manipulative and have a sole negative influence on society. Since the Christian belief is that men are infallible, the bible suggests husbands should dominate their wives. If applied to Albany and Goneril’s situation, some sorrow in the final outcome of the play could have been spared if Albany had not been so blind to Goneril’s evil plot from the beginning. Societies still practice Christianity, which encourages misogyny in many aspects. Misogyny is the reason why gender role issues exist, and battling gender roles is a recurring issue. Regan and Goneril represented misogyny by proving to be selfish to their own desires, hungry for power and having no fear in hurting anyone who got in their way. Sibling rivalry has been in effect since the creation of family. It is a prominent theme in both the main plot and subplot of King Lear. The main plot demonstrates sibling rivalry through Regan and Goneril who were both self centred and in constant competition.
They allowed unimportant matters such as lust for Edmund, come before blood relationship. Goneril did not want to leave Edmund’s sight because she feared if the two had a moment alone, she might steal him, “I had rather lose the battle than that sister/ Should loosen him and me” (5.1.18-19). In stating that she would rather lose the war than see her sister with Edmund, she demonstrated how serious and determined she was at defeating her sister. As the two sisters battled for his love, they lost their trust and true family values. Francine Klagsbrun, a thought provoking writer wrote, “There is the need brothers and sisters have to be different, to distinguish themselves from one another, to establish their own identities” (Gold 51). Klagsburn’s view on sibling rivalry explains that Regan and Goneril’s competition was created because they shared the same goals. Since the sisters had such strong and similar personalities, they created much commotion and struggle for those around them. Opposing the idea of mutual completion; in the secondary plot sibling rivalry was demonstrated by Edmund and Edgar. In Lear, Edmund who was fed up with being known as a bastard his entire life, came to a breaking point. “Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,/ And my invention thrive, Edmund the base/ Shall top th’legitimate–: I grow, I prosper” (1.2.20-21).
Edmund’s plan was to destroy his brother and father’s relationship in order to inherit his father’s title and power. He exasperated with being less privileged than his older brother who was a legitimate child. Psychology touches on the issue of rivalry being caused by jealousy. Two experimental psychologists Kowal and Kramer formed a theory about sibling rivalry. “Younger siblings are particularly sensitive to unequal treatment, often reacting negatively and displaying adjustment problems if they perceive that the older sibling is favoured by parents.” (Shaffer 364). Though Edmund’s issue with his brother was based on the injustice of being a bastard, the psychology of sibling rivalry between the youngest and oldest child closely relates. Edgar, who is the older, legitimate child, appears to be mature and understanding because of his reluctance to abandon his father.Edmund, the younger and illegitimate child refused to accept the life he was born with. Their father claimed to love them equally; therefore Edmund’s issues seem to be jealousy based. Sibling rivalry is a common affair that has been recorded as far as the bible era because it is human nature to be envious or competitive with those that we are close to. King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s classic tragedies demonstrating that there are universal themes which are relevant to every generation as time goes on. The play is relevant to today’s society, as can be seen by the common modern day themes implemented by Shakespeare. Several themes incorporated in King Lear are relatable by present day humanity, notably: delirium, misogyny and sibling rivalry.