Dead or Alive. Or Insane.

After reading King Lear in its entirety, I find that this play begs the question: what is more desirable – death, life, or insanity?

We either witness or hear about a LOT of death over the course of this tragedy. Some deaths are lamented, while others come as a relief to others. Some characters wish to die, while others avoid it at all costs. It seems, then, that the view of death, what Shakespeare once called that “undiscovered country,” is in the eye of the beholder. In addition, some characters feign madness, some characters express the wish to be mad, and some are just plain mad.

To give some specific examples, let us consider the life and eventual death of Gloucester. Here is a man who, once his eyes have been plucked out, wishes for nothing but death. He tries, to no avail, to commit suicide, thinking that ending his life will end his sorrow. When he meets up with the mad Lear, however, he wishes himself to be crazy, too. “Better I were distract;/So should my thoughts be severed from my griefs” (4.6.276-77). Gloucester seems to think here that being insane would bring some relief; he would not be conscious of his sorrows. After finding his son Edgar to be alive, however, he is so overcome with feeling that his heart bursts, and he dies. The description of his death is ironic. Edmund says that his heart “burst smilingly” (5.3.198). Does this mean that the pain of life was too much for him to endure? Or was it the joy that overwhelmed him? Perhaps it was both, but either way, Gloucester is granted his wish to exit the living world. Most desirable: death.

Other characters seem to have a different perspective on life and the afterlife. Edgar, after witnessing the death of his father, and recounting the tale of putting on his disguise of madness, states: “O, our lives’ sweetness! That we the pain of death would hourly die/Rather than die at once!” (5.3.183-85). In other words, Edgar is saying that life is precious enough to us that we would rather endure the pain of dying constantly (considering here that life’s tragedies are a kind of death in themselves) than to simply die and be gone. He feigns insanity, viewing it as a means to escape from society, but not as a desirable state of mind. Most desirable: life.

Lear is another example of one who chooses to live in pain rather than die. He never expressly wishes to be dead. Instead, he deals with the tragedy of his life by existing in another state of mind – that of mental instability. As he tells Cordelia, after they have been sentenced to imprisonment, “So we’ll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh…/and we’ll wear out,/In a walled prison” (5.3.11-18). Thus, Lear would rather rot in prison with Cordelia and make the most out of his dismal life, than to end it all. He chooses insanity in order to deal with misery. Most desirable: insanity.

Whether they wish it or not, many of these characters die by the end of the play. Maybe they are finally at peace. Maybe they are now enduring a worse fate than life could ever bring them. Maybe insanity would have kept them in ignorant bliss, or maybe it would have been their ultimate downfall. Who knows what is the least agonizing state of existence? That secret rests with the dead.


5 thoughts on “Dead or Alive. Or Insane.

  1. Elaine L.

    I very much enjoyed your blog post, Rachel. I find your dividing the play’s characters into three parts interesting. When it comes to desiring insanity and death, on both accounts you mention a relief from grief. Both Gloucester and Lear deal with the (supposed) deaths of their children throughout this play, and both want to lose themselves one way or another.My question is: do they really want insanity and/or death, or do they want peace?

  2. Clifford Venho

    Rachel, this is an interesting look into the roles of death, life, and insanity as they play out in the play. Your reference to the "undiscovered country" points to the potential optimism in death and also maybe offers a partial answer to Elaine's question. The undiscovered country may offer a peaceful respite from the suffering of this world.

  3. Gianna

    This is an awesome post!!!!!! I loved how you broke it down into the three different arguments. And posed a question I never would have thought of. I wonder how Regan and Goneril fall into this?

  4. Cory

    This look into the characters illustrates how people change their personality to fit the situations that they are in. This is definitely the case with everyone because certain situations call for a certain behaviour, but it is also safe to say that these characters represent some of the most extreme instances.

  5. Cyrus Mulready

    As I think I mentioned in an earlier post on this play, the topic of insanity is really fascinating in this play, and Rachel does a nice job here of exploring it through this plot. Shakespeare seems to be pressing us to explore this very question–how do we know insanity when we see it? What makes Lear different from Edgar? Some of this question hinges on how we interpret that final moment on the stage. I think it's actually more poignant if we see Lear not as crazed or insane, but as clear-minded and mournful of what has passed. If insanity is a form of escape (as it was, in some part, for Edgar) then living in awareness might be the crueler fate.


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