Bastards, Villains, and Madness in King Lear

Bastards, Villains, and Madness in King Lear

Alliteration and repetition play a large part in the opening act of King Lear.  These literary devices strengthen the play by creating passionate scenes and a chaotic atmosphere.  I was struck by the intensity of emotions in the majority of the characters who have already committed numerous bold actions.  This start to a play is one of the most impassioned beginnings I have come across.  Shakespeare accomplishes this feeling with Edmund, Gloucester, and Lear and the words they angrily spout off. 

Edmund has a fabulous speech focusing on his siding with nature and forgoing the tradition of legitimacy.  His bold lines open 1.2, allowing the audience get an immediate feel for his inner thoughts and moral fiber.  He struggles with being labeled as Gloucester’s “bastard” son.  In the middle of his speech, cacophonous alliteration and repetition is utilized by Shakespeare:  “Why brand they us/ With base? With baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (1.2.9-10).  Using six words beginning with the letter “b” alert the reader and concrete Edmund’s anger with his “bastardy.”  These repeated words are harsh sounding and leave the reader assaulted by strong sounds.  Shakespeare can drive home the fact that this character grapples with identity crisis.  Edmund closely associates his condition of illegitimacy with “baseness” and it angers him severely.  “Base” is repeated four times and discloses how society sees Edmund as lower than his brother, Edgar.  His speech finalizes with uses of “base” and “bastards,” thus reminding the reader once again how these words should be associated with Edmund and how we will most likely come back to them again.

Edmund’s father, Gloucester, has his share of repetition later in the same scene when he becomes aware of Edgar’s supposed unfaithfulness.  Edmund has planted a seed of disloyalty and lack of respect in his father’s mind regarding his legitimate brother.  Once again, anger reveals itself to the reader by Shakespeare duplicating the same word in a short span of lines.  Gloucester states: “O villain, villain!  His very opinion in the letter!  Abhorred villain!  Unnatural, detested, brutish villain!  worse than brutish!  Go, sirrah, seek him.  I’ll apprehend him.  Abominable villain!” (1.2.71-74).  “Villain” is stated five times in Gloucester’s spiteful lines.  This perfectly exemplifies lines that are characterized by the feeling of craze and madness.  Shakespeare enables us to associate the word “villain” with Edgar because of Gloucester’s speech, even if it is unfounded.  A great author understands when and how to best use literary tools to the greatest effect, as is done here with Gloucester. 

Ending the action of act one, we see King Lear settling into his role of madness as he speaks to the Fool.  Their banter eventually leads Lear to exclaim: “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!/ Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” (1.5.38-9).  Here the reiterated word is “mad” which is said three times in only two lines of verse, allowing the readers’ own sense of insanity entering in the king to be strengthened.  Shakespeare supports all this talk of “madness” by scenes of irrationality and chaos before 1.5.  A great example is Lear’s heated tirade addressed to Goneril about wishing the “[Drying] up in her the organs of increase…” (1.4.256).  Such a vengeful address to one’s own daughter makes his scene five chatter of madness believable.  Repeating “mad” immediately gives the reader more support that this man is indeed going mad.  Shakespeare knows where to place repetition to help the reader understand the progression of the play. 

I feel that the frequent use of the words: “bastard,” “villain,” and “mad,” in the text show that actions of King Lear will only become more chaotic and intense.  I am eager to spot more uses of repetition or alliteration by Shakespeare in this play.


One thought on “Bastards, Villains, and Madness in King Lear

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    You do so nicely paying attention to the language of Shakespeare here, Jacey! I especially appreciate your connections between these linguistic effects and some of the over-arching ideas in the opening of this play–betrayal, villainy, madness, etc. Looking for these kinds of repetitions, as we've seen in other plays, is a very helpful way to get access to the ways in which Shakespeare is telling his stories.


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