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Robin Singh Mann

Konstantina Zanou

Literature Humanities

28 April 2017

On The Edge of Madness.

King Lear by William Shakespeare, and Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes, at least in some

respect, tell a tale of madness. Madness is told to us through the perspective of the protagonists:

King Lear and Don Quixote. For King Lear, madness manifests shortly after the play starts. His

mental state deteriorates as his familial bonds begin to break down, and the breaking apart of his

family sends him down a spiraling path of deliriousness. For Don Quixote, madness manifests

into him through reading fiction on chivalry. However, the discussion of madness inherently

forces us into defining reason, as madness and reason are both relative. Within both texts, the

juxtaposition of the protagonists with their respective counterparts gives rise to the definition of

madness and reason. The interaction of The Fool with King Lear, and of Sancho Panza with Don

Quixote gives the reader an objective sense of the narrative. To effectively lay down the

foundation for the argument to follow on these key themes, I propose that the mad within King

Lear are identifiable and unique, and madness comes into fruition with conflicts/losses in

identity. Whereas in Don Quixote identifying the mad is not as easy; madness has more to do

with delusions and alternative versions of reality rather than with the loss of self. In the defined

framework and respective form of madness within each work, we can also propose that reason

and madness are often hard to differentiate. The mad in King Lear are often the wiser, whereas in

Don Quixote, reality itself becomes subjective.


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William Shakespeares King Lear shows the downfall of a King, from a position of power to a

state of madness trigged by the rising disruptions within his Oikos. The play starts with a

meeting held by King Lear to split the kingdoms land between his daughters. But prior to doing

so, he demands words of praise and admiration from each of his daughters, expressing their deep

and sincere love for him. Goneril, being the eldest, is the first one to start, followed by Regan.

Both of them do their duties justice by putting on a faade depicting false love, and gaining their

share of inheritance. However, upon Cordelias turn, things go awry. Her inability to falsify and

exaggerate her real, genuine love for her father leads to a conflict with the King. A conflict that

sees Cordelia leave the Kingdom with the Lord of France, and the triggering of a butterfly effect.

King Lear ends up losing all his dearest familial bonds starting from Cordelia, followed by

Goneril, and eventually ending with Regan. Each broken bond leads to a slight deterioration of

Lears mental health, as he begins to feel hopeless and frustrated. Lear foreshadows his later loss

of identity in the lines: Does any here know me? This is not Lear while sarcastically arguing

with Goneril. What adds more meaning to these lines is the Fools reply- Lears shadow.;

implying something about what Lear was like, and the Lear we see (Act I. Scene IV. 220-225).

The rational Lear who ruled as King is no longer present. The Fool brings about objective

commentary on the novel and its characters as he seems to be unique in his arguments, and his

thoughts.

The Fool is ironically the most reasonable character within King Lear to observe rationality, and

to assess the mental state of Lear. The relationship between the Fool and King Lear is

fascinating; the Fool compliments Lears personality. He acts as his pillar of support, while also

serving as his advisor. Hence, the Fool is the voice of reason to Lears inarguable madness. The

Fool is what keeps Lear from passing the threshold to a complete loss of identity and
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deliriousness; he is the only aspect of Lears life that remains constant and unchanged during this

heavily volatile period. This is why its obvious we witness the drastic impact of the Fools

departure from the play on King Lear. After saying that he will go to bed at noon, the Fool

takes his leave from the play, and this marks the point where Lear delves entirely into madness

and loss of his identity (Act III. Scene VI. 84). This is proven by the fact that the next time Lear

enters the play, he is introduced to us explicitly as mad, bedecked with weeds (Act IV. Scene

VI. 80). Clearly, Lear has lost his identity, and his sense of reason.

The appearance of the storm and tempest is highly symbolic of conflicts within the play for King

Lear, both internally and externally. The internal conflict comes as a showdown between his

rationale and his building madness, which unfortunately ends with his loss of reason. The

external conflict is the breaking of his Oikos, as he is forced to leave his household during the

storm. However, Lear is not the only one experiencing this loss of identity. The appearance of

the storm also serves as a plot device for the convergence of the two characters that venture into

the concept of madness. Edgar, the real son of Gloucester, later disguises himself as Tom o

Bedlam and pretends to be mad. The two characters Lear and Edgar, explore the depths of

madness first hand, doing so in a similar manner. They both showcase a dual or confused sense

of identity. Hence, with Edgars introduction as Tom, the argument for madness manifesting as a

conflict in identity becomes more plausible. As Lear and Edgar (Tom o Bedlam) are the

characters who experience madness and a loss of identity, we can conclude what madness is in

King Lear having identified the mad. And having laid out the character of the Fool, we can

conclude what reason is, having identified the reasonable. Although one might consider the other

characters within the play reasonable, they fail to meet the mark as they all share a sense of

fickle mindedness forcing them to do things on a whim; irrationally and unreasonably.


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Moving on the question to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, reason and madness are not so

clearly defined. Madness is better defined as a misconception of reality, rather than a sense of

confusion or restriction in thoughts and identity. Don Quixote is introduced to the reader as a

gentleman from La Mancha, someone who is greatly influenced by his readings of chivalrous

novels. He fantasizes about being a knight, slaying a great many enemies, winning battles with

other knights, and saving damsels in distress; Don Quixote creates a mini world for himself in

which he defines reality as he pleases. To accompany him on his quest to achieve fame, he

saddles up his shriveled old horse and names him Rocinante, and appoints Sancho Panza, a local

farmer as his designated squire. Together, they both embark on adventures; one with the hope of

eternal glory, the other with false promises of fortune. To give meaning to his quests, Don

Quixote brings up his past infatuation with a woman called Aldonza Lorenzo, whom he decided

to name Dulcinea of Toboso as she was from Toboso, a name, to his mind, that was musical

and beautiful and filled with significance (p.24). Already, we have been introduced to two

versions of reality- one that is told by the narrator, and the other fantastical one created by

Quixote. Does it matter whether Dulcinea of Toboso exists, and is in love with him? Or is the

fact that he believes so enough? These are some of the questions that lead to the debate of

madness within Don Quixote. Its clear that Don Quixote is mad, but his intellect is not in

question, just the distinction between reality and his imagination.

The reason why we can only comment and analyze madness within Don Quixote, and not reason,

is due to the fact that there is no sense of reason through the novel. Characters that could be

considered reasonable fall into the same traps of madness by indulging in it through their

fascination with Don Quixotes delusions. Sancho Panza, a simple man and inarguably most

loyal to Don Quixote, primarily serves as the voice of reason early on in the book. However, he
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too begins to blur the lines within his reality and Quixotes fantasies. Sancho Panza gives the

reader an objective sense of the narrator as he continually differentiates the reality for the reader

from the delusions of Quixote; whether it be to tell giants from windmills, or to deceive Don

Quixote into believing a false Dulcinea of Toboso. But at the same time, he also takes active part

in Quixotes mad world, believing his lies about governance of an island.

All characters alike, whether it be the priest, or the barber, take part in madness and false

realities. Several characters that make up the world Don Quixote lives in tend to venture into

madness as well. A prime example of it arises from the encounter between Don Quixote and

Vivaldo. As the goatherds were about to leave for the funeral with Don Quixote, they come

across six shepherds, including Vivaldo on horseback. As we are told by the narrator that

Vivaldo along with his companions considered [Don Quixote] mad, we get to see the apparent

madness of Quixote. But the reason this debate gets nuanced is because, to learn more and see

what sort of madness this was, Vivaldo asks him further about the meaning of Knight errantry

(p.87). Clearly, although people can identify his madness they cant resist it either; they are all

equally fascinated by it and dont give up the opportunity to experience it for themselves. This

similar scenario occurs often in the book.

Don Quixotes encounter with the Duchess and the Duke in the second part of the book, who

have apparently read the first part, add further advancements to the discussion of madness and

reason. It is important to note how characters that are within the book, are aware of the books

existence. This is very relevant because our framework for the definition of madness within Don

Quixote relies on versions of reality. Since, we now have characters that are aware of the reality

portrayed in the first part to us, it makes it very hard to be able to tell the where the world
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Cervantes has created exists, and whether anyone is really mad or sane at all. The Duke and

Duchess, again, extremely fascinated by Don Quixotes madness due to the monotony of their

own life, indulge him further by funding his crazy fantasies. They play on his madness by

constructing elaborate plots for their amusement. Again, the reason why the mad and the

reasonable are not all that different here is because, in indulging Quixote and Sancho Panza to

that extent, they end up spending enormous resources as well as efforts just to watch delusional

characters live their fantasies. Hence, the reality that could only existed in Quixotes mind was

brought to life by their efforts.

The relationship between the protagonists and their respective counterparts, with Sancho Panza

for Don Quixote, and the Fool for King Lear, gives the reader an ability to form opinions on

these themes within the works. Without the interaction of these contrasting characters, it would

be hard to form an actual narrative in Don Quixote, and it would be hard to determine the

reasonable from the irrational in King Lear. Both the works tell the concept of madness very

differently. In one, we witness the characters (Edgar and Lear) turn towards deliriousness hence

allowing us to identify them. However, in Don Quixote, madness flows within everyone;

although Quixote is the only one who acts upon his fantasies, all characters are guilty of dipping

into the waters of madness.

The character arcs of the protagonists, King Lear and Don Quixote, are also indicative of the

kind of madness they lived; both of their stories end with their deaths. However, they do not die

the same way. Lear for once feels compassion and care for someone other than himself. Since he

lost his identity and sense of self, we are shown how he was able to reconstruct his being adding

personality traits that were previously not possible for him to display. Don Quixote, for all his
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talk of chivalry and glory, dies from a fever. He dies having acquired his grip on reality back and

having been able to realize his former madness, I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don

Quixote of La Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quixano the Good (p.937). Hence,

both these form of madness complete their arcs and cycles. These forms of madness were

developed by our protagonists, they were not inherently present in them. Hence, with much time

and effort, they were able to get past their developed manias.

Both these texts are fiction, but the reason their stories resonate within us is due to the presence

of these phenomenon within our lives too. Our sense of identity gets easily muddled as we start

to distance ourselves from long-held bonds and relationships. We lose our former selves, and in

the process discover aspects of our being we couldnt before. Just as King Lear delved into the

depths of madness only to recover himself back through the same bonds he broke off, we too go

through these differences and phases within our lives in our homes. The disconnection Don

Quixote experiences in his life, from what is true and what he wants to be true, is also a path

everyone alike walks down upon. We have no real objective sense of what is true, what we call

green could easily be an entirely different color for someone else. Our sense of reality is what we

can experience, and we can never really step into anothers body, and see what they see through

their eyes, and through their minds.