Problematizing King Lear and Hysteria: “Reason in Madness!”

During the class discussion about King Lear’s mental condition, I had similar thoughts to Eva about the passage in Act II, “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing daughter!” (4.62-63). Eva offers an insightful analysis into why Shakespeare might have employed the feminine term, hysterica passio, noting that this might refer to his maternal role within the family and the heartbreak associated with his daughters’ betrayal of Lear.

I agree with Eva, but here, I hope to elaborate a bit more on the connection between madness and femininity, and more specifically, to problematize the very category of “hysteria.” Most of us know the condition as one that many women were diagnosed within the 17th century. More recently, feminist psychologists have begun to criticize the very category. Feminist psychologist Jane Ussher notes in Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? that “hysterical” women who were sent to asylums were sometimes institutionalized on the basis of sexual deviance deviant—sex outside marriage, homosexuality, prostitution, or even being a victim of rape (73). Hysteria was additionally categorized by excessive emotionality, shallowness, and sensitivity. Ussher argues that many women who were diagnosed with hysteria (or earlier, accused of being witches) were women on the fringes of society and/or women who, for whatever reason, failed to be docile and appropriately feminine.

Before explaining the connection between a feminist reading of “hysteria” and King Lear, it is important to note that in many cases, the behavior that warranted a diagnosis of “hysteria” was decontextualized from its source. Excessive emotionality is a sign of hysteria, but it is also a reasonable response to being abused by one’s husband. Nevertheless, “hysterical behavior” in response to abuse would be grounds for a husband to send his wife to an insane asylum. Not dissimilarly, women accused of witchcraft often went against the Church’s teachings by way of sexual deviance or alternative healing. All of this is to say that “hysteria” was often employed to pathologize women for gender deviance, and further, that the “hysterical behavior” was often not so hysterical in context.

Now, how does this connect to King Lear? King Lear is aging, wifeless, and desperate to hold onto the power he held when he was younger. For Lear, the loss of youth is accompanied by the emasculating loss of power. His demands that his daughters flatter him before handing over the kingdom perhaps one of the first signs we see of his dwindling power. When Lear asks, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most,” (1.1.53) we might read this as Lear being so powerful that he can force his daughters to flatter him for land. But, we might also read this as a fear that he will lose power—”Do you really love me?” This reading of his actions is supported by King Lear choosing to banish Cordelia after she refuses to offer him the same cloying remarks as her sisters. Lear is afraid of emasculation, and he is afraid that without his power as an incentive for his daughter’s love, he will be completely alone. Like the hysterical woman whose “hysterical” behavior is sometimes a reasonable response to oppressive gender norms, perhaps Lear’s behavior could be read as a similarly reasonable response of the loss of power, love, and support.

Lear’s “madness,” as Edgar exclaims, is “matter and impertinency mixed, Reason in madness!” (4.6.192-3). Just as hysteria was often a reasonable response to oppressive conditions or the pathologization of transgressed gender norms, Lear’s madness is a response to the loss of power and his expulsion a reflection of societal disgust with his emasculation. More than this, Lear’s madness also allows him a new understanding of the world. In Act 4 Scene 6, Lear reflects on the condition of the world, “Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?…And the creature run from the cur? There thou might’st behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office” (165-173). Upon his banishment, he begins to understand the absurdities of the hierarchies that he once benefitted from. Even a dog could be loved if he were in a position of authority. But, after Regan and Goneril find no further use for Lear, they banish him in what Roach might call a “sacrificial violence.” Without his power, Lear becomes what Roach calls a “sacrificeable” or a “monstrous double,” an excessive and emasculated version of his former self.

Just as “hysterical” women threatened the coherence and order of society, emasculated men—like Lear—and their behavioral transgressions in behavior, gender, and power threaten the coherence of group identity. Thus, Goneril and Regan are compelled to expel their now powerless father—a “monstrous double” of King Lear—once his emasculation threatens the stability of societal and familial boundaries.

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