King Lear and “Hysteria”

In class we have discussed King Lear’s supposed “madness”, which many of the other characters in the play seem to term him as, and wondered what might have brought on this sudden bout of madness.  Although the conflict with his two daughters Goneril and Regan seems to be the driving force of his hysteria, I wondered if there were other factors that may have contributed to his madness, and what the term “mad” really meant in the 17th century, when King Lear was written.  There was one quote regarding Lear’s madness that particularly interested me.  In act 2 scene 4, when Lear is conversing with Kent and the Fool, after his daughters have made it clear that he is not welcome in their home, he laments “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!  Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing daughter!” (line 63)  I wondered what hysterica passio, the condition that Lear claims to have, was, and why he related this condition to mothers, when the conflict he was describing was in reference to his daughters.

After researching the term hysterica passio I learned that in the 17th century, this condition of hysteria was mostly associated with women and that “its being originally applied to women thought to be suffering disturbances of the womb” (  This belief derives from the greek word hysterikos, which simply means “hysteria of the womb”.  It is interesting, then, that Shakespeare chooses to use this feminized term hysterica passio, to describe King Lear, and that Lear uses this term when describing himself after he reflects upon how horribly his daughters have treated him.  Obviously Shakespeare was not insinuating that King Lear literally had a “hysterical womb”, but perhaps he was trying to comment on Lear’s maternal role.  Because King Lear was solely responsible for the upbringing of his three daughters (as there is no mother in the picture), he has a maternal relationship with them.  Their betrayal of him, then, is seen not only as a threat to their family and royal status, but a threat to his masculinity as well, which contributes to his madness.


If you would like to learn more about the origins of hysterica passio: