King Lear

by: William Shakespeare

Act 4, scenes 3–5

The other characters in the play discuss Lear’s madness in interesting language, and some of the most memorable turns of phrase in the play come from these descriptions. When Cordelia assesses Lear’s condition in Act 4, scene 4, she says he is

As mad as the vexed sea; singing aloud;
Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With hordocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow. (4.4.2–5)

Lear’s madness, which is indicated here by both his singing and his self-adornment with flowers, is marked by an embrace of the natural world; rather than perceiving himself as a heroic figure who transcends nature, he understands that he is a small, meaningless component of it. Additionally, this description brings to mind other famous scenes of madness in Shakespeare—most notably, the scenes of Ophelia’s flower-bedecked madness in Hamlet.

These scenes set up the resolution of the play’s tension, which takes place in Act 5. While Lear hides from Cordelia out of shame, she seeks him out of love, crystallizing the contrast between her forgiveness and his repentance. Regan and Goneril have begun to become rivals for the affection of Edmund, as their twin ambitions inevitably bring them into conflict. On the political and military level, we learn that Albany’s and Cornwall’s armies are on the march toward the French camp at Dover. The play is rushing toward a conclusion, for all the characters’ trajectories have begun to converge.


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