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Madness in Shakespeare's King Lear

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Western perceptions of madness have evolved drastically over time. Today when discussing mental illness, we commonly distinguish between neurological and psychological disorders (Kandel 337). Neurological disorders refer to illnesses such as Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease that affect specific parts of the brain in discernible ways, whereas psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety and certain forms of depression refer to illnesses involving higher brain functions that have, as of yet, eluded x-rays and brain scans. Between the 19th and mid-twentieth centuries, brain disorders were divided into two categories: the functional and the organic (Kandel 336). Organic disorders correspond to the modern "neurological disorders". They are those illnesses that visibly affect the brain, whether in terms of lesions, tumors or cell death. Functional illnesses correspond to what we now call "psychiatric disorders", the difference being that we are now certain that something physiological occurs in the mind of the patient, whereas in earlier times it was assumed that the illness was no more that a figment of the patient's imagination or somehow planted into his or her mind. It is thought that during the time of the Western Roman Empire (400-1400 A.D.), religion guided perceptions of madness, but by the time of the Renaissance, British conceptions of madness were influenced greatly by beliefs in witchcraft and, as a result, society largely shunned those who were not hired as court fools (Neugebauer 22). Also, there were still no distinctions made between the mad and the mentally retarded, even though there was a move in the courts to define the different types of madness. For a long while the mad were treated simply as a means to secure revenue for the crown. The various forms of madness depicted in King Lear (1605) pick up the discussion of mental illness occurring at the time. Shakespeare draws upon and manipulates common notions of mental illness causing his audience to question the line between genius and folly and the nature of the human mind in general as well as the inhumane treatment of those who are mentally disabled.

In his article "Mental Handicap in Medieval and Early Modern England: Criteria, Measurement and Care", Richard Neugebauer explores non-demonological responses to mental illness between the 13th and 17th centuries. His main concern was to see how the early Brits conceived of mental illness and how conceptions transformed over time. He was also concerned with the treatment of the mentally disabled and the reasoning behind it.

According to the earliest existing document on the subject of madness, the Prerogativa Regis, dating from the latter half of the thirteenth century, Neugebauer concluded there were two types on madness, the natural and the accidental. The "natural fools" or "idiots", as they were termed, were those individuals who from birth exhibited signs of mental handicap, whereas the accidental madmen were those individuals that developed symptoms of psychosis throughout their lifetimes. Eventually the language of madness transformed. "Natural fool" came to mean its opposite. Instead of a person with disabilities dating from birth, it came to refer to all those persons who became mad from age or illness. Eventually, the expression "non compos mentis" was used in place of "natural fool" and by the 15th century "non compos mentis" was traded in for the term "lunatic" (Neugebauer 26). "Idiot", originally a synonym for "natural fool", retained its original meaning: someone born mentally disabled. In terms of the law, being classified as a lunatic was far greater than being classified as an idiot because the King had the legal right to usurp the property of the "idiot" and profit from it, whereas, the family of the lunatic could reclaim his wealth after his death. The King could only manage the land of the lunatic. He could not gain revenue from it. Discovering a person to be a lunatic or an idiot was the result of an "inquisition". Men working for the crown would come and question the potential madman. This practice began in the medieval period and extended through the 17th century. The only changes that occurred in this system were the continual introduction of new categories for sanity. Eventually, by the late 16th century, a person was expected not only recognize himself and his family and have a basic understanding of mathematics, but was also expected to be somewhat literate, have an organized household and to attend church. The purpose of these inquisitions was primarily to decide if the individual in question was capable of managing his money and property. If he were deemed an idiot, then rights would be handed over or to the Crown, unless a private citizen purchased custody of him. At the time of his death, his guardian would be entitled to any excess revenue. The guardian of the lunatic had by far more responsibilities although he was not forced to pay a custody fine or annual rents. He had the job of maintaining the lunatic and his family in a lifestyle that they were accustomed to, whereas the guardian of an idiot, in lieu of the various charges he owed, was only expected to ensure the survival of his ward, no more, no less. Starting in 1540, the system experienced remarkable changes (Neugebauer 33). The Crown renounced its rights to excess revenues from the estates of idiots probably due to pressure and public discontent. The guardians of idiots were no longer expected to pay fines or rents and were treated the same as the guardians of lunatics. The issue of guardianship became a matter of serious importance. Those chosen for the job were supposed to make sure they performed their duties adequately and did not exploit their ward. This change resulted in the more humane treatment of the mentally handicapped.

Jonathan Andrews in his article "Identifying and Providing for the Mentally Disabled in Early Modern London" presents an argument complementary to Neugebauer's thesis. Where Neugebauer tends to discuss those of the upper classes, Andrew discusses the poor. He states that "the insane and idiotic tended to be maintained in their domiciles, or roamed the highways and byways as vagabonds" (Andrews 65). He also mentions that the literature of the period commonly lumped together idiots and lunatics under the heading of the "fool" (Andrews 66). His main concern was to figure out how the treatment of lunatics differed from the treatment of idiots. In order to conduct his research he used parish records dating from the mid-17th to the late 18th centuries that had laid provisions for the care of the insane and the mentally disabled. He recognized that vagrancy laws did very little to distinguish between

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