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BMJ. 2007 October 13; 335(7623): 777.
PMCID: PMC2018784
Between the Lines

A foolish, fond old man

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

What was King Lear's diagnosis? There are two problems: firstly, he was a fictional character, and secondly, he is not available for tests or examination (a problem besetting all pathographers, though it also affords them infinite scope for pleasant speculation). So, screeds have been written in the last two centuries, but we are no nearer the truth—because there is no truth to come nearer to.

Let that not detain us. If we argued only about those matters that had a potentially definitive answer we should become boringly rational. Was Lear, then, demented, and if so was the dementia of the Alzheimer's, Lewy body, or multi-infarct type? (His variable mental states suggests the second or third.) Or was he depressed, perhaps as the result of an unresolved grief reaction to the death of his wife, mother of his three daughters? This doesn't seem likely, since he hardly mentions her, perhaps because she died so long before the action of the play starts.

Do I plump for a diagnosis? Brief psychotic episode, perhaps? Manic depressive psychosis (rapid cycling type)? Or even personality disorder?

No, I prefer not to do so, if only because of the warning of Edmund (the wicked bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester) against ascribing bad behaviour to anything other than our free decision to behave badly.

His father remarks, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us . . . Nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father.” In reply to which Edmund soliloquises: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune . . . we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fool by heavenly compulsion . . . and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.”

So let us just say, with Lear himself, that he was a very foolish, fond old man. For my money, the critical point is made by the Duke of Kent, when Lear has divided his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, excluding Cordelia because she will not indulge in any extravagant declarations of love for him. Kent says:

The youngest daughter does not love thee least,

Nor are those empty-hearted, who low sounds

Reverb no hollowness.

If Lear had realised this, then none of the tragedy and suffering would have ensued.

And here, it seems to me (this is a hobby horse of mine), Lear—the play, I mean—speaks to our age directly: for is it not the case that we live in an age of emotional incontinence, when they who emote the most are believed to feel the most?

Is it not the case that we live in an age of emotional incontinence


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