EP 013: That Way Madness

EP 013: THAT WAY, MADNESS Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What's the fastest route to unhappy daughters, war with the French, and eventual relegation to the self-help annals of YouTube? In this episode, we talk murder, mayhem, and why Shakespeare felt the need to dish out confusing names to more characters than you could possibly fit on a single stage. 

If you’ve ever had a bad date, a botched interview, or a conversation with a stranger that left you awake at 2am, thinking ‘why on earth did I keep talking about my grade 3 schoolteacher,’ you’ve probably felt the seductive tug into a whirlpool of obsessive thoughts. And whether you chose to share these with a friend, a trusted confidante, or Google’s search bar – you might have heard the phrase “that way madness lies.”

It’s become a pithy catch phrase popular amongst girlfriends commiserating over cocktails, and YouTube self-help pages alike. Basically what it boils down to is ‘stop overthinking, or you will create a non-existent space of such enormous proportions that you will actually drive yourself insane.’

And most people know this to be true. What many people don’t know is that this phrase goes a lot further back than the days of overpriced, televised relationship experts with movie star good looks. In fact, its actually a line from King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s better known plays. If you are in more of a Steve Harvey frame of mind, I’d advise you to stop listening here, because it’s definitely not one of his happier plays.

In fact it’s the opposite – King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which basically is shorthand for Everyone Dies.

I’ll try and keep this simple.

King Lear is the King of Britain. He has three daughters, but no sons, which is awkward because it’s that not-at-all specific time in history when daughters don’t really count, no matter how many of them you have. Unfortunately, King Lear has passed his son-making days, and is also a bit tired of running the whole show. He wants to settle down with a modest guard of 100 men, and spend his days eating, drinking, and figuring out BritBox.

Like any self-respecting king, he knows he can’t just leave his kingdom un-captained, so he makes the imminently sensible decision to divide his kingdom based on the totally scientifically verifiable principle of which daughter is willing to flatter him the most. Absolutely nothing can go wrong, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Except, obviously, they don’t. Two of the daughters – Goneril and Regan – are chronic fibbers, and they wax lyrical about how wonderful and awesome their dad is, and how they love him more than any person ever loved anything. Lear falls about in ecstasy and gives them a sizeable inheritance. The third daughter – Cordelia – who actually does love her old dad, but isn’t a self-serving schemer – refuses to play the game. Lear tells her that nothing comes from nothing, setting the groundwork for a tear-jerking, smash hit and only slightly silly musical number by Rodgers and Hammerstein. He disinherits her and tells her to buzz off. Fortunately – for the first and last time in English theatre – the French King comes to the rescue. He marries Cordelia and whisks her off to live in a nice house. Goneril and Regan get half of Cordelia’s inheritance and everyone lives happily ever after.

Except, of course, they don’t.

The King’s friend, the Earl of Kent, points out that Lear is acting like a spoiled brat, and is promptly banished. He returns in a cunning disguise, and takes up a conveniently vacant post as King Lear’s messenger. Lear’s other friend the Earl of Gloucester is having some filial problems of his own. He has one son – Edgar – who’s quite a nice guy, and another son – Edmund – who’s really not. Edmund in fact, is a bastard, in both senses of the word, and he’s not taking the literal one too well. He tricks his dad into thinking his legitimate son, Edgar, is trying to overthrow him, and Edgar gets banished too. Edmund retreats stage left to laugh in a pleased and sinister way.

Meanwhile, King Lear announces his intention to spend the rest of his life alternating between the homes of his two remaining daughters. He might not sound like an ideal houseguest to you either – particularly since Lear comes with a retinue of 100 men, and, apparently, an even bigger ego. But Goneril and Regan moan and groan about their parental burden to a degree that borders on criminal. Goneril and her husband are up first, and she puts up such a fuss about the whole rowdy crowd that her dad – who is, after all, still technically the King – gets his feelings all out of whack, and storms off to Regan’s house. She responds by lovingly having his messenger – who is actually Kent in his cunning disguise – put into the stocks. Sidebar: this is Shakespeare, so a cunning disguise is usually a different hat, with remarkable similarity to the original hat.

If you’re already confused, hold onto your hat, because it’s about to get really wild.

Lear is completely outraged by Regan’s meanness, especially after her outpouring of love only one and half Acts ago. He rushes out into a terrible storm, with Kent and his Fool the only two people still prepared to accompany him.

Here he deliver his famous line, as he rants about his two unsatisfactory daughters: 

“Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;

No more of that”

Ironically, he then proceeds to go completely batty. They all bump into Edgar, who has also made it back from exile in an improbably short amount of time, and has now adopted a cunning disguise of his own. And changed his name to Tom.

Edmund, whilst all this has been happening, tells Goneril, Regan, and Regan’s husband that his father – the Earl of Gloucester, knows that Cordelia (remember her) and her husband, and the French army are about to invade Briton. Goneril’s husband has, to his credit, rather gone off his wife and her scheming family, and tries to stay well out of it. The other three attack Gloucester and gouge out his eyes. A valiant servant manages to stick Regan’s hubby with a knife, and he dies. 1 main character down. Regan and Goneril have both taken a fancy to Edmund, because chicks like bad boys, and they turn Gloucester out to wander the heath. Edgar finds him, and he is so overjoyed to find his faithful son returned to him that he completely surrenders to the moment and pops his clogs. That’s two down.

The French and the British meet in battle, but unfortunately the British win. Cordelia and Lear are captured, and Goneril and Regan realize that they’re going to have to settle the two sisters, one Edmund dilemma. Goneril poisons Regan, which seems like a definitive victory, but then kills herself when she realizes she’s not going to get away with it. This doesn’t really matter in the end, because Edgar challenges Edmund to a duel, and kills him anyway. Edmund has an uncharacteristic attack of conscience before dying, and tries to get everyone to save Cordelia in time. Which is all well and good, but this is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, so off course, they miss the window. Lear emerges holding Cordelia’s corpse, but, at the very least, returned temporarily to sanity. He doesn’t get to enjoy it for long, because he dies of exhaustion a few stage directions later. Seeing as everyone else is dead, the Earl of Kent is offered the throne, but declines, because he’s planning to commit suicide. Because, reasons.

Regan’s husband, and Edgar are pretty much the only two left standing, and which one of them becomes king pretty much depends on which version of the play you see.

Believe it or not, there was a period of time during which people thought King Lear might be a bit of a downer, so they gave it a happy ending. Much like the happy alternative ending to Swan Lake, it never really lived up to the tragic majesty of the real thing.

So that’s King Lear, and that’s where one of the world’s favourite self-help phrases comes from. Next time you need to hear it, try remembering the convoluted plot of its source material, which will probably do more to stop your thoughts in their tracks than pretty much anything else!

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