Madness is a key element throughout the play and can be demonstrated in the main character King Lear, as well as other characters such as "Poor Tom" (Edgar). King Lear's actions at the beginning of the play foreshadow what is to come in later scenes.
He demonstrates horrible judgment and bad decision-making. He starts by dividing his kingdom in half and giving up his power and then banishing his beloved daughter Cordelia and his noble friend Kent. King Lear begins to exhibit elements of madness in the following scene. By Act 3, King Lear is fluctuating between madness and sanity.
When King Lear is thrown out into the storm, his madness becomes more noticeable. One of his mad actions can be seen when King Lear starts to yell at the storm. He yells,
"Rumble thy bellyful! Spit fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
You owe me no subscription." (3.2.16-20)
King Lear is so enraged that he is standing out in a bad storm yelling at the elements that are not going to listen to him. He is talking to the elements as though they are people. Another example of his madness is the trial scene where King Lear in his madness tries his daughters for their crimes when he is homeless and powerless.
Lear: "Arraign her first: 'tis Goneril. I here take my oath before this honorable assembly, kicked the poor king her father.
Fool: Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?]
Lear: She can not deny it.
Fool: Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint stool." (3.6.50-55)
Here King Lear is hallucinating that Goneril is there when in reality it's a stool.
King Lear’s madness is also a parallels the chaos in his kingdom. When Lear was in power, his kingdom was united and certainly had problems but there was order, and it was clear who was in power. Since King Lear divided the kingdom between his two daughters, there are disagreements between them and the power structure is collapsing. Kent talks about the results of the tension between Regan and Goneril.
"There is division,
Although as yet the face of it is covered
With mutual cunning, 'twixt Albany and Cornwall..." (3.1.23-25)
There is a kind of madness in the kingdom with torture and betrayal happening on many levels. Some examples are gouging out Gloucester's eyes, putting Kent into the stocks and a servant killing Cornwall.
King Lear is sane at times within his insanity. Losing all of his power and wealth makes King Lear more humble and allows him to see his kingdom more clearly in the midst of his madness. The insanity he develops opens his eyes to things he was blind to when he was in the position of power. King Lear realizes that his kingdom has poor people and is in terrible shape. Now that King Lear himself is homeless, he sympathizes with the people who are living without shelter. King Lear recognizes and sees,
"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend
From another point of view, Edgar is pretending to act mad. Taking on this role of a mad beggar forces him to endure experiences that cause him to gain the strength to defeat Edmund.
"Who gives anything to Poor Tom, whom the foul fiend hath led (through) fire and through flame, through (ford) and whirlpool, o'er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow..."(3.4.55-58)
This shows the challenges that "Poor Tom" experiences as a mad beggar. Edgar gains strength from his role of madness.
Edgar transforms to the character of "Poor Tom" as a survival tactic. By this smartness, he can fool everyone while in reality he is sane and is planning revenge on his brother Edmund. Just like King Lear, Edgar is sane within an insane situation. In the trial scene, Edgar is assigned the role of a man of justice, and he clearly sees King Lear madness. Edgar says,
"My tears begin to take his part so much
They mar my counterfeiting." (3.6.63-64)
Here Edgar is saying that his grief for the King is so great that it may force him out of his role of being mad Tom.
There are many different kinds of madness and it is represented in multiple ways. King Lear is clearly going mad, but still have sanity moments within his insanity. Edgar is very sane and uses madness as a cover to deceive everyone. Madness is not always what it seems; sometimes there is sanity within the delusions.