Why are Shakespeare’s rulers deeply mentally anguished?

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In most of Shakespeare’s plays, the rulers are portrayed to be in a state of mental stress. This is particularly true with respect to the two plays – King Lear and Measure for Measure. King Lear, which is a tragedy, is full of expressions of anguish and pathos by the old king, whose mental faculties are disintegrating by the day. After dividing his kingdom between his two elder daughters Goneril and Regan (who betray his trust), the former king becomes a lonely figure disillusioned with filial love and duty. In a hasty act, he also disowns his youngest daughter Cordelia and ends up without physical and emotional security and care, barring his retinue of one hundred Knights. This situation bears very heavily upon his already weak mental condition and in this state he pours out some of the most heart-wrenching words of anguish and despair. (Beauregard, 2008, p.201) In this respect, the following observation by critic Barbara Ann Lukacs is valid:

“By yielding his powers to Goneril and to Regan, Lear sacrificed not only his kingdom but also his very identity upon the altar of his vanity. Lear was so consumed with being King that he lost all sense of his

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individuality. His wanderings between the two daughters and his plaintive pleas to them indicates that this was a leaderless, chaotic, and out of balance world. Without kingdom and family, Lear could only regain his sense of self with his descent into madness.” (Lukacs, 2008, p.98)

An early indication of King Lear’s troubled mind is his idea of testing his daughters’ love for him. Not only is love not testable in this fashion, but the nature of the test also suggests a deep-rooted insecurity felt by the declining King. Without deliberation, forethought and subtlety, the King acts in a crude manner, which would come back to haunt him since. Indeed, the depths of pathos expressed by the delirious King (most notably in the thunder-storm scene) is what makes King Lear one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Offering an alternative understanding of the King’s mental condition is scholar Meredith Skura, who writes:

“Lear’s excesses, and his power to enact them, bring Lear closer to its pre-moral fairy-tale origins, where wish and fear become reality. The setting bears out Lear’s sense of himself as the centre of such a world. His initial omnipotence and demand for accommodation are manifest in a court that bows to his wishes and has no other law. His later apocalyptic disillusionment shakes the foundations of his world (and the audience’s). Nature storms when he does…the play is governed by an unforgiving Nature, for whom the reward of sin is always death.” (Skura, 2008, p.121)

In Measure for Measure, the plot contains two rulers. The first is Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, who appoints Judge Angelo to take over the reigns in his temporary absence. Vincentio is portrayed as a noble ruler, one who adheres to virtues of fairness and justice in his dealings with his subjects. Hence, his characterization does not lend itself in support of the thesis that Shakespeare’s rulers have troubled minds. The same assessment cannot be made of judge Angelo, who is appointed as an interim ruler in Duke Vincentio’s absence. While nowhere comparable to the troubled mind of King Lear, Angelo exhibits signs of it at different points in the play. The most visible of Angelo’s flaws is his outward pedantry and prudishness, especially with matters of interpersonal sexual relationships. His decree calling the marriage between Claudio and Juliet as illegitimate is the crux of the plot, upon which subsequent events unfold. (Clark, 2001, p.662) While there is a semblance of moral high-ground being displayed by Angelo through this act, the truth is that he is a hypocrite. When Claudio’s sister nun Isabella meets him to dissuade him from penalizing her brother, he grows lustful of her and attempts to fulfil his carnal desires. Such behaviour is not worthy of a ruler and is an indication of his troubled mind. Moreover, through the play we learn that Angelo does not keep his own words; instead he acts as per his sinister thoughts and desires. These traits indicate that he possessed an erratic mind, which meted out inconsistent judgements.

While Duke Vincentio is not mentally troubled the way Angelo is, his character too provides inputs to the thesis. And clues for this comes from original sources perused by Shakespeare for constructing Measure for Measure. It is now fairly well documented how the author drew heavily from real life events of King James I, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare and ruled Britain at the time. Some scholars have interpreted the play as a tribute to King James’ virtues, whose admirable traits include “dedication to virtue and chastity, his reclusive-ness, his scholarly nature, and his discomfort with crowds” have been incorporated into Valentio’s character. (Hunt, 2006, p.245) While historians and critics such as Jonathan Dollimore and Leonard Tennenhouse see the play as a tribute not just for the king but also for his cherished doctrines of monarchy, one must remember that “much of the new historicism underscores the subversiveness of Renaissance literature”. (Hunt, 2006, p.245) Within this framework, “Shakespeare is covertly criticizing, even demystifying, James’s rule. While James touted his virtue, moderation, and piety, the reality of his life and rule was anything but praiseworthy, quite rightly earning him the tag ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’.” (Brown, 1996, p.51) As critic Carolyn E. Brown observes, His appointment of Anglelo as the interim Duke is a product of his foolishness,

“Because James, like Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio, chose favourites not based on their knowledge of government nor on their character but on his fondness for them, and because he was noted for his foolish generosity, he inevitably attracted men, like Shakespeare’s Angelo, who lacked good character and governing skills, and, consequently, abused their positions of power.” (Brown, 1996, p.52)

Hence, it is fairly clear that Shakespeare’s rulers are shown to be mentally disturbed, although to varying degrees. This is certainly true of Lear and Angelo and to a lesser extent of Valentio. Shakespeare’s plays and characters such as the ones discussed hold significance even today, for they deal with universal problems and concerns. The rage of an aggrieved father as seen in Lear is easy to identify with. Similarly, the double standards and opportunistic behaviour displayed by Angelo has parallels in some of our modern rulers (not least in the form of George W. Bush and his policies). Hence the relevance and appeal of these characters will continue undiminished for future generations of readers as well.


Beauregard, D. N. (2008). Human Malevolence and Providence in King Lear. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, 60(3), 199+.

Brown, C. E. (1996). Duke Vincentio of ‘Measure for Measure’ and King James I of England: “The Poorest Princes in Christendom.”. CLIO, 26(1), 51+.

Clark, I. (2001). “Measure for Measure”: Chiasmus, Justice, and Mercy. Style, 35(4), 659+.

Hunt, M. (2006). Being Precise in Measure for Measure. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, 58(4), 243+.

Lukacs, B. A. (2008). King Lear. Shakespeare Bulletin, 26(4), 98+.

Skura, M. (2008). Dragon Fathers and Unnatural Children: Warring Generations in King Lear and Its Sources. Comparative Drama, 42(2), 121+.

Tiffany, G. (2001). Kenneth Gross. Shakespeare’s Noise. Comparative Drama, 35(3), 479+.

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