'The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman': King Lear and obsessive compulsive disorder


'King Lear' can appear to be a play of numbers: Lear and his hundred nights, and his one Fool, and his three daughters. But isn't it more the play in which Shakespeare demonstrates most keenly his expertise in the ways of the human mind? In the revelations that strike Lear like lightning bolts after he has rashly divided his kingdom between daughters Goneril and Regan, we see one of a succession of rebirths that the character goes through. Amidst his hyperbolic response to his daughters' ingratitude, Lear is aware of a strain upon his mental wellbeing: 'O Fool! I shall go mad' (II.IV.288). Lear knows that the unexpected and self-inflicted strain he has placed upon himself has the potential to induce a mental breakdown in a man whose will has always held absolute sway in life until this moment of abdication. I feel that 'King Lear' is the culmination of Shakespeare's exploration of how all human beings' lives are subject to fluctuations in our mental wellbeing.

In Act III, scene i, a Gentleman says that King Lear 'Strives in his little world of man to out-storm / The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain (ll. 10-11). Each of us is held within our own 'little world of man', and when our minds begin to falter and experience strain, our little worlds become ever smaller. 

When King Lear rages on the heath, he turns to images of guilt and crime, as if the harshness of the storm were some form of punishment for unseen or long-forgotten sins: 

Tremble, thou wretch,

That hast within thee undivulged crimes,

Unwhipp'd of Justice; hide thee, thou bloody hand,

Thou perjur'd, and thou simular of virtue

That art incestuous


Lear concludes this speech with the line, 'I am a man / More sinn'd against than sinning' (ll. 58-59). He constructs a scenario of hidden sins and misdemeanours that the storm calls to mind. Pardon me for seeing everything through an OCD lens, but this language of acute and terrible guilt is the language of OCD. It's the language of worst case scenarios and ego-dystonic thoughts that trigger an all-consuming sense of having committed unspeakable deeds and needing to perform compulsions in pursuit of mental relief. Anyone who experiences OCD will be able to identify with Lear's assertion that his mind is punishing him to a far greater extent than any of his misdeeds, real or imagined, could ever warrant.


At this point in the play, Shakespeare depicts a man in a precarious position as he tries to cling to reason against a tide of mental stress and encroaching instability. Shakespeare has an instinctive understanding that one can possess the objective awareness that one's mental health is deteriorating, while simultaneously lacking the power to turn back that tide. I have experienced the terrible realisation that something is not as it ought to be with my mind. When I first began to experience serious OCD symptoms at the age of 18-19, I thought I was losing my mind. I used compulsions in an attempt to find some relief from the insistent OCD thoughts that I had committed rape and murder. I used reassurance and checking compulsions before I even knew what the 'Compulsive' part of OCD is. The compulsions trapped me in a spiral of depression that resulted in hospitalisation and a trauma that I am only now beginning to address. When Shakespeare has Lear speak of 'this tempest in my mind', people who manage OCD and other mental health conditions know precisely of what he speaks. Lear knows the impossibility of trying to function with a tempest in his mind.

Lear is profoundly affected by the presence of Poor Tom (Edgar) in the hovel near the heath. I feel that the character of Poor Tom assumed by Edgar is such a trigger for Lear's emotions for several reasons. The first of these is that Poor Tom's almost incomprehensible speeches could be a harbinger for Lear of his own future. At the level of interactions between the characters, Poor Tom's mind appears to have given way under his own mental strain. Lear begins to take off his clothes in an apparent act of solidarity with Poor Tom. Perhaps Poor Tom represents for Lear the possibility of submitting to the mental tempest and allowing it to wash away his remaining faculties. The second reason for Lear to be so affected by Poor Tom takes place at the level of the audience's knowledge of the events of the play. We know, though Lear does not, that Poor Tom is a character being played by the naive but well-intentioned Edgar, who has been betrayed by a brother he loves and whom he thought loved him. We know Edgar/Poor Tom is an exemplar of what can happen when we believe, and act upon, things we ought not to. Poor Tom only exists within the play because Edgar believes the lies of Edmund. 

Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, the

toad, the todpole, the wall-newt, and the water;

that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend

rages, eats cow-dung for sallets; swallows the 

old rat and the ditch-dog; drinks the green

mantle of the standing pool; who is whipp'd

from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish'd, and 



The character Edgar creates is the pathos of his feelings of isolation, injustice, and being cut off from a loving relationship with his father, Gloucester. Poor Tom is Edgar's very real feelings taken to extremes. When Poor Tom speaks of 'the foul fiend', I can't help but equate that to the nature of mental illness. Poor Tom's language is one of degradation and the shedding of human dignity. Poor Tom is Edgar stripped bare of his faculties and his sense of what it means to be a human being. When Poor Tom speaks of eating 'the swimming frog', and 'cow-dung', he is describing himself in animalistic terms. The guilt, shame, and indignity of this language is akin to the thoughts and feelings engendered by OCD and depression. Edgar has imagined, and then carried out - in the form of Poor Tom -, an extreme punishment for crimes he has not committed and has never thought of committing. OCD deals in the worst case scenarios of which Poor Tom speaks. In the grip of obsessions and compulsions, I have frequently found myself fearing and anticipating being 'imprison'd'.

One of the themes of King Lear is characters enduring changing and changed circumstances. We see characters like Gloucester adapting to these often cruel events:


Gloucs: As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' Gods;

             They kill us for their sport.


In Act IV, scene I, Gloucester speaks of 'some covering for this naked soul', with regards to Poor Tom. I think throughout King Lear we see several characters stripped of the 'covering' provided by status and ego. We see Lear, Gloucester, Edgar, and Kent suddenly reduced in status by a combination of misfortune, the cruelty and duplicity of others, and their own naivety. 

The dual levels on which Poor Tom/Edgar operate allows Shakespeare to go to extreme lengths to depict the nature of a character whose mental health is breaking down. 

Edgar: Five fiends have been in poor Tom at once

            as Obidicut, of lust; Hoberdidance, prince of

            dumbness; Mahu, of stealing; Modo, of murder;

            Flibbertigibbet, of mopping and mowing; who

            since possesses chambermaids and waiting-women.


Edgar is preoccupied with sinfulness and crime and punishment in his speeches as Poor Tom. Stripped bare of everything else, Edgar's imagination creates characters who embody certain limitations and sins. It's as if Edgar has unleashed these spirits in his mind and given them a voice and a life that is driving him to despair. Edgar's performance as Poor Tom is not a mere imitation of mental unwellness. Edgar has removed, or had removed from him, the anchors of his existence. Poor Tom is an unmoored version of the Edgar we first meet in the play. When a blinded Gloucester and a raving Lear encounter Edgar as Poor Tom, they give him glimpses of a permanent decline in fortunes and wellbeing.

The pre-Christian world of the play is still filled with imagery of hell and punishment:

'Lear: There is the sulphurous pit - burning, scalding,

          Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!


Declining mental health in this world leads to considerations of mortality and the afterlife for characters who have seemingly had no cause to consider these things until now. Therein lies the very nature of mental health problems: we only begin to notice the vital role performed by our own mental wellbeing when it begins to go awry. King Lear is one of literature's most psychologically insightful depictions of what it means to lose the reference points that form one's identity. It's interesting that Lear, Edgar, and Gloucester all learn something from their trials. It's almost as if Lear is given an insight into his true nature, distinct from his position as monarch, before the cloud of unreason descends on him and ends his life. Shakespeare knows that each of us is only as well as our minds allow us to be. Reading King Lear through an OCD lens has made me reflect on my own experiences of failing mental health. I first read King Lear as an eighteen-year-old with no knowledge or experience of OCD or mental health conditions in general. Returning to it this time as a forty-year-old who manages OCD on a daily basis (and a writer of fiction), I am amazed anew at Shakespeare's emotional intelligence and the depth of his level of understanding of the human mind under strain.


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