The Wandering of King Lear’s MotherAfter he experiences all kinds of humiliation done by Goneril, and finds his
messenger Kent in the stocks, King Lear, in Act 2 Scene 4, conjures up the “mother”
to express his outburst of rage and physical symptom sensations:
O! how this mother swells up toward my heart;
Hysterica passio! down, thou climbing sorrow!
Thy element’s below. Where is this daughter? (II.iv.56-58)
Who is this “mother”? Or what is this “mother”? As many critics have
identified, this “mother” is another name for the womb, matrix, or uterus. That the
“mother swells up” points to the disease called hysteria. Yet, who is responsible for
the rise or wandering of Lear’s “mother”? Does Lear experience some sort of
gender confusion by conjuring up the “mother”? As Janet Adelman keenly points
out, “The bizarreness of these lines has not always been appreciated; in them Lear
quite literally acknowledges the presence of the sulphurous pit within him” (114).
But still why do we want to focus on this “mother” after all? One thing is certain
that the (m)othering of the “mother” is overwhelmingly sophisticated, to the extent
that the “mother” is located in the inside of Lear’s body and her implicated
wanderings can be traced throughout the whole play. For our purpose, the “mother”
holds significant clues to our interpretive enterprise and her (m)othering must be
handled with extreme care.
In Renaissance England, medical interest in hysteria dates from Edward Jorden’s
publication of A Briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother
(1603). The title of the book suggests the disease called the “m…
… to bolster up male identity.
Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in
Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Camden, Carroll. “The Suffocation of The Mother.” Modern Language Notes,
63.6 (June., 1948), 390-393.
Jorden, Edward. A Briefe Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the
Mother (London 1603). In Witchcraft and Hysteria in Elizabethan London.
Ed. & introd. Michael MacDonald. London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. Kenneth Muir.
London: Methuen, 1972.
1 As Carroll Camden argues, “Apparently a male who presented choking as a nervous symptom was,
by analogy, said to be suffering from the same disease” (393). Carroll Camden, Modern Language
Notes (June 1948).