When the womb heats up, the vapors rise, & the mother suffocates: The question of Lear's "mother"

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In Act II, Scene iv, Lear conjures up the image of the "mother" to express his outburst of rage and physical sensations: "O! how this mother swells up toward my heart; /Hysterica passio! down, thou climbing sorrow! /Thy element's below" (54-56). As many critics have identified, this "mother" is another name for the womb, matrix, or uterus. The image of the "swelling mother" points to the disease called hysteria. Yet, what does the "mother" stand for? Who is responsible for the rise or swelling of Lear's "mother"? Does Lear experience some sort of gender confusion by conjuring up the "mother"? Or is Lear a male hysteric? One thing is certain that the swelling of the "mother" in Lear is overwhelmingly sophisticated. The obscure, restless, and out of place "mother" in Lear is not only the symptomatic focus of the play but also the locus from which we can reformulate our position and read the play anew. What concerns us most in this paper is the way the mother affects Lear and shapes his rite of passage into self-knowledge. In other words, the purpose of this paper is to explore the theme of hysteria, to trace the effects of the swelling of the "mother," and to analyze its multifarious manifestations in Shakespeare's King Lear. In this paper, our approach to Lear's "mother" is topical, new historical, and feminist. We argue that the image of the "mother" provides us with a critical perspective to engage the patriarchal structure and examine gendered discourses and implications in the play. As a result, this paper, by re-reading King Lear in the name of the "mother," shows the working of the binary mechanism embedded in Lear's patriarchal authority and self-fashioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-233
Number of pages27
JournalTamkang Review
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 2005 Mar
Externally publishedYes


  • Edward Jorden
  • Hysteria
  • King Lear
  • Mother
  • Samuel Harsnett
  • Self-fashioning
  • Shakespeare
  • The feminine other
  • Womb

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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