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The King Lear Complex

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

Whilst watching a recent play of Shakespeare’s King Lear it dawned on me how much of an impact the refractory period can have.

The refractory period a term coined by Paul Ekman, a Professor of Psychology, describes this as the gap between stimulus and response. In this gap there is the opportunity to allow the rational (pre-frontal cortex) part of the brain to come back over the fired emotional (Amgdala) part of the brain. Ekman states that in Psychotherapy ‘the goal for your patients is to increase the time between impulse and action’. Allowing action awareness to determine your response. Within this gap we can learn to become aware of not just our thoughts and emotions but also how it feels in our body – how is this feeling for me right now, where can I feel it?

And how does this have any relevance to King Lear you may ask. Well whilst watching the play it was clear that King Lear had not engaged his refractory period.

When his daughter Cordelia was asked how much she loved her father she was only prepared to be honest and stand by her morals. When she only acknowledging her love for him but not in a sycophantic way, King Lear was enraged. Visibly upset and feeling shame at the daughter he loved the most. Cordelia was immediately shunning and sent into exile. King Lear reacted with the emotional part of his brain. After banishing Cordelia things started to go downhill for King Lear.

King Lear’s other two daughters who were ‘acting’ out their love for their father were later shown to be selfish and unloving to King Lear. Eventually once the daughters received what they wanted – money and land - they had little need for poor King Lear. The story escalates to a fallen kingdom where he finds himself in poverty and going slightly mad.

I won’t ruin the play should you want to watch it. However, the moral from the play is that taking a step back from potentially destructive emotions allows time to process the information from a logical point of view. This isn’t easy and does take some time to build the awareness. But this could stop a situation or a few situations from escalating into something that is unwanted for both parties such as upset, anger and even physical violence.

Most of the time agreeing to disagree or just letting it go is the way forward.


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