The origin of this phrase is tracked in William Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear speaks this line to Kent, to express his grief for his daughters’ selfish and cruel behavior. He says, “Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all— / O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; / No more of that” (Line-17). Here King Lear recognizes that, if he keeps pondering this way, he would definitely lose his senses.
Through this phrase, Shakespeare has beautifully reminded his audience that, when someone becomes obsessed with a worry, a problem, a point of view, or grief, the inner storm that brews could take over his mind and thinking to an extent that he forgets everything else. The person in question even forgets to take care of himself. Simply, when a person does everything humanly possible for others, yet others pay him back very poorly, it causes despair and obsession due to over-thinking, ultimately leading him to a point of madness.
The use of this phrase is common in literature and other fields of life. In everyday life, we might hear a father using this line for his children, who are not thankful to him in spite of all his efforts to earn them happiness. A devoted leader might be complaining of his people, despite contributing his entire life for their welfare, and then when they do not acknowledge his great performance. Similarly, a head of a company may feel the same and expresses his disappointment for unsatisfactory responses of his employees.
This phrase appears in line-21 of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the King speaks this line to express his grief over his daughters’ bad behavior to him by saying:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out? Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this? O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all—
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.
(King Lear, Act-III, Scene-IV, Lines-17-22)
The tempest arises in the King’s mind when he is feeling depressed for his daughters’ ingratitude toward, and maltreatment of, him. Then he goes blank and thinks about this, reminding himself that this heartache and emotional pain is going to drive him almost crazy.
This phrase sets the stage for the feigned madness of the king, as its very theme is madness. As the storm comes on the heath, King Lear considers filial ingratitude of his wicked daughters, Goneril and Regan, to whom he has given his realm. However, now they have turned their father into a furious and unbearable storm, to show the King who is in charge.
He has gone through the three previous scenes dwelling upon the crimes of his daughters. Now it is strange that the King should wish to avoid this topic. Therefore, he laments on his daughters’ ungratefulness to him. While seeking shelter, he delivers this speech to Kent, that he would not go to those wicked girls because it will make him go mad.