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The Tragedies Of Shakespeare

“Your noble son is mad ?

?Mad’ call I it, for to define true madness,

What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?”

(Wells and Taylor, 665)

In Act two, scene two of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Polonius

uses these words to inform Hamlet’s parents of their son’s insanity. He then

continues on, telling Gertrude and Claudius that the cause of this madness is

lovesickness over his own daughter Ophelia (665). From the privileged

perspective of the audience, we know that Polonius is mistaken and that Hamlet

is far from insane, but rather, “playing mad” for a purpose of his own. Madness

in Shakespearean plays, and in tragedies in particular, is rarely what it seems

on the surface. Instead, both madness and the characters experiencing it are

layered with meaning; like an onion, layer after layer can be peeled off,

eventually allowing a glimpse at the core concealed within.

Shakespeare’s treatment of the character Hamlet is typically multi-

faceted and complex?Hamlet appears insane, ostensibly over Ophelia, however,

his madness is feigned?a cover for internal conflicts, rooted not in thwarted

affection, but rather in desire to avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet even goes

so far as to say his apparent madness is an act when he says “I am but mad

north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw”(667).

Shakespeare often used madness, either feigned or actual, as a teaching

tool or vehicle to advance his plot. Sometimes this madness was feigned, as

evidenced by Hamlet and Edgar (the legitimate son of Gloucester in The Tragedy

of King Lear), but other times it was genuine insanity. Ophelia and Lady

MacBeth are obvious examples of Shakespearean characters that have slipped into

madness?Ophelia due to the loss of all those dear to her, and Lady MacBeth from

guilt over the part she played in King Duncan’s murder. In Hamlet, Ophelia’s

madness ultimately leads to her demise, and this, in turn, plays a part in

Hamlet’s willingness to engage in what will be his final battle. In this sense,

it helps advance the play towards its climax.

While Lady MacBeth’s madness also leads to death, its focus is more on

teaching than propelling the story to conclusion. While Lady MacBeth is

initially seen as a cold, conscienceless, calculating woman, intent on

advancing her husband politically (by any means necessary), her character

changes as the play progresses. Early on in the play, she is full of ambition;

indeed, upon reading MacBeth’s letter, she complains about his nature and


Yet do I fear thy nature,

It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,

That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,

And yet wouldst wrongly win. (980)

The social and moral lesson here isn’t difficult to get: too much ambition leads

to downfall, either through enemies or through one’s own conscience. Lady

MacBeth’s descent into guilt and subsequent madness illustrates this well.

King Lear, yet another Shakespearean character that goes mad, also dies

at the end of his play, however, he differs from Lady MacBeth and Ophelia in

that it is heartbreak that causes his death, rather than suicide. Lear further

differs in that he, unlike Ophelia and Lady MacBeth, regains his sanity in the

course of the play. Unlike either of them, his madness is a catalyst for self

realization?emotional growth and personal insight hitherto undeveloped. The

very privilege of his position as king had sheltered him from the real world

around him, and stunted any growth that might have normally occurred. In his

case, madness served a positive function rather than a destructive one. I

believe it also served to protect him, psychologically if not physically, from

the horrors going on around him?at least until he was capable of dealing with


These instances of actual madness differ markedly from characters such

as Hamlet and Edgar, both of whom use madness as a cover to suit their own

purposes. Hamlet, mentioned earlier, affects madness as a ploy to distract

those around him from his true intent, namely, avenging his father’s murder by

killing Claudius. Edgar’s motives, on the other hand, are different; by

playing the part of a bedlam beggar, he hopes to camouflage himself, and thus

preserve his life from the fratricidal impulses of his half brother, Edmond


The madness of these characters is presented in different ways: Ophelia

wanders about, singing bits of bawdy songs and making such irrelevant and

nonsensical statements as “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we

know what we are, but not what we may be.” (679), while Hamlet dresses crazily

and plays with Polonius’ mind, initially greeting him as a fishmonger (665), and

later spouting insane sounding, yet carefully chosen pointed comments. Polonius

indeed, thinks Hamlet mad, yet at the same time, notices the barbs in his

speech: “Yet he knew me not at first, . . . [he] is far gone, far gone. . .

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. . . How pregnant sometimes

his replies are!” (666).

Lear’s temporary insanity manifests itself in odd behavior?speaking to

dogs not present in the room (”Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheart?see, they bark at

me.” (962)), wandering about in the woods fending for himself, and making

flower garlands. While this behavior is utterly uncharacteristic of a dignified

elderly king, it is this release, the freedom to fend for himself, that allows

Lear to finally attain self knowledge.

Edgar, having narrowly escaped the hunting parties sent out after him,

realizes that as long as he is himself, he will never be safe.

To that end, he decides to affect the costume and demeanor of a bedlam

beggar (thus escaping detection and almost certain death), saying:

“I will preserve myself, and . . . [will] take the

basest and poorest shape that ever penury in contempt

of man

Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth,

Blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots,

And with presented nakedness outface the winds and

persecutions of the sky.” (955)

He noted that bedlam beggars throughout the country have provided him precedent,

being generally left alone by townspeople, though sometime pelted and driven out

of town by those same people. All in all, it was a small price to pay for the

preservation of his life.

Lady Macbeth’s madness, almost not a true madness, like those of Ophelia

and Lear, but rather a nervous breakdown caused by guilt, manifests mainly in

sleepwalking before ultimately ending with her suicide. She wanders the

hallways at night, muttering “Out, damn’d spot; out, I say. . . . The Thane

of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean?”

(996). She further sees visions during the day, never at peace, starting at the

least little thing. Eventually, she succumbs to the internal torments and

commits suicide by leaping from a building.

Whether real or feigned, irrespective of the manifestation, all of these

instances of madness serve a purpose greater than merely being madness for the

sake of madness. Each of these characters teaches us something, or, through

their own actions, causes us to look inside ourselves for some insight.

Victorian audiences expected as much, and the lessons and insights are, for the

most part, as valid today as they were when Shakespeare first put pen to paper.

Of the various devices Shakespeare used to convey these messages,

madness is one of the more effective. All these years later, Ophelia’s death

still wrings a tear, causing us to fume at it’s futility. Lady MacBeth’s

suicide still seems a fitting punishment for her actions, while Lear’s

derangement, though temporary, poignantly draws our attention to the

pointlessness and heartbreak of family feuds. Somehow, the great speeches made

by other characters to rally troops (e.g., the St. Crispin day speech by Henry

V) just don’t have the same visceral impact as seeing a once strong character

in the grips of insanity.

Often, Shakespeare uses the psychological aspect of this to advantage

not only on the audience, but on other characters within the play itself.

Gertrude, for example, perhaps more open to Hamlet’s words out of pity for his

madness, shows remorse for her actions: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very

soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their

tinct” (676).

Shakespeare was masterful when it came to tying strands of the plot

together using insanity. Edgar’s “Poor Tom” act not only preserved his life,

but in doing so, it allowed him to right some of the wrongs caused by Edmond.

Gloucester would not have been open to Edgar’s care after being blinded, but he

was grateful to accept the company and guidance of “Tom”. As “Tom”, Edgar was

able to not only prevent his father’s attempted suicide, but to snap him out of

the despair and self pity he was trapped in (966). Furthermore, the persona of

“Poor Tom” allowed Edgar to be alive to duel with Edmond at the very end of the

play. Edmond admits his wrongs (”What you have charged me with, that have I

done, And more much more.” (972)), and attempts to stop Cordelia’s hanging

before he dies.

Ophelia’s drowning, a tragedy that would likely not have occurred had

she not gone mad, deeply affected both Hamlet and Laertes, causing them both to

be eager to duel when a duel was proposed. This very duel was to conclude with

Hamlet finally taking action and avenging his father’s murder.

In turn, Claudius would likely have been more suspicious of Hamlet and

have attempted to murder him more quickly than he did had he not felt pity for

Hamlet’s evident madness. Thus, several strands of the story are interwoven,

all leading to the climactic death scene that ends the tragedy.

In short, madness in Shakespeare, particularly in Shakespearean tragedy,

is never what it appeared to be on the surface. It is always a vital aspect of

the plot, interwoven throughout, having layer upon layer of meaning. Polonius

was uncannily accurate when he stated of Hamlet “Though this be madness, . . .

there is method in’t”; on a broader scope, that very sentiment can be applied to

all of Shakespeare’s applications of madness, and not just to the character

Hamlet. There is a method and a meaning for every incidence of insanity, and

indeed, often more than one. Insights we might glean from an examination of

these meanings are among Shakespeare’s lasting gifts to us, even many hundreds

of years later. This is a profound gift, and one to be treasured.

Work Cited

Wells and Taylor. William Shakespeare The Complete Works.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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