The tragedies of Hamlet and King Lear display characters that are afflicted with madness.
While for some of them, this madness is self-imposed, for others the mental challenges are real. During the Elizabethan era—the time in which William Shakespeare wrote these plays—more than one idea circulated about the significance of madness. On the one hand, madness was considered (mainly in the medical field) as resulting from imbalances of the four humors: melancholy, phlegm, choler, and blood (Hunter, 1-4). Uncharacteristic dominance of any one of these would create an imbalance of the personality that would manifest itself as madness.
The other dominant theory of madness was an unofficial one that circulated within the culture, and it stated that madness occurred as a result of God’s interference with humans as a result of their evil actions (Bright, qtd. in Hunter, 36-37). Even Michel Foucault implies this in his statement that “In Shakespeare, madness is allied to death and murder,” occurrences that becomes the inevitable result of the evil that begins the play (29).
Madness represents the retributive hand of God that scourges the conscience in order to punish or remove the evil that has led to a person’s unjust actions.
While these ideas have immediate application in the tragedy of King Lear, they cannot be so readily applied to the action and psychology of the characters in Hamlet. The reason for this is that while King Lear’s madness is real, the madness to be found in the character Hamlet is one that he feigns for a specific purpose. However, one way to apply these theories to Hamlet (as well as Edgar, who also feigns madness) is to ascertain the humors or circumstances that drive him to feign this madness. A theory that might be brought directly to bear upon the significance of these feigning characters’ antics is one that also prevailed during the time of Shakespeare.
This theory hearkens back to the time of Aristotle when madness was considered the result of a person’s being divinely inspired (Skultans 20). Using a mixture of all these theories, it can be demonstrated that King Lear, Hamlet, Edgar, and even the Fool perform their antic actions as a method of purgation and of rendering truth and righteousness visible beneath the evil and lies that pervade the nations of Denmark and Britain.King Lear ostensibly becomes mad only after his rejection by his daughters Regan and Goneril. Yet, it might be considered that he had already in his personality a proclivity toward madness.
He is described by his daughter Goneril in one of the first scenes of the play as being predisposed to choleric manifestations. She says, “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look from his age to receive, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them” (1.2.294-298).
She describes him as being prone to rashness and anger, attributing these not only to his personality but also to his agedness. This predisposition to anger is manifested in his actions toward Cordelia who makes known her inability to express the extent of her love toward her father. He reacts rashly and disowns her, justifying the words that Goneril has spoken by behaving in a choleric manner. This overabundance of cholera proves to be madness, and ushers in the situations that scourge him for the wrong has committed here.
The words of the Fool spoken while the King is exiled from his daughters underscores the madness to which Lear appears to have had a predilection. He says to Lear, “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath” (III.vi). This “madness” occurs before the manifestation of King Lear’s wandering mind and psychosis, as it is within his apparent sanity that he trusts the flattery of Goneril and Regan over the ineffable yet true love of his daughter Cordelia.
He trusts his sheepish daughters though they are wolves, and the insanity of these actions point toward a naturally insane mind. He humors are unbalanced and this discrepancy attracts a situational punishment that might be considered retributive. Therefore, in this analysis, the divinely and naturally bestowed types of madness meet, the divine manifesting itself in the situation created as a result of his natural tendency toward madness.It might also be considered that although Hamlet’s madness is feigned, some tendency toward madness already existed in his character.
The play opens with him in mourning—a natural state for him to be in considering the death of his father. Yet, despite the fact that his grief is understandable, one still gets the feeling that he leans too much toward sadness in a manner that might be demonstrative of an excess of the melancholic humor. He is able to derive no comfort from his former pleasures, as this loss of his father (and what he considers betrayal by his mother) has consumed every aspect of his life. He takes no steps to distract himself by work and ignores his former love Ophelia.
His bent toward (and sheer obsession with) revenge demonstrates a kind of madness that does appear to derive from his natural melancholic tendencies. Though the reader is not inclined to sympathize with the views of Claudius, his words, “’Tis unmanly grief. It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, a hert unfortified, a mind impatient […]” do point toward what might be happening with Hamlet (I.ii).
Hamlet himself gives voice to the depth of melancholy in his nature when he cries, “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew: or that the Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ’gainst self slaughter” (I.ii). Here Hamlet speaks of a desire to commit suicide as an attempt to remove himself from the situations that cause him so much grief. This thought might be considered to come about as a result of a natural inclination toward melancholy.
This melancholy that demands that he remove himself from grievous situations may prove responsible, therefore, for his decision to put on an “antic disposition” (I.v). It might here be considered that something even beyond Hamlet’s melancholy nature has driven him toward “madness.” In order to escape the overwhelming situation of his life (in which he has found his uncle to be murderer of his father and usurper of his throne) he takes on madness to allow himself freedom to avenge his father.
This indicates that his “madness” performs another role, which is to hide the evil that has found itself in his heart. Though this madness is self-inflicted, it does occur (in the divine way) as a result of evil and renders Hamlet an outcast. Yet this madness comes also with a twist. Though meant to offer him a way to avenge his father’s death, it also manifests itself in his initial inability to perform the action that would kill Claudius.
It shows him as having a double-mindedness which is reminiscent of schizophrenia. One finds that this insane indecision is a direct result of the depths to which his hatred runs—as he is unwilling to kill him while he prays, as he fears Claudius might go to heaven as a result of repentance. Hamlet’s “madness,” therefore, does appear to result from his inner evil and represents a cruelty even within himself that must be purged in the events of the play.The character of the Fool also feigns madness in a sense, but he best encapsulates the idea of being divinely inspired in this “madness” toward telling (even foretelling) the truth.
Shakespeare often utilized the character of jester or fool as the one who has the ability to speak the truth in situations where hypocrisy and reputation might prevent “sane” characters from doing so. This freedom to be insightful can be considered evidence of the Fool’s being imbued with divine and almost clairvoyant qualities. The Fool speaks plainly of the idiocy that Lear performs in disowning Regan in favor of her sisters, saying “That sir which serves and seeks for gain, and follows but for form, will pack when it begins to rain, and leave thee in the storm” (II.iv).
Here he predicts the actions that Goneril and Regan have performed in pretending love for their father and then abandoning him after getting his wealth. Yet what appears to be clairvoyance might really just be wisdom and truth. He goes on to note that “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out” (I.iv).
He covertly whips out the truth now and then, acting as the mouthpiece of God and declaring these things the reasons for Lear’s scourge of madness.In King Lear, Edgar feigns madness in a manner similar to the way Hamlet does, and this madness might be seen also as resulting from evil. His brother’s devious actions cause him to have to flee his father’s house and take refuge as the mad Tom O’ Bedlam. He pretends that a foul spirit has been leading him in his madness, and this “spirit” might be compared with (and seen as a symbol of) the evil that has stirred his brother to action against him.
One hears him making statements like “the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, and through ford and whirlipool e’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters in his pew; set ratsbane by his porridge” (III.iv). These antic-inducing actions might be considered as having been performed by his brother, who does attempt to get rid of Edgar by placing his bane (false testimonies) into the ear of his father, the one who once provided his “porridge.”Edgar’s madness is driven by circumstance, yet it also seeks to resolve the problems.
This disguise allows him freedom to do what he must to rectify the muddled situation and destroy the evil that has been the cause of it. This attribute makes him akin to Hamlet in his purpose and in the symbolism of his antics. Yet, he is also akin to the Fool—as he begins the play as a gullible character who then assumes a disguise. Within his disguise, he offers insight into the true nature of the human being (regardless of his station), and this renders Edgar wise, though an assumed fool (III.
vi). This wisdom affords him another role, one of uncovering the villains and aiding their demise. In his madness, he is shown to be an aid, which might be considered divine. He assists his father Gloucester in his blindness, which is symbolic of a divine forgiveness.
In fact, he saves the life of a man who believed him a criminal, and this gesture of forgiveness might be seen as a way through which his assumed madness has allowed him to purge himself and absolve his father of any evil he might have harbored or participated in. This is further symbolized in his “transformation” (or apotheosis?) from a madman (devil) to a gentleman after saving his father’s life.Of all the characters, however, it is Lear whose madness proves to be the most authentic and the one imbued with the most legitimate purpose. His madness might be considered a journey from his state of rashness and gullibility to one in which he understands the true meanings of the actions of those who surround him.
In his affliction, Lear speaks of the revelation of lies within hypocritical truth: “Let the great gods, that keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads, find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch, that hast within thee undivulged crimes, unwhipp’d of justice” (III.ii). This represents the type of revelation that he derives from his state of madness.
In fact, his madness ironically produces the most clarity he has perhaps ever experienced. Madness causes the illusions of Lear’s family and courtly life to be removed. He comes to see the error of his ways and expresses this in the remorse of his speeches. One critic writes, “Lear’s abdication of political and juridical responsibility leads indirectly to a test of his sanity that solicits our redemptive sensibilities” (Hawley).
His madness redeems him, rescues him from evil and sin and sets his heart right. This is also finally displayed in his seeking forgiveness of Regan as he humbles himself before her.The madness represented in Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and King Lear reveals the psyche of certain human characters that have been disturbed by situations into showing their weaknesses. While Hamlet demonstrates a tendency toward melancholy, King Lear shows in himself a natural bent toward choleric rashness.
However, the characters of both plays demonstrate additional symbols for and manifestations of madness. Hamlet demonstrates that his melancholy leads him to feign madness in order to effect a retributive act toward his father’s murderer. Edgar demonstrates a similar (yet nobler) action in his feigning madness to escape his family and reverse the plot that had been set against him. Lear, on the other hand, suffers real madness in a way that can be seen as the hand of God fashioned to purge him and reveal to him the truth about himself and his family.
Finally, the Fool represents the madness that allows the voice of God to display wisdom and righteousness in the face of foolishness and lies, and to give meaning to the events of the play. Works CitedBright, Timothy. A Treatise of Melancholie. Hunter 36-37.
Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.Hawley, William M.
Shakespearean Tragedy and the Common Law: The Art of Punishment (Studies in Shakespeare, Vol. 7). Peter Lang Publishing, 1998.Hunter, Richard, and Ida MacAlpine, eds.
Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry 1535- 1860: a History Presented in Selected English Texts. London: Oxford UP, 1963.Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
London: Penguin, 1994.Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Washington Square, 1993.
Skultans, Vieda. English Madness: Ideas on Insanity, 1580-1890. London: Routledge, 1979.
Cite this Lear and Hamlet
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