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, Poloniususes these words to inform Hamlet’s parents of their son’s insanity. He thencontinues on, telling Gertrude and Claudius that the cause of this madness islovesickness over his own daughter Ophelia (665). From the privilegedperspective of the audience, we know that Polonius is mistaken and that Hamletis far from insane, but rather, “playing mad” for a purpose of his own.
Madnessin Shakespearean plays, and in tragedies in particular, is rarely what it seemson the surface. Instead, both madness and the characters experiencing it arelayered 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 complexHamlet appears insane, ostensibly over Ophelia, however,his madness is feigneda cover for internal conflicts, rooted not in thwartedaffection, but rather in desire to avenge his father’s murder.
Hamlet even goesso far as to say his apparent madness is an act when he says “I am but madnorth-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 teachingtool or vehicle to advance his plot. Sometimes this madness was feigned, asevidenced by Hamlet and Edgar (the legitimate son of Gloucester in The Tragedyof King Lear), but other times it was genuine insanity. Ophelia and LadyMacBeth are obvious examples of Shakespearean characters that have slipped intomadnessOphelia due to the loss of all those dear to her, and Lady MacBeth fromguilt over the part she played in King Duncan’s murder. In Hamlet, Ophelia’smadness ultimately leads to her demise, and this, in turn, plays a part inHamlet’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 onteaching than propelling the story to conclusion. While Lady MacBeth isinitially seen as a cold, conscienceless, calculating woman, intent onadvancing her husband politically (by any means necessary), her characterchanges 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 andinaction:Yet do I fear thy nature,It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindnessTo catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,Art not without ambition, but withoutThe 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 leadsto downfall, either through enemies or through one’s own conscience. LadyMacBeth’s descent into guilt and subsequent madness illustrates this well.
King Lear, yet another Shakespearean character that goes mad, also diesat the end of his play, however, he differs from Lady MacBeth and Ophelia inthat it is heartbreak that causes his death, rather than suicide. Lear furtherdiffers in that he, unlike Ophelia and Lady MacBeth, regains his sanity in thecourse of the play. Unlike either of them, his madness is a catalyst for selfrealizationemotional growth and personal insight hitherto undeveloped. Thevery privilege of his position as king had sheltered him from the real worldaround him, and stunted any growth that might have normally occurred. In hiscase, madness served a positive function rather than a destructive one. Ibelieve it also served to protect him, psychologically if not physically, fromthe horrors going on around himat least until he was capable of dealing withthem.
These instances of actual madness differ markedly from characters suchas Hamlet and Edgar, both of whom use madness as a cover to suit their ownpurposes. Hamlet, mentioned earlier, affects madness as a ploy to distractthose around him from his true intent, namely, avenging his father’s murder bykilling Claudius.Edgar’s motives, on the other hand, are different; byplaying the part of a bedlam beggar, he hopes to camouflage himself, and thuspreserve his life from the fratricidal impulses of his half brother, Edmond(955).
The madness of these characters is presented in different ways: Opheliawanders about, singing bits of bawdy songs and making such irrelevant andnonsensical statements as “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, weknow what we are, but not what we may be.” (679), while Hamlet dresses crazilyand plays with Polonius’ mind, initially greeting him as a fishmonger (665), andlater spouting insane sounding, yet carefully chosen pointed comments. Poloniusindeed, thinks Hamlet mad, yet at the same time, notices the barbs in hisspeech: “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 sometimeshis replies are!” (666).
Lear’s temporary insanity manifests itself in odd behaviorspeaking todogs not present in the room (“Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheartsee, they bark atme.” (962)), wandering about in the woods fending for himself, and makingflower garlands. While this behavior is utterly uncharacteristic of a dignifiedelderly king, it is this release, the freedom to fend for himself, that allowsLear 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 bedlambeggar (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 outof town by those same people. All in all, it was a small price to pay for thepreservation of his life.
Lady Macbeth’s madness, almost not a true madness, like those of Opheliaand Lear, but rather a nervous breakdown caused by guilt, manifests mainly insleepwalking before ultimately ending with her suicide. She wanders thehallways at night, muttering “Out, damn’d spot; out, I say. . . . The Thaneof 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 theleast little thing. Eventually, she succumbs to the internal torments andcommits suicide by leaping from a building.
Whether real or feigned, irrespective of the manifestation, all of theseinstances of madness serve a purpose greater than merely being madness for thesake of madness. Each of these characters teaches us something, or, throughtheir own actions, causes us to look inside ourselves for some insight.
Victorian audiences expected as much, and the lessons and insights are, for themost 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 deathstill wrings a tear, causing us to fume at it’s futility. Lady MacBeth’ssuicide still seems a fitting punishment for her actions, while Lear’sderangement, though temporary, poignantly draws our attention to thepointlessness and heartbreak of family feuds. Somehow, the great speeches madeby other characters to rally troops (e.g., the St. Crispin day speech by HenryV) just don’t have the same visceral impact as seeing a once strong characterin the grips of insanity.
Often, Shakespeare uses the psychological aspect of this to advantagenot 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 hismadness, shows remorse for her actions: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my verysoul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave theirtinct” (676).
Shakespeare was masterful when it came to tying strands of the plottogether 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 hewas grateful to accept the company and guidance of “Tom”. As “Tom”, Edgar wasable to not only prevent his father’s attempted suicide, but to snap him out ofthe 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 theplay. Edmond admits his wrongs (“What you have charged me with, that have Idone, And more much more.” (972)), and attempts to stop Cordelia’s hangingbefore he dies.
Ophelia’s drowning, a tragedy that would likely not have occurred hadshe not gone mad, deeply affected both Hamlet and Laertes, causing them both tobe eager to duel when a duel was proposed. This very duel was to conclude withHamlet finally taking action and avenging his father’s murder.
In turn, Claudius would likely have been more suspicious of Hamlet andhave attempted to murder him more quickly than he did had he not felt pity forHamlet’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 ofthe plot, interwoven throughout, having layer upon layer of meaning. Poloniuswas 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 toall of Shakespeare’s applications of madness, and not just to the characterHamlet. There is a method and a meaning for every incidence of insanity, andindeed, often more than one. Insights we might glean from an examination ofthese meanings are among Shakespeare’s lasting gifts to us, even many hundredsof years later. This is a profound gift, and one to be treasured.
Work CitedWells and Taylor. William Shakespeare The Complete Works.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
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The Tragedies Of Shakespeare. (2019, Jan 03). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-tragedies-of-shakespeare/