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 complexHamlet appears insane, ostensibly over Ophelia, however,
his madness is feigneda 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
madnessOphelia 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
realizationemotional 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 himat 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 behaviorspeaking to
dogs not present in the room (“Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheartsee, 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
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
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.
Wells and Taylor. William Shakespeare The Complete Works.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.