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
inaction:

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
them.
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
(955).
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