Method In The Madness Essay, Research Paper
In both Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare
incorporates a theme of madness with two characters: one truly mad, and
one only acting mad to serve a motive. Themadness of Hamlet is frequently
disputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character in each play,
namely Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King Lear, acts as abalancing argument
to the other character?s madness or sanity. King Lear?s more decisive distinction
between Lear?s frailty of mind and Edgar?s contrived madnessworks to better
define the relationship between Ophelia?s breakdown and Hamlet?s “north-north-west”
brand of insanity. Both plays offer a character on each side ofsanity,
but in Hamlet the distinction is not as clear as it is in King Lear. Using
the more explicit relationship in King Lear, one finds a better understanding
of therelationship in Hamlet.
While Shakespeare does not directly pit
Ophelia?s insanity (or breakdown) against Hamlet?s madness, there is instead
a clear definitiveness in Ophelia?s condition and aclear uncertainty in
Hamlet?s madness. Obviously, Hamlet?s character offers more evidence, while
Ophelia?s breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision.Shakespeare
offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet?s sanity beginning with the first
scene of the play.
Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance
in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see
his father?s ghost in private, the argument for hismadness would greatly
improve. Yet, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before
even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio says, being the only of theguards
to play a significant role in the rest of the play, “Before my God, I might
not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes.
(I.i.56-8)”Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as
an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the King with
his reaction to the play. ThatHamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts
somewhat from its credibility, but all the men are witness to the ghost
demanding they speak alone.
Horatio offers an insightful warning:
What if it tempts you toward the flood,
my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o?er his base
into the sea, And there assume some other horrible formWhich might deprive
your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness? Think of it. (I.iv.69-74)
Horatio?s comment may be where Hamlet gets
the idea to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important
fact is that the ghost does not change form, butrather remains as the King
and speaks to Hamlet rationally. There is also good reason for the ghost
not to want the guards to know what he tells Hamlet, as the playcould not
proceed as it does if the guards were to hear what Hamlet did. It is the
ghost of Hamlet?s father who tells him, “but howsomever thou pursues this
act, / Taintnot thy mind. (I.v.84-5)” Later, when Hamlet sees the ghost
again in his mothers room, her amazement at his madness is quite convincing.
Yet one must take intoconsideration the careful planning of the ghost?s
credibility earlier in the play.
After his first meeting with the ghost,
Hamlet greets his friends cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather
than the devastation it really is.
Horatio: What news, my lord?
Hamlet: O, wonderful!
Horatio: Good my lord, tell it.
Hamlet: No, you will reveal it. (I.v.118-21)
This is the first glimpse of Hamlet?s ability
and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve effect. Clearly Hamlet
is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if helets the guards know the
severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Another instance of
Hamlet?s behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while hisuncle
and Polonius are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlet?s affection for Ophelia
has already been established in I.iii., and his complete rejection of her
and what hastranspired between them is clearly a hoax. Hamlet somehow suspects
the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz
are sent by the King andQueen to question him and investigate the cause
of his supposed madness in II.ii.
Hamlet?s actions in the play after meeting
the ghost lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy, yet that
madness is continuously checked by an ever-presentconsciousness of action
which never lets him lose control. For example, Hamlet questions his conduct
in his soliloquy at the end of II.ii, but after careful considerationdecides
to go with his instinct and prove to himself without a doubt the King?s
guilt before proceeding rashly. Even after the King?s guilt is proven with
Horatio aswitness, Hamlet again reflects and uses his better judgement
in the soliloquy at the end of III.ii. before seeing his mother. He recognizes
his passionate feelings, but tellshimself to “speak daggers to her, but
use none,” as his father?s ghost instructed. Again, when in the King?s
chamber, Hamlet could perform the murder, but decides notto in his better
judgement to ensure that he doesn?t go to heaven by dying while praying.
As Hamlet tells Guildenstern in II.ii., “I am but mad north-north-west:
when thewind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This statement
reveals out-right Hamlet?s intent to fool people with his odd behavior.
This is after Polonius?enlightened comment earlier in the same scene, “though
this be madness, yet there is method in?t.”
Compare the copious evidence against Hamlet?s
madness with the complete lack of evidence for Ophelia?s sanity after her
father?s murder. Her unquestionable insanityputs Hamlet?s very questionable
madness in a more favorable light. In IV.v. she is quite obviously mad,
and unlike Hamlet there seems to be no method to her madness.All Ophelia
can do after learning of her father?s death is sing. Indeed, Hamlet?s utter
rejection of her combined with this is too much for her, and she doesn?t
sing amourning song at the beginning of IV.v, but rather a happy love song.
Later, when she meets with Leartes, she
says to him:
There?s rosemary, that?s for remembrance;
pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that?s for thoughts.
Leartes: A document in madness, thoughts
and remembrance fitted.
Thought and afflictions, passion, hell
itself, She turns to favor and to prettiness. (IV.v.179-89)
While the Queen tells Leartes that an “envious
sliver” broke and flung Ophelia into the river wearing a headdress of wild-flowers
(compare the mad Lear?s crown ofweeds), the clowns in V.i. confirm the
reader?s suspicion that she did not die so accidentally:
s she to be buried in Christian burial
when she willfully seeks her own salvation? (V.i.1-2)
Here lies the water; good. Here stands
the man; good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will
he, nill he, he goes, mark you that. But if the water cometo him and drown
him, he drowns not himself; argal, he that is not guilty of his own death
shortens not his own life. (15-20)
Ophelia?s breakdown into madness and inability
to deal with her father?s death and Hamlet?s rejection is dealt with neatly
and punctually. There is little evidence againsther madness, compared to
Hamlet?s intelligent plotting and use of witnesses to his actions. Thus,
by defining true madness in Ophelia, Shakespeare subtracts from theplausibility
of Hamlet?s supposed insanity.
Comparing the juxtaposition of insanity
and questioned sanity in King Lear reveals another use of this device by
Shakespeare. In King Lear the lines are drawn moredistinctly between sanity
and insanity, allowing a sharper contrast between the play?s two versions
of madness. Edgar?s soliloquy in II.iii. communicates his intent to actand
dress as a mad beggar:
… Whiles I may scape
I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt
of man, Brought near to beast. My face I?ll grimewith filth, Blanket my
loins, elf all my hairs in knots, And with presented nakedness outface
The winds and persecutions of the sky. (II.iii.5-12)
There is no question of Edgar?s intent
here, and when they see this ?Bedlam beggar? in action, the audience is
aware that it is Edgar and that he is not really insane. Asin Hamlet, the
contrived madness is more spectacular than the true madness. Edgar changes
his voice, tears his clothes, and babbles on like a genuine lunatic seeming
incontrivance more genuine than Lear, the genuine maniac.
Just as Ophelia?s breakdown is believable
because of her father?s death and her rejection from Hamlet, Lear?s old
age accounts for his frailty of mind and rash, foolishdecisions. The reader
is given no motive for Lear to tear his clothes off like a raving maniac
or wear a crown of weeds and babble like a fool other than his old age
andincapability to deal with his inability to act rationally. He realizes
after being told for most of the play that he is being a fool that perhaps
his advisors are right. Only atthis point, it has long been clear to the
reader that his madness is due to senility.
In these two plays, Shakespeare uses the
dimmer light of reality to expose the brighter light of contrivance. Hamlet
and Edgar are dynamic, animated, and absurd in theirmadness, making Lear?s
and Ophelia?s true madness seem realistic rather than absurd. Hamlet and
Edgar both explicitly state the contrivance of their madness, whileLear
and Ophelia do not. Further, Hamlet and Edgar both have motive behind leading
others to believe they are insane. Although both are under severe pressure
andemotional strain due to their respective situations in each play, they
both show a remarkable amount of intelligent, conscious, and rational decision-making
in efforts toresolve their situations. In this way, they are sharply contrasted
with the mad Lear and Ophelia, whose insanity is not questioned by themselves
or other characters ineither play. Neither after displaying madness make
any rational decisions that would lead the reader to believe in their sanity.
Thus, the argument that Hamlet is trulymad refutes his ability to act rationally
and discounts the dramatic device of Ophelia (as Lear is to Edgar) as a
contrapuntal example of true insanity.