Insanity Within the Plays of William Shakespeare Term Paper

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Shakespeare and Insanity

An Analysis of Insanity in Four Plays by Shakespeare

Shakespeare lived at a time when the old medieval Catholic world was splitting apart and giving rise to the new modern Protestant world. In the midst of this real conflict, Shakespeare depicts on stage several different characters that go mad. Some feign madness, some truly lose their minds, and some are bewitched by the maddening charms of love potions. This paper will analyze the degrees of madness in four of Shakespeare's plays and show why each case is unique and different from all the others and yet in a way related to the transforming world in which the playwright found himself.

Hamlet is by no means representative of the kind of insanity that Shakespeare depicts in all his dramas. But there is in a Hamlet, a young man who has just returned home from college, a prototype for much of modern drama. Hamlet is an actor, and in Hamlet, the Prince feigns madness out of exasperation with the fakery he sees at Elsinore -- whether it his in his mother, or in the spying Polonius, or in the puppeteer-ed Ophelia. Yet, his fake madness (and his mad-seeming acts, like the murder of Ophelia's father), do spread madness -- specifically, to Ophelia.

Hamlet's "insanity," however, is significant because he has been schooled at Wittenberg, the famous locale where the arch-Protestant Martin Luther nailed his Theses. Hamlet is, in a sense, one who has been educated in a tradition of rebellion. He is a witty young man and very bright -- but he is also very dramatic, given to melancholy, and interested in philosophical truth. He fits the definition of the baroque, a word which essentially means "irregular pearl." According to the Catholic tradition then, the "irregular pearl" is the soul of mankind affected by Original Sin. The emerging Protestantism of the time saw some "pearls" as more regular than others. Baroque art attempted to combat this idea with sweeping visuals and dramatic works like Hamlet, which showed that all men and women possessed an "irregular pearl," that is, a fallen human nature -- capable of falling into sin at any moment.

It is this nature that initially confounds Hamlet. He states, "O that this too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter…" (1.2.129-132). He is a young man who wants to change his nature, who cannot accept the world as it is. Yet, he is not a man without faith: he believes in the fundamental laws of Christianity concerning suicide. He is not like Horatio, who is a self-confessed Stoic, and who would gladly follow in his Roman ancestors' tradition of throwing himself upon the knife when overwhelming circumstances called for it. Hamlet is not as easily satisfied. He looks more deeply than Horatio. He penetrates to the hidden mystery of things. What is the essence of this life, why does man suffer wrongs, and what is to come are all questions he poses in "To be, or not to be…" (3.1.56). Hamlet concludes that it is fear of the unknown that keeps man from "making his quietus with a bare bodkin," but that fear is not entirely irrational. It stems from a well-reasoned thesis, in which he has attempted to attain some modicum of truth.

Yet, Hamlet's exasperation stems from the shallowness and sinfulness of those in authority over him. Polonius, for example, tells Ophelia to drop Hamlet and cut off their engagement. This only adds to Hamlet's exasperation, and compels Ophelia to cry, "O what a noble mind is here overthrown!" Of course, the mind that is overthrown is hers just as much as it is Hamlet's. Ophelia goes mad in a real way, after being crushed by Hamlet and after having her strings cut (literally) with the death of her father. If Hamlet cannot believe, cannot act, cannot love ("Doubt truth to be a liar," he says to Ophelia, "but never doubt I love"), Ophelia cannot live, for she has not been allowed to exercise her own mind. When the puppeteer dies, so too does Ophelia: she goes insane and drowns herself. The brutal irony of Hamlet, and of Shakespeare's world around him, is that modern Protestant doubt had already spread to medieval Catholic sense -- and was overthrowing everything in sight.

This overthrow is especially reflected in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth, as Richard Weaver says, is a character representative of modern man's philosophical worldview (2). If Hamlet is the first modern man (White), Macbeth is modern man gone one step further (and in the wrong direction), having abandoned everything in which he used to believe: "What the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals" (Weaver 2-3). Such is what has happened to man in the modern age; such is what happens to Shakespeare's Macbeth -- until, ultimately, the world becomes for him a stage full of "sound and fury, signifying nothing" (5.5) and slips into a maddening nihilistic vision of reality.

A.W. Corpe insists that "in no other of the plays have we the gradual deterioration of character so forcibly drawn" (84) -- and the force is, indeed, paramount. As Macbeth begins, we are told of a character whose heroic and valiant deeds have been the means by which rebellion has been put down and order restored in the Scottish kingdom. Fighting for King Duncan, Macbeth has proven himself a noble subject ("Brave Macbeth -- well he deserves that name" recounts an anonymous Captain) (1.1.16). However, such words do not introduce the play: the words of the witches do -- their plot to snare Macbeth already in the works before we have learned anything of the man. Like Shakespeare's Iago, the witches of Macbeth possess what Coleridge termed "motiveless malignancy" -- their designs are evil, their intent to destroy that which is good.

Macbeth falls for the trap and then, when conscience offers him a way out through confession, Macbeth kills it too, thus removing the last barrier between himself and bloodbath, redemption and nihilism. Macbeth, unlike Hamlet, does not die with a prayer to his friend that he be remembered (and presumably prayed for). Macbeth, at the end, is out of friends (he has either killed them all or they have left him), and his recognition of his fall fails to move him to repentance: Macbeth, true to his course, fights on, convinced of the wrongness of his actions, yet too proud to alter his projection. Thus, he loses his head (both literally and figuratively): slain off-stage, his rebellious head is carried on in the hands of Macduff. The reversal is complete -- hero and suppresser of rebels in the beginning, Macbeth becomes a regicide, usurper, and headless rebel in the end.

Lady Macbeth fares no better. If Macbeth kills his conscience, Lady Macbeth has her seemingly absent conscience awakened by her hand in the murder of Duncan. She goes mad, seeing the blood stain on the hand even after she continues to wash it. She is overthrown by the very force of conscience, that transcendent element in the soul that cries out for justice, truth, goodness, and unity. How this reversal comes about is, like the structure, not difficult to determine. There is the scene in which the witches tempt Macbeth; there is the scene in which his wife pushes him on (she herself would fit in well with the witches' troupe); there is the murder of the king, in which Macbeth murders Duncan in his sleep ("Macbeth hath murdered sleep, Macbeth shall sleep no more") -- an announcement of the existence of the conscience that is both awakened in Lady Macbeth (who then goes insane) and slaughtered by Macbeth in his own person. Macbeth's deterioration is complete: when he rationalizes the murder of his own reason and the voice of his own conscience -- the acknowledgement, as Weaver calls it, of transcendentals, his bad end is imminent. Of his own wife's death, he says only, "She should have died hereafter."

Such a level of nihilistic madness is somewhat apparent in King Lear, as well, but not perhaps to as bad a state. Samuel Johnson marks himself as a man of keen sensitivity when he acknowledges in his review of Shakespeare's King Lear that he was "so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor" (1765). This may seem like a fair assessment; but upon a second examination, it may perhaps reveal something about Johnson and his age that is so foreign to the ideas which Shakespeare presented in King Lear that he could do nothing but recoil in horror. Johnson was, after all, an Anglican -- of the Church that persecuted Campion…

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