Method In The Madness


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.

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