William Shakespeare Madness - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


Commonly regarded by scholars as one of the consummate portrayers of the human psyche in all of literature, Shakespeare's finely-drawn characterizations are distinguished by an abiding interest in the themes of self-delusion, psychological imbalance, and insanity. The accuracy of Shakespeare's insights into these phenomena has been credited by many as an anticipation of numerous findings of twentieth-century psychiatry.

Shakespearean scholarship of recent decades has evidenced an increasing historical interest in the Elizabethan conception of mental illness as a means of shedding new light on such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Several critics have focused in particular on correcting previous misreadings of key Shakespearean texts by articulating the distinctions between twentieth-century conceptions of the nature of insanity from those of the Elizabethan period. Carol Thomas Neely, for example, explores the ways in which madness during the early modern period "began to be secularized, medicalized, psychologized, and… gendered." Also concerned with a historical perspective are scholars including Winfred Overholser and Paolo Valesio, who elucidate the elements of Greco-Roman, medieval Christian, and folkloristic traditions contributing to Renaissance conception of insanity. Some commentators, including Jack D'Amico, have examined how Shakespeare illustrated connections between madness and politics through his characterization of the legendary Roman figure Junius Brutus. Similarly, Karin S. Coddon has read Hamlet in the light of the trial for treason of Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, arguing that the tragedy dramatizes the Elizabethan notion that political disobedience is a form of madness.

An interest in the relationship between gender and madness has also informed recent Shakespearean scholarship. Hamlet in particular has been the focus of gender analysis by modern feminist commentators such as Elaine Showalter, who articulates the historical importance of Ophelia's character to the "theoretical construction of female insanity." Also examining madness and gender in Shakespeare's plays are Maurice and Hanna Charney, who associate madness with a form of liberation for Shakespeare's female characters. Through their analysis of Elizabethan stage conventions, the critics conclude that the dramatic portrayal of feminine madness "allowed women an emotional intensity and scope not usually expected in conventional feminine roles."


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ruth Perry (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Madness in Euripides, Shakespeare, and Kafka: An Examination of The Bacchae, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Castle," in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 253-79.

[In the following essay, Perry examines Shakespeare's association of madness with family relationships, alienation, and self-dramatization in King Lear and Hamlet.]

Shakespeare … locates madness in family relations. His characters are locked up with the other members of their families in gloomy castles, where together they play through the progressive circumstances which lead to madness. Thus Hamlet is betrayed by the enmities and alliances among his parental figures, which leave him nowhere to turn and paralyze him with ambivalence. He is left alone, contemplating himself in the mirror of his consciousness, trying abstractedly to see what he feels. Ophelia, too, is trapped between loyalties, warned by each side about the other, until her trust in herself and others is destroyed and she is unable to relate to anyone and even "incapable of her own distress" (IV, vii). In King Lear the central image of madness is that of a deserted child, left alone to howl his rage into the storm, for the old man's age and abdication of power reverses his relation to his daughters and makes him their dependent child.…

The imaginative conceptions of madness during the English Renaissance were very different from those of the ancient world. For one thing, madmen were no longer conceived of as effectively dangerous. Hamlet and King Lear do not rampage and kill their children as Heracles and Agave do. In fact, it is their ineffectiveness that is striking in these plays. When Edgar wants to disguise himself as someone of no account, whom no one will bother, he chooses to be poor Tom O'Bedlam who roams the English countryside, harmlessly incoherent. By this time, madness had become more a matter of inappropriate social response than of inexplicable acts of violence. No longer was madness perceived as showing up in those explosive deeds that broke the taboos of human society. It was becoming a more finely-tuned matter of not sharing the perceptions and conclusions of the culture.

Michael Foucault claims that there was a growing conviction in the late Middle Ages that the line between folly and sanity was tenuous—that fools could be a great deal closer to the truth than so-called sane people, or that all people were fools.1 Certainly there was a real confusion of the title—and the role—of "fool" in the courts of Europe. They ranged from poor feeble-minded folk who provided slapstick entertainment for the nobility to especially licensed nimble-witted and sharp-tongued jesters like the "fool" in King Lear. Folly was a blanket term that designated all behavior which differed from the way daily life was generally conducted. This is the ironical sense of folly in Sebastian Brant's fifteenth-century poem Nas Darrenshiff. Everyone on his imaginary ship earns a place on this "ship of fools" for behaving contrary to common sense (as who does not, occasionally)—from those who stupidly miscalculate expenses or knowingly sin, thereby jeopardizing their chances of going to heaven, to those who hallucinate voices.

To this way of thinking, madness—or folly—was simply the minority opinion in any judgment on reality. And it was not until the end of the seventeenth century that there was concerted social effort to contain dissent about everyday realities. Perhaps it was the challenge posed by the new science to all the traditional sources of authority that made deviation a more serious matter. In any case, Foucault notices that during this period European society seemed increasingly threatened by the mad people within it—to the point of finally even seeking institutional demarcation between the sane and the insane in the form of the first asylums for the mad. That is, when received truth was no longer standard, there was an intensified need for generally agreed upon interpretations of reality and stiffer penalties for divergence from it. Thus the age of reason developed more inflexible definitions of unreason and weeded it out of everyday life in a rather punitive and impersonal way.

The mad had not been confined to madhouses in Renaissance England but were generally supported by the communities in which they roamed. Even as late as 1650 the town of Newcastle was reimbursing clothiers for supplying the needs of the "town foole"—undoubtedly a simple-minded fellow who dressed up like a clown on festival days.2 In Shakespeare's time the insane had mingled freely with the sane and social commentators were still playful about the continuities between folly and madness, imprudence or irresponsibility and lunacy. Certainly there is this sense of gradation of sanity in King Lear. The official "fool" hired as a member of the royal retinue is a distinctly different type from the indigent "fool" imitated by Edgar, who wanders about the countryside unable to care for himself and dependent on village charity for sustenance. And then there was also that other sort of lunacy, represented by Lear himself, where a man might seem normal one day and rave the next. When Shakespeare huddles these three together on a heath in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the play, it is at least a visual pun on madness. Then he further complicates the ironies of distinguishing the sane from the insane by making these outcasts the only really sane alternative in a world gone crazy over power.

Shakespeare puts Lear's relation to power at the heart of his madness. As he loses control of his world and himself—a fitting penance for unjust control—he displays a childlike helplessness behind his tyrannizing and a narcissistic disconnectedness from others. Shakespeare shows us a weary orphan within that fierce and majestic figure, who wants to "rest" on Cordelia's "kind nursery" and "unburden'd crawl toward death." Within that obdurate old man who always insists on having his own way, there is a spoiled child ("They flatter'd me like a dog"), ready to fly off the handle when crossed and run away from home. Indeed, the childishness in his blind egotism becomes more and more visible as he is overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his reach. The Fool's taunts about his abdication of authority echo from the beginning of the play: "All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with … thou mad'st thy daughters thy mothers … when thou gav'st them the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches" (I, iv). When he begins to crack and his feelings burst out, inarticulate as a child's, one feels the full reasonance of these words.

Erik Erikson claims that the impotent anger of childhood is one of life's most traumatic experiences, and that adult anxiety is a reliving of this infantile rage. Lear is reduced to just this kind of helpless rage in his extremity. His words of anger are not bitter or scheming but frightened, outraged, defenseless. He sounds like a child having a tantrum: "I will have such revenges on you both / That all the world shall—I will do such things—/ What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be / The terrors of the earth" (II, iv). It is very different from the way Kent blows up at Oswald (II, ii) with an anger which is sure of itself and not hysterical. Lear is reduced to howling and cannot retaliate. "I will punish home," he cries; "No, I will weep no more" (III, iv). The only punishment he can think of is to stop weeping. Truly "Old fools are babes again" (I, iii); this is not the frightening anger of a powerful man, but the pathetic, choking rage of a child.

Shakespeare sets up the play to bring out this diminished side to Lear's imperious authority. One feels his relish in reducing Lear to these proportions in the impossible odds he sets up against this stubborn old man. For the fundamental antagonism of the play is between Lear and that grim adversary, life, which cannot be scripted like the fairy tale he tries to force it into in the first scene of the play. His contest is dramatized in the night he spends on the heath "contending with the fretful elements" when he "strives in his little world of man to outscorn / The to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain" (III, i). Shakespeare concocts his madness as a punishment, as one more burden for the royal despot who insists on his own prerogative of power in spite of what is justly due him.

Everything is arranged to shove unwanted truths down Lear's throat—the evil intentions of Goneril and Regan, the pitiful privations of the poorest in his kingdom and his own deficiencies, for "He hath but slenderly known himself." The world of this play has its mixtures of the agreeable and disagreeable as unavoidably obvious as Cordelia's double duty to both a father and a husband, or the doubling of good sons and bad sons, good daughters and bad daughters. Everyone else in the drama understands the complexity of reality, knows how to speak one thing and intend another. No good comes of Cordelia's purist refusal to play the game. Edgar saves Gloucester's life with a shabby trick. Even Kent knows how to adapt to situations when necessary. He can palaver of "the wreath of radiant fire on flickering Phoebus' front" (II, ii) when he has to, or

other accents borrow
That can my speech defuse, my good intent
May carry though itself to that full issue
For which I razed my likeness.
(I, iv)

Lear alone willfully denies the harsher realities, and his madness seems to come out of this rigidity. He assumes that his inflexible will can order the world around him; he insists on the rules of a game he had decided on in advance, even as it turns out all wrong. Each time his authority is dealt another blow, his madness gains momentum. When Goneril first orders him to contain his complaints, it amazes and disorients him. "Does any here know me?" he asks, disconnected from his usual sense of self. "This is not Lear. / Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes? / Either his notion weakens, his discernings / Are lethargied" (I, iv). When he sees his hardhearted daughters implacably allied against him, he flees into the storm crying, "O Fool! I shall go mad!"

Shakespeare was forty-three years old when he wrote this play, an age when one is impatient with authorities who have outlived their turn and jostled by one's own children growing into new adulthood. He creates a Lear who must learn, however reluctantly, to surrender his authority, for he is growing old. "I pray you, father," says Goneril, "being weak, seem so" (II, iv). The old must be educated. As the Fool says to Lear, age and wisdom do not always go together: "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise" (I, v). Gloucester "stumbled" when he "saw"; only when he is physically blinded and reduced in circumstances, like Oedipus, does he come to have real wisdom.

Shakespeare's satisfaction in teaching these stubborn old men their lesson is visible in his sympathy for the second-generation characters—for the energetic malice of Goneril and Regan and the brashness of Edmund. These plucky villains are the only sexual children in the play, and they seem pitted as much against the self-righteous goodness of their contemporaries Cordelia and Edgar as against their fathers. The good children, the honest ones (poor suckers), hardly have a chance. The "evil" children are the ones with the power; they are much smarter than their elders and very good with language (something Shakespeare must have had some feeling for), which they manipulate cleverly for their own ends. Their triumphs—the success of Edmund's ploys with Edgar and with Gloucester, and the way Goneril and Regan get away with taking power in spite of custom and expectation—are prepared for by the unjust authority of the older generation. That is, Lear's egocentric rules are not fair and Gloucester was unkind in exhibiting his bastard son. So when the younger generation turns the tables and reduces its tyrannical elders to helplessness, there is some poetic justice in the reversal.

Furthermore, the punishment that the young administer to the older generation is very effective. Lear comes out of his madness changed by the experience. Not that madness taught him anything, or that there were any blinding insights on the heath. Rather, his seizure was like the thunderstorm; there was a great build-up and discharge of energy, a neutralizing of crackling electricity. When he comes out of it he is calmer, as a child is calmer after an outburst of temper. There is a revival of his greatness, his sweetness, his moral perception. He begins to notice those around him, as if in releasing his woes he finally lives through them and can look elsewhere. He begins to take care of the Fool, to worry about his homeless subjects. His language has a noble balance to it:

O I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
(III, iv)

It is as if his demandingness, his imperiousness, are boiled off in the heat of his obsessions and leave him purer afterward. The explosions of his madness are dynamic, they use themselves up, and then he can move beyond his concern with himself and gratefully embrace life in all its difficult complexity. He ends up vacillating between hope and despair, thinking Cordelia alive, dead, and then alive again—just as Gloucester dies "Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief"—having broken through the rigidities of age, which mimic the extreme narcissism of youth.

Hamlet turns on very different dimensions. If the central image of Lear's madness is of a raging, helpless, orphaned child, Hamlet is much more about the sullen, withheld, depressed, conflicted relation of a child to both his parents. The anger is not clean and cathartic as it is in King Lear; it is dirty, sullied. Hamlet's "imaginations are as foul / As Vulcan's stithy" (III, ii). He is haunted rather than furious. He does not vituperate Gertrude and Claudius, he embarrasses them in public and makes snide remarks. He is the child of a broken home; his mother is already in a new relationship that has nothing to do with him. In four short months he has been shut out of his family and even regarded with suspicion because of his public position, for in royal families all these private matters have political implications.

Everywhere in the drama characters are tiptoeing, spying on one another in quiet desperation. Political paranoia merges with voyeurism as the characters watch each other. Polonius and Laertes question Ophelia suspiciously about her relations with Hamlet. Polonius hires a man to follow Laertes and report on his activities. Claudius and Polonius watch Hamlet and Ophelia together; and Hamlet, who is aware of it, suspects Ophelia of complicity in their surveillance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "sift" Hamlet, put up to it by Claudius; Hamlet, in turn, watches Claudius' reaction to the play that he set up as a trap. Hamlet is present at Claudius' killing of his father by extension of the Ghost's narrative, but he is suspicious of the veracity of his vision and checks it against what he can see at the occasion of the play within the play. Everyone ogles as Ophelia floats wispily across the stage. Polonius peeks from behind the curtain at Hamlet's interview with Gertrude and then when he is gone the Ghost appears as an onlooker. There are always at least three people present at private encounters. Even Hamlet's moments of solitude are set up so the audience can eavesdrop on them.

Throughout the play there are secrets to be found out, hovering presences to explain. Submerged truths press to the surface like the movement of the Ghost rising from underground, his bones bursting "their cerements," the sepulchre opening "his ponderous and marble jaws / To cast thee up again" (I, iv). Hamlet's feelings about his mother's marriage and the secret of Claudius' crime—these things push against the play to be let out. But the greatest pressure is for the release of Hamlet's agony into clear feeling or for the explosion of his haunted thoughts into deeds. He is appalled by his paralysis and keeps trying to work himself up out of his numbness. The audience keeps waiting for something to happen. This is why it is a great relief when Laertes leaps onto the stage, calling loudly for revenge. It is a refreshment to see someone who can feel directly and express his emotions boldly rather than worrying at them as Hamlet does.

Indeed, it is because of Hamlet's numbness that one resorts to noting these qualities of the play in discussing his madness—which is to be observed more in the absence of impulses than in the acting out of them. This madness is not conceived of as a punishment, as in King Lear, but as a symptom of such deep conflict that it leaves Hamlet empty and emotionally deadened. It is not his manic nonsense, the jumbled things he says to Polonius or Ophelia, or his contentious punning which are the signs of his madness. His word play is a smokescreen that he throws up deliberately, a form of passive resistance when he feels manipulated or when his real reaction is inaccessible or impolitic. It is the inaccessibility of his real responses that is peculiar. He is trapped in a pattern that he cannot understand or break out of—until the final sequence. That is why, even though he cannot articulate the reasons for his agony, the careful reader attends to the situational clues of the rest of the play, for it all resonates with his stifled, watchful secretiveness.

The commonly accepted Freudian interpretation of Hamlet's immobility, best expounded by Ernest Jones in Hamlet and Oedipus, assumes of Hamlet an earlier Oedipal wish for the death of his real father. When his secret fantasy is then fulfilled, he cannot but be guilty and conflicted about it. There is actually a very close parallel to this situation right in the center of the play itself, in Act III, scene iii. Claudius is trying to pray, trying to atone for his guilty crime, but finds himself unable to do so while "still possessed / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen." Hamlet is similarly trapped and cannot act to expunge his guilt while he still enjoys the effects of his own secret desire (his father's death). One does not even have to assume a sexual motive for the wish; the fierce and vengeful ghost of this father suggests a frightening and unbending authority, whose removal must have occasioned mixed feelings. Hamlet is therefore unable to act to expunge his guilt, unable to avenge the murder and stand wholeheartedly behind his father, for he is still possessed of the effects of his guilty wish—that is, the absence of his father.

Jones, of course, assumes the sexual basis of the Oedipal conflict and uses it to explain Hamlet's concern with his mother's sexuality. Undeniably the play is filled with male relatives taking a suggestive and possessive interest in the special favors of their mothers/sisters/daughters. Laertes warns Ophelia not to open her "chaste treasure" to Hamlet's "unmastered importunity," and Polonius suspiciously asks her what is going on between them. The Ghost, who appears whenever Hamlet has been with his mother, and who must be taken at some level as Hamlet's own internalized version of his father, is almost exclusively concerned with the sexual motive for revenge. "Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest" (I, v), intones the spirit, rather than warning that the throne is being politically usurped by an illegitimate ruler. Similarly, in Hamlet's scene with Gertrude in her chamber, in which he urges her not to sleep with Claudius anymore, their cohabiting appears to be the offense for which he most hates the usurper.

Although Jones' Freudian reading explains many of the invisible forces of the play, there are also other ways of understanding them. It is true that his mother's remarriage seems to be a bitterer pill for Hamlet to swallow than his father's death, but it is the marriage which most displaces him from his family. Furthermore, there is very little human trust of any kind in the play, so it is hardly surprising that there is no sexual trust either. The sexual disgust in his tirades to his mother or to Ophelia reminds one of Pentheus' sneering assumptions about bacchante: one does not need to postulate sexual competition to understand this aversion to sexuality. When there is a tenuous sense of self, grounded mainly in the activities of the mind, it is probably more dangerous than gratifying to risk merging sexually with another. There is an inability to surrender the will and let through disruptive realities. It is threatening to relinquish consciousness for a bodily sense of self that no longer has a feeling of reality. The need for omnipotence makes it necessary to ignore the body, with its dangerous mortality—"the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to." It is too hard to give up the illusion of compulsive control that one gets from withdrawing into mental activity. A person so threatened might well turn in disgust from the functions of the body and redouble his efforts to enclose life safely with the conscious mind.

Hamlet's self-dramatizing, his rhapsodies of words, his inability to experience his feelings deeply—these qualities suggest such a shape to his madness. When we first see him, he is standing apart from the others, dressed differently, misbehaving with bitter irony. Shakespeare makes sure we know that Hamlet understands theatrical effects in his scene with the traveling actors. Even before he learns of the treachery and the need for revenge, before he assumes the disguise of incoherence, he despairingly plays up a sullenness that simultaneously gives him a role to play and makes it impossible for anyone else to break into his solitude.

Hamlet's projection of a dramatic presence must be seen in the context of his self-doubt, for one often plays a role when one's sense of reality is thin. If he had a clear and vivid sense of who he was, what he felt, what he had to do, he would not need to dramatize a self but could feel one, understand it, and act from it. Nowhere is this more clear than in his soliloquy in Act II, scene ii, in which he speaks of all these things—acting, feeling, self-dramatizing. He is disgusted that a mere actor, with no motive for grief, can act the part while he,

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing. No, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my
face? …
Ha, 'swounds, I should take it, for it cannot
But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should ha' fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless
O vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with
And fall a-cursing like a very drab …

In his speech he moves from railing at his own incapacity for action, at his own dreamy distance from the pressing events of his life, into a stagy routine directed at imagined insults, acting out a mock fight with feints and theatrical valor. It is as if he is trying to force something to happen by imitating anger, as if acting the part will bring the feeling back with it. He curses with vehemence, trying to work himself out of his lethargy, trying to compensate for the emptiness inside. But it all collapses because he realizes that he is disconnected from his words, that verbal facility will never take the place of feelings or acts. As in his other soliloquies, when he contemplates the "flat, stale, and unprofitable" world, he is trying to secure intellectually what he is missing in his bones. The longer he tries to come at it this way, the more stale becomes his response to the upsetting events of his life; one does not stop to ask the reasons for living when one is fully engaged in it.

The central image of Hamlet is of the melancholy prince pacing restlessly and wondering out loud about the meaning of his life. This self-centeredness is the starting point for understanding the vision of madness that permeates the play. The action is set up to focus on the matter between Hamlet and his conscience, his changed relation to his parents and himself, and everything refers back to his self-examination. He calls attention to himself in every scene he is in; he is rude and unsympathetic to Gertrude and Ophelia because he is taken up with himself—that is as wide as he can set his lens.

Ophelia's madness plays with these same issues of alienation and self-dramatization. She, too, is expected to assimilate sudden changes in her relation to the world and is unable to adjust herself to them. Having innocently entered into a relationship with Hamlet, she is now told that it is improper and that she must not trust him. In a classic woman's bind, she is torn between her loyalties to her lover on one hand and her father and brother on the other. (Indeed, they kill each other off by the end of the play.) Each assures her that the world is full of traps for the unsuspecting innocent. She is at once viewed with suspicion and being told to view everyone else that way. Polonius and Laertes both tell her that Hamlet's motives are not what they seem, that she cannot trust her own sense of what is true; Hamlet, suspecting her of collusion with Polonius and Claudius, asks: "Are you honest?" (III, i). When Hamlet throws her over with a violence she does not understand, it further undermines her trust in her relations to other people. One watches the props pulled out from under her one by one, as first Laertes, then Polonius, and then Hamlet question her. And as her trust disappears, she seems to evaporate before our eyes, until she is like a caricature thin as gauze.

The less Ophelia is in touch with a core of perceptions she feels she can rely on (a self), the more she dramatizes a self. When we see her mad (IV, v), her presence is commanding although her words have lost their coherence. Everyone watches her and listens to her but no one wants to interact with her; Gertrude begins that scene by saying, "I will not speak with her." Another onlooker tells us that those who hear her unshaped speech "aim at it / And botch the words up to fit their own thoughts." Her madness is a kind of performance that each spectator objectifies and tries to interpret with his/her own meaning. No one speaks to her directly because her self-dramatization distances her from everyone and turns them all into an audience. She sings snatches of songs about true loves and false loves and her dead father. "Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, / She turns to favor and to prettiness" (IV, v), says Laertes. She is able to deny her terrible reality by keeping it public and impersonal, as if acting it out in a stylized way protects her from owning it or feeling it. Just so, stutterers can act or sing fluently because as performers they need not be identified with their speech.

Thus the vision of madness of the characters in Hamlet is one of those with an embattled, tenuous sense of themselves and their reality. They live in a world in which people cannot trust each other, in which there are deceptions and plots and counterplots. Even between parents and children there is spying and suspicion. There are no possibilities for either Hamlet or Ophelia to define themselves in relation to other people, neither lovers nor parents, and so each remains isolated, distrustful, self-involved. Their words are disconnected from their feelings and thoughts because there is no core to their behavior. Each feels aimless, empty, adrift, unable to experience the reality of events in the world because there is no feeling of reality to the self, the starting point for perception of the world. Probably for each of them this can be explained as a way of escaping reality. When one cannot deal with difficult realities anymore, one transforms them mentally so that they become dead and meaningless.


1 Foucault, M. Madness and Civilization. Transl. R. Howard. New York: New American Library, 1967, Chapter 1.

2 Extracts from ancient municipal tracts of Newcastleon-Tyne.

Richard Corballis (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Love and Madness in the Works of Shakespeare and Others," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 27, April, 1985, pp. 85-7.

[In the essay below, Corballis discusses the thematic link between love and madness in the Elizabethan theater of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.]

That Love is, as Rosalind puts it in As You Like It (III.2), merely a madness and … deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do is something of a Renaissance commonplace, whose most memorable formulation is probably Theseus's homily about The lunatic, the lover, and the poet in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, V.1.

The O.E.D. caters for passages like these by defining the adjective 'mad' as "carried away by enthusiasm or desire; wildly excited; infatuated" (sense 4; my emphasis), and it cites Parolles' description of Bertram in All's Well V.3: He loued her, for indeede he was madde for her. But the O.E.D. seems to imply that 'mad' has this meaning only when it is qualified in some way (mad for, mad about etc.); it does not countenance the idea that 'mad' and 'infatuated', 'madness' and 'infatuation' may be directly equivalent in meaning, so that it would have been possible for Parolles to say simply (and without undue denigration): He loued her, for indeede he was madde.

Instances of the unqualified usage of 'mad' in this sense are quite common in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In The Duchess of Malfi IV.2 Ferdinand has his sister tormented by a chorus of madmen, and in the previous scene he gives this reason for his action:

And ('cause she'll needs be mad) I am
To remove forth the common Hospitall
All the mad-folke, and place them neere her

The madness of which he accuses her is, of course, a madness of the blood—infatuation. Earlier in the play Ferdinand explicitly spells out the connection between madness and love: Do you thinke, he says to Bosola,

that hearbes, or charmes
Can force the will? Some trialls have bin
In this foolish practise; but the ingredients
Were lenative poysons, such as are of force
To make the patient mad; and straight the
Sweares (by equivocation) they are in love.


In other words, 'by equivocation' (that is, in the O.E.D.'s primary definition, "the using [a word] in more than one sense") madness can be construed as love.

Turning to Shakespeare, we find the love-sick Olivia, when she hears of Malvolio's strange behaviour in Twelfth Night III.4, observing, I am as mad as he, If sad and merry madness equal be, and this sad … madness can only be unrequited passion for Cesario. Malvolio's merry madness turns out to be an equally futile passion for Olivia, and in this case the love=madness equation is exploited for all it is worth, with Malvolio eventually being confined as a madman. In As You Like It I.3, the lovelorn Rosalind responds to Celia's request that Rosalind lame her with reasons for her silence with the observation:

Then there were two cousins laid up, when the one should be lamed with reasons, and the other mad without any.

The phrase laid up almost certainly contains a double entendre—after all Rosalind proceeds at once to talk about her child's father—and this should help us to see that the word mad (which has troubled some editors) is here used to mean 'madly (wantonly) in love'. In A Midsummer-Night's Dream Puck seems to have the same meaning in mind when he quips:

Cupid is a knavish lad,
Thus to make poor females mad.


And Adonis's trampling courser and the breeding jennet, lusty young and proud go to it As they were mad.1 Even Hamlet seems to play at times upon this sense of the word 'mad' once he has put on his antic disposition—at any rate Polonius assumes that his madness stems from love.

One dramatist who harped persistently on this theme of love's madness was William Rowley. The subplot which he provided for The Changeling demonstrates graphically the madness (and folly) of love, and the same idea explains the choice of the name Dionysia for the young woman with whom the infatuated Antonio contracts a bigamous marriage in All's Lost by Lust.

As late as 1706 George Farquhar provides another seeming instance of this usage: In I.2 of The Recruiting Officer Silvia expresses her love for Plume by observing: Ay, Melinda, he is come, and I'll take care he shan't go without a companion, and Melinda replies: You're certainly mad, cousin. The frank attitude to love and sex which Silvia displays throughout this scene (and which draws from Melinda the observation: hadst thou been a man, thou hadst been the greatest rake in Christendom) suggests that the madness in question is a passionate (and strongly physical) attraction to Plume.

In a sense the notion of love's madness is still with us, I suppose. "This is madness, darling!" has become a cliché on the twentieth-century stage. But the factor which distinguishes Renaissance treatments of this theme is that writers could simply substitute the word 'mad' for the word 'infatuated', and could even proceed to build upon this substitution (whether stated or implied) such imaginative devices as Malvolio's confinement and the grotesque anti-masque which precedes the death of the Duchess of Malfi.

All this evidence may help to solve a textual crux in Othello. Late in IV. 1, Othello exclaims to Desdemona, I am glad to see you mad. Various emendations have been suggested, but Othello may just be using a conventional 'short-hand' means of accusing his wife of adulterous infatuation. Of course his tone is harsher than Olivia's or Rosalind's or Puck's or Silvia's (though no harsher than Ferdinand's). And, whereas in these other plays the kinship of love and madness is bandied about a good deal so that there is a supporting context for the stark usage of the word 'mad' in the sense defined, in Othello there is a conspicuous lack of such a context and the accusation therefore creates considerable shock. But then perhaps Shakespeare is trying to provide a verbal equivalent to the shocking blow which Othello proceeds to inflict on Desdemona.


1Venus and Adonis, lines 260-1, 323.

Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: " 'Documents in Madness': Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 315-38.

[In this essay, Neely argues that modern analyses of the cultural construction of madness have been prone to "misreadings of the past" due to a failure to historicize their own position. She then examines how representations of madness in Shakespeare's tragedies function within wider cultural contexts.]

Olivia: How now? Art thou mad?
Clown: No, madam, I do but read madness.
(Twelfth Night, 5.1.293-94)1

If others had not been mad, then we should

(Shoshana Felman quoting Georges Bataille
quoting William Blake)2

This essay begins to investigate the continuities and discontinuities between the above epigrams. In the Twelfth Night exchange Olivia accuses Feste, her licensed fool, of madness; he defends himself against the charge by declaring that he is rather an interpreter of madness, referring literally to the letter he is reading from the supposedly mad Malvolio, figuratively to his fool's role as a satirist of human folly, and at a deeper level to his apt inscription of madness in Malvolio, the ambitious Puritan social climber and foolish would-be lover of Olivia. In the second quotation Shoshana Felman, in the epigram to her book Writing and Madness, identifies herself with the madness that is her subject in a quotation which enacts the intertextuality espoused by contemporary theorists. Feste inscribes madness to thwart Malvolio's desires and reads madness to dissociate himself from it; Felman reads madness to associate herself with it and to license desire.

As the epigrams imply, madness is a conundrum to those who would study it. It is a material condition that, to be understood, must be read, made sense of, inscribed into discourse.3 As Michael MacDonald has aptly noted, it is "the most solitary of afflictions to the people who experience it; but it is the most social of maladies to those who observe its effects." 4 Today, as in the early modern period, it is detected by laypersons before it is referred to doctors. Because it is "theoretically indeterminate,"5 it must be defined and read from within some framework; its definitions and therapies are always constructed from a particular historical moment and within a particular social order, influenced by and influencing that order. The final difficulty of reading madness—implicit in the two epigrammatic exchanges—is that in the act of doing so, one dissociates oneself from it or associates oneself with it, and in either case becomes disqualified as an interpreter. To read madness sanely is to miss the point; to read madness madly is to have one's point be missed. In this essay I want to begin to examine why, how, and with what consequences madness was read and represented in England in the early modern period by focusing on how representations of madness in Shakespeare's tragedies function within wider cultural contexts.

It has long been recognized that England in the period from 1580 to 1640 was fascinated with madness, although some aspects of this obsession have been over-estimated or misreported. The signs of its fascination are to be found in the treatises on the topic by Battie, Bright, Jorden, Wright, and Burton; in the theatrical representations of madness in the plays of Kyd, Shakespeare, Dekker, Middleton, Fletcher, and Webster; in the large numbers of patients who consulted such well-known doctors as Richard Napier and John Hall (Shakespeare's son-in-law) with symptoms of mental distress; and in the widespread references to and representations of Bethlem, or Bedlam, the popular name for Bethlehem Hospital, the main institution in England in this period which confined the insane. Bedlam, according to a 1598 visitation report made a couple of years before Hamlet and Twelfth Night were written, contained only twenty inmates: nine men and eleven women (or perhaps ten of each). The thirty-one inmates listed in a 1624 report caused overcrowding in the institution, which was tiny, "loathsomely and filthely kept," and badly mismanaged. The term "Bedlam" was in widespread use in early modern England not so much because of the impact of the institution itself (which had been in existence as a hospital since about 1330 and may have started accepting disturbed patients sometime before 1403, when a visitation record reports the presence of six men "mente capti") but because it had become a code word in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture for the confused, charged, and contested topic of madness.6

Madness, a concept in transition in the period, begins to be read/constructed/experienced differently in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than it had been in the Middle Ages (where it marked the intersection of human and transcendent) or than it will be in subsequent eras. In the eighteenth century, it will become, as Michel Foucault claims, the mark of unreason, the symbol of the animal side of human nature that needs confinement and restraint; in the nineteenth century, insanity (now the preferred term 7) becomes identified with hereditary degradation and immorality and is to be rectified by "moral treatment" or domestication. In the latter half of the twentieth century, philosophers, theorists, the anti-psychiatry movement, and investigations into the chemical basis for mental disorders have collapsed the boundaries between mad and sane, mental and physical, real and illusory, that were being constructed in the Renaissance.

This twentieth-century breakdown of partitions is apparent in both medical practice and philosophical theory. In the 1960s the clinical and theoretical work of Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, and the anti-psychiatry movement argued that mental illness was a myth used to bring disruptive behavior under control, a "sane" reaction to oppression in the family and in the culture.8 Current public policy mandating the deinstitutionalization and "mainstreaming" of the mentally distressed similarly (though with different motives) loosens boundaries between the sane and the insane. Current research and recent therapies stress the biochemical basis of and pharmacological treatments for mental distress, resplicing mind and body. Likewise, for literary theorists and philosophers, reading madness functions subversively to blur boundaries, to put the verb "to know" in quotation marks, as Shoshana Felman notes.9 Post-structuralist philosophers of radical skepticism like Derrida and Lacan, denying the possibility of a unified subject with continuous identity, of a coherent language that can ever say what it means, of "true" knowledge of the world, erase the boundaries between madness and sanity that were constructed in the Renaissance and strengthened and policed in the Enlightenment. Most influentially, Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization critiques the Age of Reason for exploiting the discourse of madness and the confinement of the mad to erase reason's antithesis, unreason.

Because current theories and therapies of madness work to deconstruct what the early modern period worked to construct, misreadings of the past are likely. Too often, analyses of the cultural construction of madness, like those of Foucault and Elaine Showalter, fail to historicize their own position and to distinguish it from that of earlier periods. Both these influential accounts are weakened by inadequate knowledge of periods before that on which they focus (Foucault focuses on the eighteenth century, Showalter on the nineteenth); by a conventional, hence inaccurate, view of historical periodization; by a refusal to make sufficient distinctions between aesthetic representation and other sorts of historical data; and by a failure to fully gender the subject of madness. For Foucault there are only madmen; for Showalter there are only madwomen.10

In the early modern period the discourse of madness gained prominence because it was implicated in the medical, legal, theological, political, and social aspects of the reconceptualization of the human. Gradually madness, and hence sanity, began to be secularized, medicalized, psychologized, and (at least in representation) gendered. In the Middle Ages, madness was seen as the point of intersection between the human, the divine, and the demonic. It was viewed alternatively or simultaneously as possession, sin, punishment, and disease, and it confirmed the inseparability of the human and transcendent.11 By theorizing and representing madness, the Renaissance gradually and with difficulty began to try to separate human madness from the supernatural (from demonic and divine possession, as does Edward Jorden's treatise on hysteria, The Suffocation of the Mother); from the spiritual (from doubt, sin, guilt, and rational suicide, as does Timothy Bright's Treatise of Melancholy); from witchcraft and bewitchment (as does Reginald Scot's Discouerie of Witchcraft); from frauds who imitated these conditions (as does...

(The entire section is 18977 words.)

Relation To Elizabethan Culture

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Winfred Overholser (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Psychiatry—And After," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 335-52.

[In the following essay originally presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1958, Overholser discusses how Shakespeare's characterizations of mental illness were informed by such aspects of the Renaissance worldview as astrology, witchcraft, and the bodily humors.]

We live in an age of psychology. Daily we read of mental mechanisms, of complexes, of the unconscious, of feelings of inferiority, of Freud and Jung, of psychosomatic medicine and of "tranquilizers". There is a growing public...

(The entire section is 13953 words.)

The Language Of Madness

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Paolo Valesio (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Language of Madness in the Renaissance," in Yearbook of Italian Studies, Vol. 2, 1971, pp. 199-230.

[In the following essay, Valesio discusses the Renaissance use of "the language of folklore" to characterize the language of madness.]

This study is the outline of a specific hypothesis, not a description of the status quaestionis and an evaluation of all its aspects.1 The hypothesis is that there is a connection between certain cultural phenomena which are not usually considered as being related, and that this connection can be explained. What follows presents this hypothesis in...

(The entire section is 12274 words.)

Gender And Madness

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Elaine Showalter (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, 1985, pp. 77-94.

[Here, Showalter traces the "iconography" of Shakespeare's Ophelia in a variety of art forms in order to reveal the representational connections between female sexuality and insanity.]

"As a sort of a come-on, I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia, and I'll be as good as my word." These are the words which begin the psychoanalytic seminar on Hamlet presented in...

(The entire section is 6666 words.)

Madness And Politics

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Jack D'Amico (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Madness: Junius Brutus in Machiavelli and Shakespeare," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 405-22.

[In the following essay, D'Amico examines the relationship between political power and madness in Shakespeare's plays and Renaissance thought, focusing in particular on the political and dramatic figure of Junius Brutus.]

By this means, quoth he, nothing else will be brought to pass, but whiles that I go about to remedy the madness of others I should be even as mad as they.…

Wherefore Plato by a goodly similitude declareth...

(The entire section is 15131 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Coddon, Karin S. '"Unreal Mockery': Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth." ELH 56, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 485-501.

Examines the links between "treason, madness, and the supernatural" in Macbeth.

DePorte, Michael. "Madness and Masquerade." Georgia Review 44, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 636-50.

Offers a general treatment of the concept of feigned madness in literature and social history with a brief discussion of King Lear.

Driscoll, James P. Identity in Shakespearean Drama. East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1983, 202 p.

Provides a detailed discussion of the psychology of...

(The entire section is 207 words.)