Hamlet and King Lear have battled for popular supremacy among the works in the Shakespearean canon for several centuries. It may not be mere coincidence that both of these plays share a myriad of similarities. Both plays feature fratricide and – in a figurative sense – patricide and regicide. Both plays also examine the uncertain meaning of “family” – from the illegitimacy of Edmund, to the incest of Claudius and Gertrude, to the ambiguous relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Finally, both plays also heavily emphasize madness, both feigned and true. The entangled sequences of events in both plays seem to demonstrate that all of these elements are effectively inseparable. Thus, in both works, Shakespeare essentially examines the same question: What is the proper response to familial discord?
Hamlet and Edgar both attempt to answer this question by taking on the false identities of madmen. Although their performances vary in purpose and manner, a key similarity is their mutual loyalty to and love of their respective fathers, especially after one is killed and the other blinded. For both of them, this contributes to a profound sense of loss and a persistent state of melancholy. In these conditions, it becomes clear that at certain times, they happen to play their parts uncannily well.
For Ophelia and Lear, the response is all but involuntary. They do go mad, and their insanity contrasts with the feigned variety put on by Hamlet and Edgar (although not enough in itself to cast doubt on the madness of the latter men). Lear experiences a unique brand of madness, but it can still be generalized that both he and Ophelia are also utterly overcome by melancholy.
Feigned Madness: Hamlet and Edgar
In both Hamlet and King Lear, feigned madness is utilized as a tool. Not only is this facade a ruse concealing the true agenda of its wielders, but it is also an inadvertent window into these characters’ true thoughts and feelings. Regarding the latter aspect, madness is of course an effective literary device employed by Shakespeare. However, when one considers the paradoxical implications of this tool – a facade that reveals as well as conceals – a system of characterization emerges that is far more complex. Indeed, it is possible that one of the most attractive mysteries of Prince Hamlet’s character is the manner in which he treads the boundary between being “mad in craft” (3. 4. 172) and truly disturbed.
It is the pervasiveness of this very dichotomy in these plays that seems to give away its importance. It is impossible to ignore, for example, Edgar’s reaction to the sight of his blind father: “Poor Tom’s a-cold. (Aside) I cannot daub it further… And yet I must. – Bless thy sweet eyes, they bleed” (4. 1. 53-5). Edgar’s sadness despite what has transpired in his family is telling; indeed, both Hamlet and Edgar are thrust into dismay upon encountering fallen versions of their fathers. The difference between their fathers also further illustrates the fathers’ roles at these points in their respective plays. Tom’s father’s blindness corresponds with his directionless life, especially regarding the state of his family and his place in the kingdom. Hamlet’s father’s ghost, by contrast, sees all; he instructs Hamlet to kill Claudius and appears to him again to comment on his inaction. Following this chain of logic, the connection emerges between feigned madness and genuine melancholy regarding familial misunderstanding.
Many have argued that much of Hamlet’s grief is derived from his feeling betrayed by his mother, for whom he has confused emotions (or at least strong love). Bucknill argues: “In the interview with his mother, [this] affection [is] skillfully conveyed in the painful effort with which he endeavours to make her conscious of her position… It would appear that he entertained some suspicions of his mother’s complicity” (Mad Folk 102-03). This turns out to be a misunderstanding; Hamlet eventually learns and is convinced of his mother’s innocence in the murder of his father. Not only does the ghost entreat that Hamlet “speak to her” (3. 4. 105), but Hamlet also witnesses her lingering grief and feelings of remorse: “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!” (3. 4. 147). At this point, Bucknill agrees that “we must suppose this suspicion allayed” (Mad Folk 103). But even after he no longer suspects her, he is still unable to forgive her for some time. His divided, wandering mind permeates his being. This permeation is best summed up by Clark: “Hamlet was the born dreamer forced by circumstances into the naturally repugnant role of the man of action. Upon this simple fact depends all his melancholy, his indecision, his gloomy cynicism about life, and his feigned madness, at times almost slipping over the dividing line into the real thing, but never passing irrevocably into the shadowed world” (19). Essentially, then, Hamlet has feigned insanity not just to cover his true feelings of melancholy, but to disguise them within a more apparently valid framework.
Edgar’s situation is notably distinct from Hamlet’s. He has been forced out onto the heath as a result of his brother’s treachery, and he is more in hiding than in disguise. But perhaps more notable than these differences are the similarities. From the moment he assumes the identity of Tom, his main action is to watch and wait in despair. When he encounters his father, he is overwhelmed with sadness, and he endeavors to make right the wrongs that have transpired within his family. Just like Hamlet, then, he must struggle to carve out a role for himself as a family hero, and it is this struggle that makes madness the most natural cover to adopt.
True Madness: Ophelia and Lear
In the case of Ophelia and Lear, there is little (if anything) left to conceal by the time madness sets in. Although their versions of insanity are actually quite disparate, they do stand in a category separate from that of the feigned madness of Edgar and Hamlet. Functionally within their plays, Ophelia and Lear go mad (or become worse, depending on one’s perspective regarding Lear’s initial temperament) after – and partially as a result of – purposefully neglecting someone they love. Ophelia, as instructed by Polonius, “lock[s] herself from [Hamlet’s] resort” (2. 2. 143), and Lear roundly disowns Cordelia in favor of her deceptive sisters. Despite Hamlet’s insistence to the contrary, Ophelia believes she is at least partially to blame for his instability. Her breaking point arrives when she learns that Hamlet has caused the death of her father. For Lear, although he does not immediately acknowledge his love for Cordelia or the difficulty of disowning her, this pattern still applies. The main difference is that Lear’s insanity occurs over a continuum, ranging from his stubborn senility in the opening act to the deep, painful depression he experiences upon realizing his daughters’ inverted loyalties. What makes this later depression so painful, though, is the irony of his having alienated the one daughter he could have relied upon.
Shakespeare’s depictions of true madness in both plays share certain elements in common. Most obvious is that the onset of madness for both characters seems to occur as a direct result of extreme despair. Although this was perhaps a well-known cause of insanity during Shakespeare’s time (Neely 4-6), one cannot help but also view the characters’ joint reaction to pain as an independent tragic agent, especially as employed on these two separate but similar occasions. It is Ophelia’s madness and eventual suicide that help make her play complete; the audience mourns her fall because she has been tossed aside – first by Hamlet, and then, it would seem, by fate itself. It is Lear’s despair, of course, that comprises the bulk of his tragedy. Thus, even when examined only in the context of despair, the respective mental plights of Ophelia and Lear are absolutely essential.
Shakespeare also takes pains to include hallucination and delusion among their symptoms. Ophelia’s words give away her despair, but she acts as if to convince herself of normalcy, imagining that she is accompanied: “Come, my coach! Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies…” (4. 5. 69-70). The fact that Ophelia hallucinates like this in front of Claudius and Gertrude also testifies retroactively in favor of Hamlet’s insanity, since Gertrude has already witnessed his very convincing “hallucination” of his father’s ghost. In Lear’s case, perhaps the most touching delusion is his imaginary court scene involving his evil daughters: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” (3. 6. 71-2). This scene has a profound effect on Edgar, who is still trying to feign his own insanity: “My tears begin to take his part so much, / They’ll mar my counterfeiting” (3. 6. 55-6).
In the words of Clark, “There is no doubt that Shakespeare possessed an almost uncanny insight into the workings of the deranged mind” (120). The playwright’s use of insanity throughout his plays demonstrates not only that he found madness interesting, but also that he found it ubiquitous. In Hamlet and King Lear in particular can be found the most heart-rending characters in the spirit of mental affliction, and their stories are so touching precisely because they are so relevant. In Hamlet, the audience sees the effects that moral and temporal dilemma can have on even the the strongest mind. In Ophelia, they witness the futility of dependency, namely its lonely end. The character of Lear provides a window into the troubled mind of an old king who is not used to ruling, and so cannot even distinguish between the good and the evil within his own family. Edgar combines the loyalty of Kent with the goodness of Cordelia, but his role as “Tom o’ Bedlam” shows the consequences of his victimization.
All of these characters have been constructed by Shakespeare in order to illustrate the pain and suffering of the human condition, but the manner in which he presents them suggests an important emphasis on familial misunderstanding. This is not to say that all the tragic capability of these plays is derived from the happenstance of miscommunication; rather, the role of madness for these characters is assumed or imposed largely as a result of familial misunderstanding. In both Hamlet and King Lear, the tragedy unfolds from that point fully armed.
Bucknill, John Charles. The Mad Folk of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. (Revised). New York: Burt Franklin, 1969. Print.
Clark, Cumberland. Shakespeare and Psychology. London: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976. Print.
Neely, Carol Thomas. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. 1st ed. London: Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.
Bucknill, John Charles. The Psychology of Shakespeare. 1st ed. (Reprint). London: AMS Press, Inc., 1970. Print.
Goldsmith, Robert Hillis. Wise Fools in Shakespeare. 2nd ed. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1963. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. Print.
McFarland, Thomas. Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare. 1st ed. New York: Random House, Inc., 1966. Print.
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