Different Meanings of Madness in Hamlet

Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates madness in the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. These two characters endure similar circumstances which result in their displaying signs of madness. Hamlet’s madness remains under scrutiny regarding whether it was real or manufactured. The character of Hamlet was melancholic, maniacal, neurotic, neurasthenic, hysterical and perhaps a malingerer according to psychoanalytic theory, but questionable as to whether he was stricken with mentally illness. However, Ophelia’s madness cannot be disputed. Through Shakespeare’s contrast between our introduction to her through her demise, a picture was painted of Ophelia as a woman whose psyche was unable to cope with the abundance of chaos she was undergoing. This chaos causing her to devolve into a world where she found safety inside of her madness.

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Ophelia becomes known to the audience as a woman who is exemplative of a typical Danish noblewoman of the era as the daughter of Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. During this era, it was a requirement that women display etiquette and manners fitting of their social station which she did. It is clear to see and identify to the audience Ophelia’s madness by her speech. She recites formulas, tales and songs that ritualize passages of transformation and loss – lost love, lost chastity, and death. Also, bits of ballads are added to her speech which not only to show her madness but also provide a sense of continuity and familiarity to the audience. It is likely that the audience would have heard the same lyrics being sung in the streets. Prior to her downing by falling into a river, Ophelia interjected this song in the midst of speaking with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, “You must sing A down A down and you call him a down a o how the wheel comes it It is the false steard that stole his masters daughter.” It is thought that this may have been a line from a popular ballad of the time. Aside from the abrupt bursting into song being a sign of madness it also is a symbol that Ophelia is becoming more like a commoner, as nobles were not known to sing ballads in the streets. The use of ballads as a product of Ophelia’s madness was one of Shakespeare’s methods of exploiting those aspects of low performance that the ballad shared with popular performance to produce the form and meaning of Ophelia’s madness. The inclusion of the ballad is also significant of the shift to an elevated playwright centered drama.

Circumstances laid out by Shakespeare leading up to Ophelia’s madness begin with her father’s warning relative to the authenticity of Hamlet’s love for her. “Than may be given you: in few, Ophelia, Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers, Not of that dye which their investments show, But mere implorators of unholy suits, Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds, The better to beguile. This is for all: I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth, Have you so slander any moment leisure, As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. Look to’t, I charge you: come your ways.”  The next contributing factor is the absence of her brother contributing to her isolation especially after the warning from her father to stay away from Hamlet. Finally, the death of Lord Polonius, her father seems to be the breakpoint of Ophelia’s ability to function.

Ophelia and Hamlet both were grief stricken and dealing with their break-up as well as the deaths of their fathers. Whether Hamlet’s grief for the lost relationship with Ophelia played a role in his madness is uncertain. Hamlet’s sudden madness was easily believed to be authentic due to the many unpleasant events he underwent beginning with his own father’s assassination, his own inability to usurp the crown, his mother’s sudden remarriage to the assassin. “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d, His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature, Possess it merely. ”This is at the first we see of Hamlet’s madness, his anger over his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. The reasons behind this rant make his madness appear to be authentic.

Similar factors led to Ophelia’s fateful demise discovered by Hamlet while lurking in the shadows. His passion draws him out of those shadows marking the beginning of the end of the deceit surrounding the death of his father as well as ending his own. Everyone of importance were no longer alive to provide a reflection to Ophelia of her identity which resulted in driving her to madness though on the outside she remained “as beautiful, sweet, loveable, pathetic and dismissible” as when her mind was sound. Also, of consideration is Ophelia’s vulnerability. She did not have a man to protect her as custom of the era therefore she never made decisions for herself and suffered. “absolute victimization by patriarchal oppression.” Her father had proven his wisdom to Ophelia when shielding her from what was thought to be Hamlets deceitful promises of love to her. Ophelia’s death was the impetus for Laertes willingness to follow Claudius’ plan to kill Hamlet. Hamlet’s madness indirectly led to several deaths, including his own. Shakespeare’s fascination with madness and its causes is apparent in Hamlet. It was during this era that the causes of madness were being studied scientifically. Shakespeare’s interest in madness is illustrated by his writing oPerhaps Shakespeare was digging deeper into the causes of madness which currently were to include not only witchcraft, but also unattended desire in women. 

Works Cited

  1. BIALO, CARALYN. “Popular Performance, the Broadside Ballad, and Ophelia’s Madness.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 53, no. 2, 2013, pp. 293–309., www.jstor.org/stable/24510000.
  2. Oyebode, Femi, editor. “Jealousy the Green-Eyed Monster and Madness in Shakespeare.” Madness at the Theatre, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 31–47.
  3. Neely, Carol Thomas. “‘Documents in Madness’: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Early Modern Culture.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3, 1991, pp. 315–338. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2870846.
  4. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New Folger’s ed. New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1992. 
07 April 2022

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