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Which is the role of madness in Hamlet and King Lear?

There are many things to be said about who really was Shakespeare. Besides he was such a
prolific writer, we know almost nothing about him. But, regardless of all that controversy, there
is one thing that cant be denied: Shakespeare is one of the most important landmarks in the
history of world literature. Under his quill, soliloquies became not only a manner of conveying
information about events or characters, but also a way to explore his characters minds. He
influenced later poetry, helped shape modern English, and extended the dramatic prospects of
genre, plot and characterization.

Regarding his work, we shall discuss what I consider to be Shakespeares most impressive plays:
the tragedies Hamlet and King Lear. The dramatic structure of classical tragedy originates from
the tragic plays of ancient Athens, which portrayed the degradation of a hero or famous character
of Greek myths. The hero would fight against unutterable fate, and his fall would be so worthy
that he prevails in moral victory over the forces that defeated him. A tragedy brought to
audience's mind pity and terror; it was a catharsis, a cleaning of the soul, leaving the spectator
shaking but purified. The essence of Shakespeare's tragedies is the illustration of what we might
call the paradox of disappointment. Defeat, crushed hopes, madness and ultimately death
presented as usual states in ones life.

King Lear describes a fathers lack of ability to acknowledge and appreciate true love, while
blinded by a fantasy of greatness and power. In Historia Regnum Britannie (1136), compiled by
the Welsh bishop Geoffrey of Monmouth and in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1577) appeared
an earlier version of the play, entitled The True Chronicle Story of King Leir. It is known that
Shakespeare used the latter as an inspiration source for his writings, but he included in the play
some of his own ideas: Lears madness doesnt feature in the sources and the tragic ending of the
play (the defeat in battle, Cordelia's hanging, followed by Lear's death) is, as well, Shakespeares
own creation. The play also resembles a traditional Romanian fairy tale, named Sarea n
bucate, where, as in King Lear, a king divides his kingdom and fortune between his three
daughters, based on their answer to the question how much do you love me?. So, when they
are asked, King Lears oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan respond with compliments, while
Cordelia responds simple: What shall Cordelia do? / Love, and be silent (act I, scene 1). Her
answer doesnt please her father, who gives her another chance to respond to his question. Once
again, Cordelias answer is a sincere one: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my
mouth: I love your majesty / According to my bond; nor more nor less (act I, scene 1). Angered,
Lear disinherits her and exiles her away from his court, and then he splits his kingdom between
Goneril and Reagan. Cordelia had two suitors: the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France.
After she is disinherited, the Duke leaves the court, while the latter marries her, enchanted by her

Afterwards, Lear decides to live alternatively with his two daughters and their husbands,
Cornwall (Regans husband) and Albany (Gonerils husband). Goneril and Regan consider him
an old, witless man and set up plots to steal from him the last power he has. After a series of
wicked plans, the two sisters die. Cordelia tries to help her father to regain his kingdom, but her
army is defeated and both her and king Lear become prisoners. She is executed in prison and
Lear, who has turned mad, grieves the loss of his dearest Cordelia. The sorrow overwhelms him
and he collapses dead.

About Lears madness much has been said. His case is the most noticeable case of madness
among Shakespearean heroes; Lear is the only character who actually becomes mad during the
play. The old king loses his minds under the unendurable stress of mental and physical suffering.
His madness is a consequence of his own acts. He is an absolute monarch, ill-tempered,
impulsive with his actions, rash and superficial in his judgements. Lear was used to flattery and
love. The irony is that Lear doesnt know how to perceive true love from false pretenses, and he
ends up making the wrong choice. His madness is a way of returning to a childlike state,
requiring Cordelias care, and the only method that allows him to truly see the truth about his
youngest daughter.

Unlike Lears madness, which is genuine and origins from its foolishness, Hamlets madness is a
faked one. Revenge and madness are the central themes in The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of
Denmark, the latter being a cover of the former. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, and is
considered one of the most powerful and significant tragedies in English literature, with a story
that is capable of "seemingly endless retelling and adaptation by others". We could easily agree
with Norman Hollandes words which open his chapter about The Shakespearean Imagination:
There are four subjects on whom more books are written than anything else in the world - or so

have I heard, and do in part believe it. The first three are: Christ, Napoleon, and Shakespeare; the
fourth is Hamlet.

The plays story is set in Denmark. It was written at the turn of the XVII century and portrays the
revenge of Prince Hamlet is inflicted upon his uncle, Claudius, by the ghost of Hamlet's father,
King Hamlet. Claudius had murdered his own brother and took the throne, also wedding his
deceased brother's widow. After a strange encounter with his fathers ghost (in the first act of the
play), the prince discovers the truth about how the former king died and decides to avenge his
death by exposing his uncle as an assassin. But things werent as simple as Hamlet thought.
Claudius is involved in an incestuous relationship with his former sister-in-law and Hamlets
mother, Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is caught in a dilemma; he wants revenge, but he loves deeply
his mother and doesnt want to be hurtful to her. His tragedy comes from this inner conflict,
which he cant seem to solve. Although he chooses revenge, thinking that was the honorable
thing to do, Hamlet realizes that justice doesnt bring the much expected peace. The end of the
play displays to the public a series of deaths (Laertes, Gertrudes, Claudius and, finally,
Hamlets), as the only solution to resolve all the conflicts.

The biggest question that one may ask himself reading the play refers to the authenticity of
Hamlets madness. His character is rich and complex, so this lack of psychical sanity is more a
mixture of various factors and not a consequence of the things he sees. Hamlet decides to pretend
being mad, as we are told by Ophelia in the opening scene of the second act. She tells her father
about the strange way in which the prince has come before her in her closet, " My lord, as I was
sewing in my closet, / Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced; /No hat upon his head; his
stockings fouled, / Ungartered, and down-gyvd to his ankle; / Pale as his shirt; his knees
knocking each other; / And with a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosd out of
hell / To speak of horrorshe comes before me" (Act II, scene 1). Worried about the news, and
what outcome they could have, Polonius rushes to the king and queen with his discovery,
thinking that Hamlet is mad for Ophelias love. However, Claudius is not convinced; he doubts
that Hamlet's distraction originates from love. We might think that, in the deepest part of his soul,
he knew the true cause of his nephew's madness. Gertrude has a different idea. Worried about the
moral implications of her marriage to Claudius, she assumes thats the cause for Hamlet's
insanity. As a matter of fact, it is very interesting to observe how Hamlets madness affects the

other characters. While everyone has a self-centered explanation for his madness, based on their
individual preoccupations, Hamlet wanders the court, testing them to see their reactions,
scandalizes and tortures them, making them tremble and look foolish. He watches them carefully,
hiding behind his feigned madness.

All in all, Hamlets tragedy remains one of Shakespeares greatest and loved plays, due to its
subject. He represents a man who is torn by the complexity of his emotions. His royal status
cant save him, nor save his loved ones. Fulfilling his duty doesnt bring him peace and doesnt
compensate the loss of his dear ones. His only ending must be death, because life couldnt satisfy
him anymore.

Taking everything into consideration, it can be said that although madness appears in both plays,
its role is not the same. For King Lear, madness comes as a conclusion, allowing him to see
reality and his failure as a father and a king; a sickness originated from his actions. Hamlets
madness is a feigned one, a means to an end. His madness helps him to complete his revenge
plans and disguises his real feelings.

Shakespeare, W. The complete works, Wordsworth, Editions Ltd, 1995

Sireeanu, Ileana and Anca Bdulescu. Literatura englez (curs pentru nvmntul la distan),
Universitatea Transilvania din Braov, Centrul de nvmnt la Distan i nvmnt cu
frecven redus.

Rocha, Ana Maria Kessler. Madness in Shakespears major tragedies: A tentative analysis
towards a Laingian interpretation. BA thesis. Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina
Departamento de Lingua e Literatura Estrangeiras, Florianpolis Santa Catarina, Brasil, 1980.