Method in the Madness: Hamlet’s Sanity Supported Through His Relation to Ophelia and Edgar’s Relation to Lear
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. The madness 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 a balancing 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 madness works 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 of sanity, 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 the relationship 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 a clear 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 his madness 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 the guards 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. That Hamlet 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 form Which 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, but rather 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 play could 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, / Taint not 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 into consideration 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 he lets 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 his uncle 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 has transpired between them is clearly a hoax. Hamlet somehow suspects the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are sent by the King and Queen 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-present consciousness 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 consideration decides 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 as witness, 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 tells himself 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 not to 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 the wind 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 insanity puts 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 a mourning 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 of weeds), the clowns in V.i. confirm the reader’s suspicion that she did not die so accidentally:
Is 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 come to 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 against her madness, compared to Hamlet’s intelligent plotting and use of witnesses to his actions. Thus, by defining true madness in Ophelia, Shakespeare subtracts from the plausibility 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 more distinctly 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 act and 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 grime with 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. As in 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 in contrivance 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, foolish decisions. 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 and incapability 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 at this 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 their madness, making Lear’s and Ophelia’s true madness seem realistic rather than absurd. Hamlet and Edgar both explicitly state the contrivance of their madness, while Lear 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 and emotional strain due to their respective situations in each play, they both show a remarkable amount of intelligent, conscious, and rational decision-making in efforts to resolve 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 in either 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 truly mad 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.