The Motif of Madness in

The theme of madness is one of the central themes in literature. It has always been interesting and actual not only because of the unexplained phenomenon of madness but also because of its being a constant and necessary factor in the particular literary process. This motif is also popular due to the semantic field it provides in terms of revealing key issues of the subject of the story. It helps to convey certain background in order to represent controversial topics that have to be interpreted by the targeted audience in its own way. Moreover, the introduction of madness facilitates the process of expression of certain concepts in unobtrusive way due to the social attitude towards insane people whose words are considered as those that both should and cannot be viewed as the serious massages. For example, William Shakespeare tended to use the motif of madness in his works due to its ambiguity. One of his most famous plays that are associated with this topic is Hamlet. The distinguished feature of this play in terms of depiction of madness is its representation of two kinds of insanity through the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. Therefore, there is a necessity to investigate the nature of both cases of madness in order to reveal the significant motives of the play concealed by author.

The theme of madness has long been used by the wide range of writers due to the ample scope of motives that can be concealed behind it. However, in order to define Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s insanity from the point of view of its nature, it is necessary to investigate the general function of the topic of madness in the literary discourse. In general, madness is defined as the dissonance between an individual and society that makes it suitable for representation of different moral dilemmas and problems of self-control (Pedlar 9). Madness can be viewed not as lack of intelligence but as its loss, in other words, post intelligence state of mind. Therefore, it can be affirmed that many definitions relate to this category: from mental disorders, namely clinical madness, to the so-called strange behavior, condition, or worldview. The last notion involves a number of “common” opinions on the basis of non-compliance formed in a particular environment in a particular moment as the norm. Thus, there is a problem of the multiple layers of madness as a phenomenon. In fiction, madness in all its identified forms, behavioral and clinical, is the medium of self-discovery that empowers heroes to expose the nature of the world: reality is the key in the search for realism in all its variants of understanding. However, the usage of the theme of madness in fiction to some extant depends also on the particular historical and cultural context that provides different perspectives for defining this concept.

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Writers tend to accuse their character of madness in order to save or get rid of them; madness can be solace or punishment. The character can pretend to be mentally ill in order to create the presence of the soul, but they can become simply crazy because it is the only way to fight with yourself and the world. Perceiving the world in more sensitively and painfully, a madman is able to understand themselves more deeply and even find some sort of truth as opposed to a healthy person. Moreover, the world has a certain impact on human consciousness unwittingly pushing the character to total insanity.

William Shakespeare is the representative of the Renaissance epoch. In Shakespeare’s great tragedies, madness is repeatedly mentioned: in Hamlet, Ophelia and Hamlet; in King Lear, Lear himself. It is necessary to stress that the word “madness” in Early English was defined as the “excessive expression of emotion” rather than real mental disease (Neely 3). Therefore, the usage of this motif by Shakespeare is determined by its definition during that period. Caroline Thienen suggests investigating the meaning of the word “madness” in terms of the notion of “melancholy” as these words were used as synonyms in the 16th century (13). Therefore, the humoral theory is considered to be the basis of revealing the notion of madness in terms of its depiction by society in the 16th century as melancholy is considered the one of four humors (Thienen 13). According to this theory, human body consists of four humors that have to be in balance in order to provide healthy consciousness (Thienen 14). The excessive rate of the fourth humor, melancholy, is determined by lack of labor and, consequently, results in the depressive state. Therefore, melancholy was considered to be a popular disease among aristocracy who tended to experience depression despite their wealth. However, Robert Burton, the investigator of melancholy, considered it to be a kind of madness while clinical madness is just another category (qtd. in Thienen 18).

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Taking into consideration such attitude towards madness that was typical for social mindset in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is possible to state that the main character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet experiences melancholy rather than real madness. Indeed, he expressed the signs of real insanity in the form of his manners and words; however, the main motive of such behavior was his melancholy caused by the particular circumstances in his life. Hamlet pretends to be insane in order to fulfill his plan that was defined by deep disappointment and the depressed state of mind. Madness is the other side of judgment in an attempt to grasp the immensity of the meaning of life. Hamlet is a man who stands on the threshold of modern times and above it all the more imperious principles and ideals of the past. Nevertheless, the interpretation of melancholy as the kind of madness in the times of Shakespeare’s creation presents Hamlet with a certain extent of insanity.

On the other hand, from the general perspective regardless of the cultural and historical context, Hamlet’s madness is considered to be the part of revenge and his conscious choice. It is natural to assume that the misfortune that befell a young man provoked insanity. However, madness is imaginary in terms of Hamlet’s health. His words to his friends after meeting with the Ghost: “How strange or odd soe’er I behave myself/ As I perchance hereafter shall think to meet” (1.5. 177-184). These words clearly imply that Hamlet’s madness is a mask, which he puts on. The only thing that must be said about the last scene of the first act is that it is psychologically difficult to explain how Hamlet could so soon after the meeting with the Ghost decide to pretend to be mad. Hamlet does not always pretend to be insane. He says to Guildenstern: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2. 357-358). Such words seem to possess lack of good sense, but it is necessary for Hamlet to explain why he spoke quite reasonably with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern during the Part II, Act.2. Finally, when Hamlet explains Horatio what he appreciates in him, the Prince abruptly stops seeing the approaching king and all the camarilla: “They are coming…I must be idle” (3.2.92). All these words prove the pretense of Hamlet’s insanity. His main motive is the revenge for his father’s death. In this case, madness is the way to evoke Claudius’s suspicions and anxiety. Although Hamlet’s ideals remain the same, what he sees in life contradicts them. His soul is split. He is convinced of the need to fulfill the duty of revenge. However, the soul of Hamlet is full of sorrow, which did not pass because of the death of his father and the grief caused by the betrayal of his mother.

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All that Hamlet sees acknowledge his relationship to the world: “tis an unweeded garden/ that grows to seed” (1.2. 135-136). These words maintain the notion about Hamlet’s melancholy that is the main reason for his pretended insanity, but it, in fact, can be viewed as the form of it. The concept of melancholy is illustrated in the play with the hero’s words: “my weakness and my melancholy” (2.2. 575). It is easy to explain the features of Hamlet’s melancholy in the sense in which that word is now understood: despondency, brooding melancholy, or depression. Regardless of the view of melancholy as the type of madness or not madness at all, Shakespeare reveals with the help of Hamlet’s insanity the humanity’s sins that are represented by the royal family. Pretending to be insane, Hamlet, at the same time, puts on the masks, which gives him the right to tell people to their faces what he thought about them. Hamlet exploits this opportunity to its full extent. For instance, he mocked Polonius’s wisdom (2.2. 475), treacherous friendship regarding Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. With the help of the play, he reveals the betrayal of Gertrude and Claudius. In general, Shakespeare introduces Hamlet’s madness in order to represent the main human sins in the direct manner, which cannot be done in terms of the aristocracy’s manners. In addition, it can be seen that Shakespeare uses madness in order to depict the transition from the medieval ideas and values to the concepts of coming humanism. It shows that an individual is strong enough to decide their own fate. Shakespeare, in contrast to the medieval ideology, viewed the sacred state of insanity as the one that was determined by the external circumstances. Madman’s mask gives Hamlet the right to say what he thinks and expose the morals of other people. Thus, madness becomes synonymous with dissent.

In case of Ophelia, her insanity is portrayed as a vivid clinical case: “She is importunate, indeed distract” (4.5. 2). The image of Ophelia is represented by the innocent and sincere creature that suffers from people’s indifference, namely Polonius’s, Laert’s, and Hamlet’s. Therefore, her state of mind is represented as the logical consequence of the contradictions in the family relationship with and Hamlet that determines her unbearable inner sacrifice. Using a poetic image of Ophelia, drawing her sorrowful destiny, Shakespeare emphasizes the hostility of the world on the example of Claudius and Polonius as well as simple and beautiful human emotion. Ophelia is a victim of the atrocities of the world together with heresy, intrigue, and deceit. She loves Hamlet but is strongly tied to her own family at the same time. Plain and humble Ophelia cannot comprehend the meaning and significance of the struggle that takes place in Elsinore, and she believes in the madness of Hamlet. Ophelia’s madness is considered a natural response to the interpersonal falsities present in the court (Chen 9). Laertes in his attempt to give her sister a piece of advice advice said: “The canker galls the infants of the spring/ Too oft before their buttons be disclosed” (1.3. 39-40). With these words he underlines the fragility of Ophelia’s soul. She is rejected by the Prince whose love she considers to be the only salivation. The Queen did not want to see her as well. That can be related to the notion about madness as the tool of presenting the truth which was unbearable for the court. Goratio warns: “Her speech is nothing/Yet…it…moves the hearers to collection” (4.5. 7-9). Ophelia is not insane; she is in despair, in frenzy. Similar to Hamlet, she ignores shame and decency, and she is ready to tell everyone about what happened to her. However, nobody tries to help Ophelia. Instead, the King orders just to watch her. Another circumstance that may be considered as the reason for her insanity and suicide is her supposing pregnancy and her attempt to abortion (Hunt).

Nevertheless, the main idea of Ophelia’s madness is the revelation of the force of hypocrisy and deceitfulness. Her insanity is the consequence of the clash between the ideal and real worlds. In fact, the image of Ophelia became a general frame for representation of a “grieving mad woman, whose strange actions bring wisdom to the play event” (Showalter 92). If Hamlet’s madness is just a mask, Ophelia’s madness evokes pity and pain in readers. Nonetheless, even in her madness, she is touching and beautiful. Indeed, Ophelia’s madness is represented as the direct result of the court’s cruelty and the consequence of people’s indifference.

In general, William Shakespeare introduces the motif of madness in order to enhance the portrayal of the humanity’s sins in the play. His main characters, Hamlet and Ophelia, are the examples of two types of madness: the former is provoked by melancholy that has been considered the type of insanity in Shakespeare’s time, and the latter is the direct representation of a mental disorder. Hamlet’s insanity is depicted as the part of revenge that helps him both confuse the enemies and reveal the court’s sins. However, Ophelia’s madness is the real clinical case that is the result of cruelty and intrigues. Although Hamlet’s madness is pretended, and Ophelia’s is real, both forms fulfil the main function of the motif of madness in literature: direct condemnation of the humanity’s sins.

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