Shakespeare’s Madness Within Hamlet and King Lear

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How do you know if a person has gone mad? How do you know if a person is telling the truth? What about intention? Nowadays, we have psychologists, therapists and all kinds of doctors that help to diagnose mental illness. We are now aware of the different types of “craziness” that a person can be. What about hundreds of years ago? Just like today, some people were truly madmen, but of course, anyone has the ability to pretend to be something they’re not.

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Today we can easily figure out if a person is truly mentally ill but back then there was no way to be completely sure. We see how madness worked during Shakespeare’s time as he portrays it in King Lear and Hamlet. These are perfect examples of dealing with a truly mentally ill person and someone who is pretty much pretending. There is always a method to the madness and the story starts here.

King Lear is so used to having absolute power and simply being king. He doesn’t take on the responsibilities that a king must fulfill. When he is faced with challenges, he does not respond well. When bonds between family and society are broken, and King Lear loses his kingdom, he then loses his mind. When aspects of Lear’s life crumble, Shakespeare portrays his madness by his inappropriate behavior. In King Lear, madness is portrayed by the results of losing one’s humanity. Madness can be seen as we see it in King Lear or it can also be portrayed through characters who pretend to be mad, as we see in Hamlet. Hamlet seeks revenge on his uncle for killing his father and plans his murder. In addition, he is not pleased with his mother as she married his father’s murderer. Hamlet found out the truth about his father’s murder when he saw his ghost. In order to be believable, Hamlet pretends to have madness and then puts it to the test by having a play in front of the king. In both of these plays, there is a tragedy, quarreling in the royal families, and conflicts between parents and their children/relatives. Therefore, William Shakespeare portrays the theme of madness in both King Lear and Hamlet through power shifts and conflicts in the plays.

King Lear, a monarch, who had absolute power over his kingdom, did not realize his wrongs until he lost his sanity. He was unfit to be king, therefore chaos broke out, which was expected. Although king lear went completely mad, he showed a more wise and insightful version of himself which is contradicting to the fact that he was insane. During his time of madness, he learns and becomes a better father and king. King Lear first portrays that he is an unfit king when he divides the kingdom between his two unfaithful daughters, Regan and Goneril. Cordelia, Lear’s most loyal daughter, refuses to lie of her affection for Lear, as her sisters did. Cordelia is honest with her father and explains to him that she’ll always be there for him. Lear is so blind to Regan and Goneril’s false love, that Cordelia’s love seems weak. Cordelia is then banished. At this moment, chaos and tragedy were bound to happen. Kent tries to reason with the king before it is too late but he is completely blind to his mistake. Kent says, “Do, kill thy physician, and the fee bestow. Upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy gift, Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,I’ll tell thy dost evil.”(I.1. 63-66). Kent is Lear’s most loyal friend but after he said this to the king, Lear approached his breaking point.

Lear’s next step is reaching his highest point of madness. During his time of madness, He banishes Kent from the kingdom which is one of his biggest mistakes. After Regan and Goneril treat Lear with disrespect and break from their promises of eternal love, he sees the error in giving them so much power and leaving himself without any. When Lear made this mistake, he left himself completely reliant on his two daughters that could not be trusted. This mistake allows Lear to realize that he banished his one truthful and loving daughter, Cordelia. Lear reveals that he understands his mistake when he says, “Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand. For lifting food to‘t? But I will punish home.No, I will weep no more. In such a night, To shut me out! Pour on, I will endure” (III.4.15-18). It is apparent that Lear is able to see the truth more now than when he had his sanity, which shows that there is a reason for this madness.

In Hamlet, the madness is made up. We are directly told by Hamlet that the madness we see is pretended. Although the madness isn’t real in Hamlet, the conflicts that arise are still similar to those in Lear being that the royal family’s peace is disrupted. Hamlet admits his false madness when he says, “How strange or odd some’er I bear myself (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on)”(I.5.190-192). Shakespeare also implies that it is fake when three other men also witness the manifestation of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. If Hamlet were to have seen his father’s ghost by himself, there would be a greater argument for him going mad. 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.1.56-8)”. Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet when framing the King with his reaction to the play. Also, Hamlet shows that he is in control over his own actions, which is the reason he is arguably insane. He continuously tries to convince Polonius that he has gone mad by mocking him when he would usually be respectful, acting cruelly towards Ophelia whom he was clearly affectionate to in the beginning part of the play. He does this in the hope that Polonius will tell the court of his madness. This shows how Hamlet desires to be known as having madness instead of being truly labeled as a mad man. Hamlet is often hesitant to do things, which proves his innocence. For example, he had the chance to kill Claudius in the chapel but couldn’t bring himself to do it, not because he would be killing another man but because he wanted Claudius to suffer. Although a case could be made that Hamlet’s actions are not moral, they are surely not directed to being mad. The only time Hamlet could be associated with truly being mad is when he kills Claudius. Although a murderer is usually someone who is not sane, Hamlet did it more out of anger and rage.

As it is clear, madness is a motif in both Hamlet and King Lear but it is portrayed by Shakespeare through different personality traits of the two Kings as well as their actions in which the reader can infer from. King Lear is a case of a real mad man. Shakespeare allows us to analyze Lear’s actions as they can be portrayed by readers differently. The most obvious and suggested inference about King Lear is that there is a method to his madness. We see this as King Lear progressively goes mad as he loses his sense of self. The language of Lear infers his true thoughts that make his madness sensible. For example, Kent asks the gentlemen who are out in the storm he replies with, ” one minded like the weather, most unquietly”(I.3). This explanation says that Lear’s mind is clearly not in the right. On the other hand, Hamlet seemed to be more naturally right minded than Lear as we notice through his actions. Both plays offer a character on a different level of sanity, but in Hamlet, the distinction is not as clear as it is in King Lear.

Despite the many differences between King Lear and Hamlet, they do share many unrecognized ideas and details that lead to the madness we see. The major similarity is that in both plays, mind, soul, and body play large roles in the characters. When the madness overrides the mind and soul, you are left with nothing important anymore. We see the emphasis on this when Lear and Ophelia have their nonsense (relating to nothing) speeches. Another similarity between the two plays is that madness is accepted and expected during their times. It is more common that a King would go insane and cause conflicts. William Shakespeare added in details to his plays that, if noticed, can really open up the way you analyze the plots of these plays. Shakespeare embedded personality traits in both Kings that created the common motif of madness.

Works Cited

  1. Shakespeare, William, and Harold Jenkins. Hamlet. London: Methuen, 1982. Print.
  2. Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Tom Smith. Oxford: Globe Theater Press, 2005. Print.
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Shakespeare's Madness within Hamlet and King Lear. (2020, Jul 23). Retrieved from