The subject of madness is a major theme in two of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, “Hamlet” and “King Lear”.
In both of these plays, a character feigns insanity to carry out a motive - Hamlet and Edgar respectively. However, while it is made quite clear to the audience that Edgar is only pretending to be 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”), it is somewhat less clear whether Hamlet has crossed the line and lost control of his “antic disposition”. Shakespeare gives evidence which suggests that Hamlet is sane by having 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 being insane from the outset of the play.
Hamlet also exerts control over his actions, which is the main reason why it could be argued that he is sane. He actively tries to convince Polonius that he has gone mad - mocking him when he would usually be respectful, acting cruelly towards Ophelia whom he was clearly affectionate to earlier in the play. He does this in t
This allows contrast with his half-brother Edmund, whose resentment towards the way he is treated may be assigned as a cause of his behaviour - showing that Shakespeare had some insight of psychology. There is only one moment where Hamlet acts rashly, motivated purely by anger and vengeance, and that is when he kills Claudius. Although a case could be made that Hamlet"tms actions are not moral or good, they are certainly not deranged or mad. The character Laertes could be said to have been affected by the sickness surrounding him - Ophelia"tms breakdown and death, the death of his father Polonius, Hamlet"tms behaviour - to the extent that he allows himself to be corrupted by Claudius, being encouraged into taking actions that normally he would never do. As with Lear, Shakespeare allows Laertes a last-minute repentance as he is dying: "Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet". he hope that Polonius will tell the court of his madness. The character of the Fool is another example of this; for somebody whose job it is to talk nonsense and entertain by appearing mad, the Fool is fond of concealing barbed comments in rhymes, reminding Lear of his own stupidity. Hamlet is often hesitant to do things, for example where he had the chance to kill Claudius in the chapel but couldn"tmt bring himself to do it, not because he would be killing another human but because he wanted Claudius to suffer and not go straight to Heaven. The irony of this situation would remain intact even if Lear had not gone mad. Another prominent theme in Hamlet is the metaphorical spread of disease through Elsinore. Interestingly Shakespeare has both characters collect flowers and sing (Cordelia says of her father in "King Lear": "Why, he was met even now as mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud, crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds, with hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow in our sustaining corn" and Ophelia is shown acting in a similar way in "Hamlet"), which may be coincidental but shows that he thought this to be an appropriate way to denote real insanity. Ophelia"tms suicide (whether intentional or not) acts as further impetus for Hamlet"tms rage upon his return, though there is a sense that her death, along with that of Polonius, has desensitised Hamlet to the prospect of death yet freed him from wanting to commit suicide himself. He humbly asks her for forgiveness - "Pray you now, forget and forgive. The sensible, pragmatic Horatio is often characterised as the anchor that keeps Hamlet in the "real world", as if the latter had little grip on reality. Lear has moments of clarity in spite of his deteriorating mental state, illustrating the presence of reason in madness and madness in reason, another theme of "King Lear" which is touched on in "Hamlet" as Polonius remarks: "though this be madness, yet there is method in"tmt".