It is not only in Hamlet that Shakespeare presents us with the travails and terrors of madness: it is a recurrent theme in very many of his plays. (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest... well, actually, every play of his that I know some little about reflects on madness in some way; I understand that Shakespeare uses the words 'mad' and 'madness' more often in Twelfth Night than in any other work, so doubtless I should focus my attention there soon.) Sadly -- and this has happened to Dickens too, I think -- Heritage stops us seeing Shakespeare for the troubling and unsettling writer that he manifestly is: "The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." The times are ever-troubling; and it is always the time to speak in a heartfelt way against the present's deadening cant. These are not sane times; Lear is as untimely as it has ever been.

Shakespeare was writing when what constituted the written English language, what constituted the very tools which he went on to fashion into the best ever expression of those tools, was still particularly unsettled. And how he wields words seems to reflect a view of the self that suggests that what constitutes the self -- fashioned on the stage merely by the playwright's words, of course -- is itself ever-unsettled. Shakespeare’s language is an erratic, antic, fizzing brew which captures, and expresses existentially, a particular take on the non-fixity of the human state. He is a poet not of an age, but for all time because time is written into the ambiguity -- the play -- of his writing, and into the ambiguous, uncertain, unanchored, disarranged characters he sets before us. His language moves -- his characters move -- as we move as time moves...

Fools, as numerous readers have noted, are wont to be wise, and kings can often be very foolish. If he had been fully in his right mind, Lear, surely, should have known that his daughters, Goneril and Regan, were far from virtuous, were far from the ideal caretakers for his Kingdom in his dotage. That is, unless we are to presume that they became so particularly venal only after being gifted a share of their Father's estate -- which pushes our credulity too far, I think, but does reinforce the idea that once Lear's madness is large in the land, other madnesses will be loosed and liberated. Lear's unquieted state is apparent, if not at the absolute moment he begins to divide his Kingdom, certainly at the instant he forgets the previous dutiful, loving nature of his favourite and youngest daughter Cordelia; he certainly fully loses control when her lawyerly response ("I love your majesty According to my bond; nor more nor less") mocks and highlights his frankly ridiculous decision to divest himself of "of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state". (Cordelia, of course, is not quite herself at this juncture either; two suitors await in the wings when she says: "when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty.") There is madness in the air, then, as soon as we began to read or watch the play. The moment Gloucester believes of Edmund that his other son Edgar could ever conceive of his murder, we know for sure that the mayhem that has infected Lear's brain will flow through the whole of his realm.

It has been a commonplace since at least Foucault wrote his History of Madness that the pathologising medicalization of several morbid unhappinesses has robbed us of access to the kind of Foolish wisdom that attempts to support Lear and his friends throughout the play in counterpoint to Lear's own self-destructive, but occasionally self-illuminating mania. When a king shows himself a fool it is time for his Fool to show wise counsel. This Foolish, supportive wisdom is echoed in the subplot in which Edgar disguises himself as Tom of Bedlam and guides his now cruelly blinded father to a limited form of spiritual rebirth at Dover Cliff.

My grandmother who died, aged 97, three years ago, quite mad from dementia and the attendant ravages of age, was central to my upbringing -- "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long." She is central still to my moral universe. Her socialistic dictum, that you can only sleep in one bed, the concomitant of which is that those who have more than one bed declare themselves to be embedded in excess, remains core to my worldview. Her degenerative illness manifested itself in many tragic and demeaning ways, but two strange Shakespearian wisdoms arose: she confused family members (I was often thought to be my father, and vice versa); and she disremembered the trivial and the everyday whilst clearly recalling events from 50, 60 and even 70 and more years ago. The pattern, I'm sure, is familiar to everyone with elderly and infirm parents or grandparents. Time's tyranny was now, with her, differently manifest. And, of course, came at a high and often distressing, sometimes comic cost.

I do not believe in ghosts, but during my own recent weaknesses, my grandmother has been fully in my thoughts. So fully that I've smelt her cooking in my flat and, on my pillow, the distinctive, beautiful scent of her face and hair -- a memory which must come from my own now distant childhood. I have, in truth, felt much closer to her than I did during the long years of her failing mental and physical health.

Lear is certainly not a play only about madness, it is, speaking colloquially, a mad play. It is such a beguiling work because it is a bit all over the place. Sometimes, Shakespeare's poetry takes him so far into the human that he feels timeless, but many aspects of Lear can't help but foreground the Jacobean. The messy nature of the play, however, also underscores something very human -- humans are not neat! Their emotions, their desires, their hopes and fears are messy, ridiculous, unfounded, grandiose, illogical, perverse. Their madness sometimes allows them to see the world's madness, sometimes reflects that madness, and sometimes is merely an awful, lonely, destructive vortex...

A kind of order is restored to Lear's domain at the end of the play. But the order comes at a terrible human cost, and the order is itself contingent: Lear dies, whilst humbled and grief-stricken, still haughty and half-mad; his favourite Cordelia dead in his arms; Gloucester is blind; and, of course, Goneril, Regan and Edmund's corpses litter the stage. Humankind cannot bear very much reality and is ever loath to admit that death has undone so very many. We are not only born astride our own graves, but arrive wailing into an overcrowded cemetery: "When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools." Learning to live with ghosts isn't an option but an essential life skill. Lear leaves an unstated, dying curse in the air: this is ever his kingdom, and we are never out of it.

Readers Comments

  1. if you're Hamlet, then I must be Lear (and Sadie my Cordelia). Erudite writing, as always - thanks Mark.

  2. Provocative and so very moving again, Mark. Thank you.

  3. My grandmother looks down from a cloud and nods encouragingly when times get rough. Whether or not I conjure up this image to comfort myself is irrelevant. I am a fervent believer.

  4. Madness is one of the themes that recur in 'Hamlet' . This madness is both real and feigned. Hamlet’s `madness’ starts out as an `antic disposition’. But gradually, his mental condition deteriorates to such a state as to make us wonder whether this is feigned or real. Many critics are of the opinion that this ambiguity was deliberate on the part of Shakespeare. I found this, along with some other interesting facts, on This vagueness reflects the general uncertainty and doubt that characterizes the entire play. Ophelia’s madness, however, is somewhat different. Under the pressure of her brother and father and of Hamlet’s abuse, Ophelia becomes a victim of a mental breakdown, which leads to her subsequent drowning.

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