William Shakespeare’s tragic characters, revered for their emotional complexities, remain as intriguing today as ever. Hamlet, centering on a Danish prince’s quest to seek the truth concerning his father’s murder, contains instances of tragedy and triumph as the young man learns the difficult lessons surrounding revenge. Macbeth tells of a King’s limitless thirst for bloodshed and how he never quite gains a sense of security from his villainous schemes. Thus what starts for Macbeth as a murder that promised the fulfillment of destiny turns into a first step leading towards a progressive downfall. Many comparative themes connect Shakespeare’s plays, and these two are no exception; characters in both works demonstrate the timeless paradox between obeying one’s reason and giving in to insanity.
At the beginning of the play, Hamlet acts melancholy and distant from all the other actors in the royal court. And actors they are, for they hide their true intentions from the prince on a regular basis. Hamlet, demoralized by the hypocrisy around him, says “by a sleep we say end/ The heart-ache, and the thousand-natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wisht” (III, i). On pondering whether or not he should avenge the death of his father, Hamlet wonders if taking action would be worth it. In these lines, he seems to be supporting the notion that it would be better if he were dead. He views life as something so unbearable that he can hardly take it anymore. His “flesh is heir” to his pain meaning that it is his destiny that he suffer such agony. Is Hamlet beginning to lose his mind due to the terrible truth he knows concerning his father’s murder? Is he pondering suicide? According to W.F. Bynum and Michael Neve, Hamlet would usually be seen as going insane at this point. By early Victorian times, when psychiatric comments on Hamlet began, suicide had been more or less medicated; it was seen as a symptom of excessive melancholy or various form of mania such as homicidal or erotic monomania (Bynum 394). These critics believed Hamlet’s sadness had reached an unhealthy pitch, confirming a warning made to Hamlet earlier about excessive grief being detrimental to one’s health. With homicidal mania being a tendency could explain why Hamlet later goes on his avenging mission in the play. And too, erotic mania could suggest that he had something unlawful to do with Ophelia. Yet these critics don’t entertain the idea that Hamlet could still be rational during his perpetual grief; by noticing the blatant hypocrisy in others, does that not make him more rational than insane? Maybe Hamlet simply suffers due to the dishonor that others have treated his father’s legacy.
King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, sends Polonius, an arrogant tongue twister, to inquire as to why Hamlet acts extremely gloomy and unintelligible. Polonius wants to catch Hamlet in the act, for he does not trust the prince at all, especially when the matter concerns Ophelia. As Hamlet indirectly insults Polonius, Polonius gives an aside to the audience: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it” (II, ii). Earlier in the scene, Polonius defines madness as “what is’t but to be nothing else but mad” (II, ii.). Yet if Hamlet construes a witty and cunning method to call Polonius out on his spying him, then is Hamlet truly mad? Madness denotes a loss of reason and the ability to think on a rational level. But if Hamlet uses enough sense to try to trick people into their own traps, then he must be sane on some level still; he only acts insane so as to get a response. What appears to Polonius to be the ravings of a lunatic is actually the cunning of a brilliant actor. In fact, Polonius, not Hamlet, may be the one who fails to act rationally. His dialogue points to him being incoherent and failing to make sense. In talking to the King and Queen about Hamlet’s “lunacy,” Polonius says “Mad let us grant him, then: now remains/ That we find the cause of this effect,-/ Or rather say, the cause of this defect,/ For this effect defective comes by cause” (II, ii). In his self-contradictory and inverted phrasing, Polonius reveals that he has no grounding in reason, that he even does not know what truth is. It seems as if he struggles to get his thoughts out, whereas Hamlet, though acting like a lunatic, can still speak creatively. Polonius, caught in his spiteful ways towards the prince, actually merits no sense of appreciation in terms of rationale.
Hamlet follows his mother, Gertrude, after confirming the King’s guilt relating to King Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet talks to the ghost, who reappears before him. On asking Gertrude whether or not she sees the ghost, she replies “Nothing at all; yet all that is I see” (III, iv). The reader must now choose a person to believe: Gertrude or Hamlet. Gertrude is under the impression that Hamlet has lost his mind; yet her incestual relationship with Claudius prompts the audience to doubt her beliefs. But if Gertrude is right, then only Hamlet can see the ghost, therefore making him insane by rational standards. Hamlet begins to suspect his passion for justice is up for criticism. He admits to Gertrude: “Forgive me this my virtue/ For in the fatness of these pursy times/ Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg” (III, iv). Hamlet questions the reason behind his pursuing justice. In overwhelming Gertrude emotionally, he has overstepped his bounds. He sees himself, at the moment, as a fanatic who has failed to exercise restraint. Yet the fact that Hamlet exercises self-control still, and the fact that he apologizes to his mother show that he still has reason within him, the ability to think clearly about the situation. He also continues to show empathy towards Gertrude and the willingness to forgive her. He hasn’t succumbed to murder, at least not yet.
Hamlet tragically murders Polonius, believing him to be Claudius behind a curtain. This instance is when the prince, in the heat of the moment due to his thirst for revenge, makes a dire mistake. He has drifted from his purpose. Indeed, he will later confess to Laertes, before he fights him, that it was due to his madness that he murdered Polonius (Bynum 392). Yet Hamlet does not fully relinquish his faith that he is essentially sane and rational. In the last act, Hamlet tells Laertes: “Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet/ Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so/ Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d/ His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy” (V, ii). There exists a deep difference in Hamlet’s psyche; on the one hand, he follows conscience and reason, but on the other hand, he gives in to excessive emotions. But so much does the prince have faith in himself that he views the madness as something hardly a part of himself. He still desires to see himself as a noble man of reason and logic in the midst of all the confusion and terror around him, despite the fact that his actions have made others distrustful of him. Since he acknowledges his fault towards Laertes, he retains a sense of reason. If his shortcomings ever do rise, it’s temporary.
Hamlet’s actions affect Ophelia to the point to where she loses her rational and moral compass. And ironically, her “reasonable” role in society fails to save her from the despair and confusion that overtake her. King Claudius, on seeing Ophelia singing vague and confusing songs, interprets her to be singing about Polonius. The King remarks: “poor Ophelia/ Divided from herself and her fair judgment” (IV, v). Shakespeare has given the audience the logical basis for her insanity: she has no individuality, for she is trapped between loving Hamlet and being loyal to Polonius (Snider 85). Since her reliance has been on others, she now must think for herself (Snider 85). What holds Ophelia together at this point in the play has disappeared. The stress and mental difficulty in fending for herself drives her over the edge. All her life, her conscience was dictated by those around her (particularly Polonius). She followed those who advised her without question, believing it to be her reasonable duty. But now that her father is dead, her sense of reason has vanished. If logical absolutes no longer exist, then she has no choice to lose herself in her own despair. Ironically, her own moral compass served in leading her to her insanity.
Macbeth also offers glimpses of the relationship between conscience (and reason) and insanity. Lady Macbeth has long been a classical example of this conflict. The audience knows (in a dramatically ironic sort of way, since the characters in the play are unaware) that Lady Macbeth assisted her husband in the murder of Duncan. One would think that the secret could easily be hidden since no one knows. But Lady Macbeth will soon suffer the pangs of conscience, which, in turn, will affect her reasoning faculties quite harshly. A doctor comes to see one of Lady Macbeth’s servants, inquiring as to why she has been mysteriously sleepwalking. Lady Macbeth, in their presence, says: “What, will these hands ne’er be clean/ Here’s the smell of blood still: all the/ perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (V,i). Lady Macbeth is completely convinced that blood covers her hands, despite the fact the doctor and the servant cannot see blood on her. She has tried all in her power to avoid the symbol of guilt and thus despairs that she is trapped by her murderous secret. It appears she has lost the ability to discern reality from illusion, therefore making her insane. And this is all because she sinned against her conscience. The doctor, dumbfounded at the queen, fails to act on her behalf. Paul H. Kocher examines varying beliefs on melancholy in Elizabethan England; his conclusion on Lady Macbeth’s predicament is that “It is not that Shakespeare, of all men, fails to see the interaction between body and soul. But to have allowed the Doctor any competence in treating Lady Macbeth would have entirely diminished his dramatic point. It was important to note that the sole fault of all her ills was not natural melancholy but the conscience” (Kocher 345). The issue is dramatic because the doctor cannot treat Lady Macbeth’s problem due to its source; since her problem is spiritual and not physical, he is unable to help her. Such a predicament heightens the sense of tragedy that pervades the play. It makes the audience feel helpless as well. The divine punishment that Lady Macbeth’s sin has brought on her is her loss of sanity. It would appear that sanity and conscience are dependent on one another in the mind of human beings.
King Macbeth suffers under the same psychological pressures as his wife. Indeed, his hallucinations are more intense because he is the actual murderer of Duncan. His guilt and pain sting far more heavily than his wife’s. In his nervous chase to maintain his secret, he commits another murder by having his men kill Banquo, one of his closest friends. While he sits at the dinner table, Banquo’s ghost appears to him, yet only him, just like when Hamlet saw the ghost of his father in his mother’s room. Macbeth laments: “Avaunt! And quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee/ Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold/ Thou hast no speculation in those eyes/ which thou dost glare with” (III, iv). Besides the fact that Banquo being a ghost frightens the King, the ghost also reminds Macbeth of the crime he has previously orchestrated. It is a manifestation of the King’s guilty conscience, being a fragment of his disturbed and mentally unhinged mind. The “glare” bores into him, pinpointing his sin. The Ghost is visible to Macbeth alone; it only appears whenever he mentions it. This view is the most popular interpretation for most English critics in light of Macbeth’s phrase “My strange and self-abuse is the initiate fears that wants hard use” (Greg 394). Though Macbeth struggles to retain his sense of sanity after Banquo’s murder, he is still able to recognize that the ghost is merely the product of his own fears and doubts. His guilt and nervousness, though overwhelming him, do not yet conquer him fully. He is still thinking clearly at this point in the play.
The Macbeths may not be the only ones suffering in then play from the war between madness and truth. Banquo is also involved. Banquo and Macbeth are the only ones that spot the witches at the beginning. They are trying to figure out whether or not what they see is credible, as Hamlet tries to do with the ghost of King Hamlet. Banquo says “Upon her skinny lips:-you should be women/ and yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ that you are so” (I, iii). The fact that there is a contradiction in Banquo’s sight suggests that he could well be hallucinating. The difficulty in distinguishing what sex the witches are points to a mental issue to be solved. The witches tell Macbeth that he will “get kings though thou be none” (I, iii). The prophecy is simple: Macbeth will become King though circumstances do not suggest it. But according to Arthur Kirsch “Sigmund Freud believes that animalistic thinking is still present in the adult life and that dream-works are a viable part of it” (Kirsch 282). If one holds to Freud’s analysis as a way to interpret the play’s opening, then they can conclude that the witch’s prophecy is nothing but the subconscious symbol of the power Macbeth and Banquo both desire. After having just retuned form one of the bloodiest battles in Scotland’s history, they would most likely desire a royal title to be revered by. What better title than King? For them, the reward would be the reasonable compensation for risking their lives. But for Macbeth, this desire takes over his life for the worse, gradually leading him down the path of insanity.
In looking at both of Shakespeare’s plays, one might ask what is the true relationship regarding sanity and insanity? The two dispositions seem so linked together that it is almost impossible to distinguish either from the other. Macbeth, in pursuing his selfish desires with his wife’s help, brings a mental damnation on himself. Since he abandons reason to take a hold of power, he suffers by losing the will to control his thoughts. But Hamlet is the saner of the two; though the prince goes through many lengths to juggle his true self with feigning madness, he manages to retain a noble sense of justice, even through his own mistakes. With ambiguity pervading reason and madness, what people must ultimately ask themselves is how can we distinguish what is true and what is not? If we discern rightly, then we can avoid tragedy. But if we fail, then we pay unbearable prices, namely, our own sanity.
Greg, W.W. “Hamlet’s Hallucination.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 12, No.4. Oct. 1917, pp. 393-421.
Kirsch, Arthur. “Macbeth’s Suicide.” ELH, Vol. 51, No. 2, (Summer 1984) pp. 269-296.
Kocher, H. Paul. “Lady Macbeth and the Doctor.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, (Autumn 1954) pp. 341-349.
Neve, Michael and Bynum, W.F. “Hamlet on the Couch: Hamlet is a kind of touchstone by which to measure changing opinion-psychiatric and otherwise-about madness.” Amercian Scientist, Vol. 74, No.4(July to August 1986), p. 390-396.
Snider, D.J. “Hamlet.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 3 (July 1873), pp.78-89.