Does fate inflict circumstances that could unhinge a mind? Or, is madness caused by an individual’s own decisions? In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and King Lear Shakespeare explores the theme of madness, providing circumstances that cause specific characters to fall into the abyss of the mind. This writing will compare the subsequent circumstances that lead to the grief-induced madness in the separate characters of King Lear and Ophelia, while exploring the effect madness had on each of them.
An examination of Ophelia’s circumstances is necessary to understand her descent into madness. Although sheltered at first, Ophelia, a young woman in the court of Denmark, loses both of her kinsmen, thereby isolating her from her accustomed position, and for reasons she did not understand she loses her future as a bride of Hamlet. The Queen, a natural ally, is so anxious of Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (Hamlet 1.5.172) and the conflict between her husband and her son that she can not provide assistance to Ophelia.
Hamlet, who has given Ophelia “many tenders / Of his affection,” (1.3.99-100) treats her with extreme disrespect in a reverse betrothal scene by urging her to “get thee [to] a nunn’ry,” (3.1.120) an implication understood by the Elizabethan audience as consigning Ophelia to either a convent or a brothel. Hamlet continues his display of disrespect before the play, “The Mousetrap,” (3.2.237) by saying remarks such as “Lady, should I lie in your lap? . . . I mean, my head in your lap” (112, 115) thereby, lowering her status in the eyes of the court.
However, Ophelia’s sanity does not deteriorate until Hamlet kills her father in Gertrude’s bedchamber. No wonder that Ophelia, with no family, no support, and no position, becomes mad. She is nothing to the Elizabethan world. Who could not pity her for she is a pawn of her father, a pawn in Hamlet’s game, and in death a pawn of her brother? Further, madness did not refine her character. She received no self-revelations except the realization of her isolation and she received no great reward except for release from pain through death and the pity of Shakespeare’s audience. As a member of that audience, one concludes that Ophelia’s grief-induced madness is no fault of her own, but caused by the very circumstances that made this tragedy, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, great.
In contrast, King Lear’s descent into madness focuses more upon his personal choices than upon fate. In the first scene, King Lear divides his kingdom and banishes his faithful daughter, Cordelia, and his faithful retainer, Kent, thereby placing himself under the jurisdiction of his power-mad daughters, Goneril and Regan. In the process, King Lear offends an ally, the King of France, who is the new husband of Cordelia.
Undeniably, the seeds of King Lear’s madness emerge early in the play when he says: “Know that we have divided / Three our kingdom; and tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age” (King Lear 1.1.37-9). These two ideas, division of a kingdom and abandonment of responsibility, horrified and proved to the Elizabethan audience that King Lear was already mad. The only other explanation of his actions would be foolishness, which the Fool implies in his rhyme:
[That lord that counsell’d thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me,
Do thou for him to stand.
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear:
The one in motley here,
The other found out there. (1.4.140-7)
In the same vein The Fool declares: “thou mad’st / thy daughters thy mothers, . . . thou gav’st them / the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches,” (172-4) which stresses King Lear’s foolishness.
But, King Lear does not accept his loss of power until a confrontation with his two daughters. In this scene, Goneril and Regan strips from him the appearance of power by taking away his knights. Finally, King Lear is able to see them as “unnatural hags” (2.4.278). As King Lear ponders the actions of his faithless daughters and his actions against his faithful daughter, he feels his “wits begin to turn” (3.2.68). Then, in his madness King Lear learns wisdom. He concludes that “man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d / animal” (3.4.107-8). Ripping off his clothes King Lear unveils himself as a poor mad fool with flowers in his hair, somewhat similar to Ophelia.
In contrast to Ophelia, King Lear learns sacrifice, understanding and self-knowledge. His suffering transforms him. Another dissimilar element to Ophelia’s situation is King Lear is not completely isolated. Kent, disguised as Caius, keeps watch over him and Cordelia, the Queen of France, comes to rescue him. Unlike Ophelia, King Lear’s madness, although aggravated by the unfilial actions of his older daughters, is self-inflicted by his reliance on appearance and willingness to divest himself from his divine responsibilities – his kingship.
In comparing the cause of madness within Ophelia and King Lear some similarities emerge. Both characters encounter issues concerning family and their position not only in the family, but also in the wider world. King Lear wants peace in his old age, but also the respect due his office as king, while Ophelia, as a young lady of the court, expected to marry, raise a family, and maintain a circumscribed position within her family and the court. The losses generate grief, which induces madness ergo, the inability to be a productive member society.
However, there are major differences in these two characters. For instance, Ophelia in her world is dependent on the fortunes of her father and brother, while King Lear is a king and is influential in his world. Again, Ophelia is a woman with all that implies within the medieval world-view, while King Lear is a man in control of his destiny. Ophelia represents submission, while King Lear represents dominance.
What does this mean? No matter the position one holds, in the right circumstances, he or she can experience a paralyzing grief, therefore becoming mad in the process. That is why Ophelia and King Lear can induce pity and fear in not only the medieval audience but also the modern audience.
In this created world, the actions and dialog of King Lear and Ophelia reveal Shakespeare’s motif of madness. Each character shows the result of isolation and disconnection from the family, a microcosm of the Elizabethan world, and of society, a macrocosm of the same world.
Moreover, Shakespeare dispenses a cure, which includes sleep and the healing tears of a loved one. Is understanding Shakespearean madness applicable to our modern world? In my humble opinion, the answer is yes. Remember Ophelia and King Lear’s main reason for madness was a disconnection from their family and society. In our world of digital magic and physical disconnection, people need a stable support system and face-to-face communication similar to the Elizabethan audience of four hundred years ago.