My Literary Analysis of Madness in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "Hamlet"


             “The great proof of madness is the disproportion of one's designs to one's means,” by Napoleon Bonaparte. Madness is a very prevalent theme in both Hamlet and Macbeth. Shakespeare’s two main characters in each play interestingly end up succumbing to some sort of mental breakdown. Hamlet’s mental instability does not actually immediately follow his father’s death; rather, his obsession to avenge his father and persecute his uncle, Claudius, results in his ultimate demise. In Macbeth’s case, his downfall and eventual death is faulted by this extremely greedy ambitions of power and esteem. There are definitely numerous parallels in both plays in regards to mental health. Both Hamlet and Macbeth’s desires ultimately overpower their morality. Even more fascinating is the resulting psychosis which is correlated with their newfound infatuations. In each story, the two characters were respected men known to be courageous and virtuous leaders, with Hamlet being a prince and Macbeth being a thane. It goes to show that an obsession with any particular goal can be detrimental when one escalates an objective over character.

            The mania attributed to Hamlet and Macbeth can be specifically defined by the extraneous and heinous crimes they commit and the delusions and paranoia they experience. For example, both men not only commit murder to achieve what they want but also participate in some unnecessary cruelty. Macbeth murders King Duncan to become king while Hamlet kills Polonius thinking it is Claudius to seek revenge. However, this is not enough for them; they take gratuitous and villainous measures to ensure success in their convoluted plan with Macbeth having Macduff’s wife and child to be slain and Hamlet torturing Ophelia by playing with her heart and mind. With these examples depicting the insanity portrayed in Shakespeare, it can be inferred that insanity is not merely erratic behavior but depravity. The ghosts mentioned in both stories might also be another example of the two becoming unhinged which seem to be brought on by some sort of grief; Macbeth is regretful over the death of Banquo, and Hamlet is mournful over the death of his father. Therefore, the apparitions may be symbols of their gradual decline into lunacy. Macbeth, in addition to the paranormal activity, is bewitched by hallucinations probably brought on from his psychological inner turmoil and the contemplation of his own virtue. Hamlet on the other hand, is consumed by hatred for his uncle and the death of his father. The first paranormal activity he experiences seems to be genuine due to Horatio witnessing it as well. However, the next visitations are in solitary and seem to only drive Hamlet into further confusion and unsettlement.

Even though Hamlet was tactfully trying to portray himself as being mentally unbalanced, he seemed to be exhibiting questionable behavior prior to his purposeful theatrics, which lead me to believe that his desire to seem crazy merely gave him the permission to release his inner feelings without self-acknowledging his own mind’s frailty; a disguise within an unconscious disguise, if you will. Though the extent of Hamlet’s insanity is debatable, I would argue that the existence of some sort of mental illness is not. Throughout the play, he surprises the audience with his behavior that seems to be out of control; he also seems to be notably melancholy with evident depression alongside the contemplation of suicide. Interestingly, Hamlet experiences some unusual indications of a mental issue, which are also found among Macbeth, being insomnia, nightmares, secrecy, and dangerous plotting. Although he has good reason to be suspicious of some of the characters, he tends to be overly eccentric with everyone he encounters maybe even to the point of being delusional. Hamlet is a great character of intelligence and wit; he comes off as superior to the rest of the cast, yet he seems to fade in and out of clarity and lucidity. Where at one moment Hamlet seems perceptive, at another he can be described as irrational. This inconsistency continues to persist and grow until the end. For instance, at Ophelia’s funeral, he is disheartened yet outlandish. He seems to be more consumed with outshining Laertes than grieving over the loss of a life, which makes you think that he seems to lack remorse; just a few hours after her burial, he is enjoying a match of fencing. Hamlet becomes hardened by the idea of seeking retribution over his father as portrayed by, “My fate cries out/And makes each petty artery in this body/As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.” Shakespeare may have composed Hamlet to be a character that slowly, through the process of perpetuating a persona, was driven to a lack of prudence and eventual insanity.

Conversely, Macbeth’s spiral into delirium is quite apparent, and his decent into madness is pretty much evident from the start. After the conversation with the witches, he begins to secretly entertain the idea of becoming king and the means by which he would seize the crown. It is an important section that marks the inception of his greed and self-centrism igniting an eventual all-consuming fire in his heart. But, it is when he mentions the encounter to Lady Macbeth that events and conspiracies actually commence. Unlike his wife, he battles with the concept of murdering his beloved-by-all king for purely selfish purposes. This inner struggle is an important cause of his evolution into madness. Macbeth’s guilt and mental conflict begin to manifest itself through hallucinations and psychological unrest. Macbeth’s remorse is strongly depicted through him feeling like he is unable to wash away the blood from Duncan’s death from his hands, “What hands are here! Ha, they pluck out mine eyes./Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood.  Plainly stated, indiscretion drives him insane to a point of completely debilitating his moral compass. It is like he had rejected his conscience so frequently that it ceased to exist.

A thought-provoking concept is the inevitable outcome of the relationships of both Hamlet and Macbeth, due cause to their madness. They continuously pushed the people they loved away. Hamlet breaks his relationship with Ophelia as does Macbeth with Duncan. But, more than that, they become extremely suspicious of their once loyal allies. Hamlet suspects his mother of being part of the conspiracy to kill his father with Claudius, and Macbeth believes that the prophecy of three witches will cause Banquo and his son to rise up against him and try to take over his throne. Their outrageous hunger to achieve their purpose causes them to reject the idea of loyalty, love, and compassion, which only leads to a vicious cycle of increasing their demented mentality, mutilating their rectitude and sense of self, and destroying not only their judgment but the lives of innocent bystanders.

As the plots progress, both characters become progressively more maniacal as they reach their goal. Macbeth seems to be unrecognizable towards the end, even showing very little care for the death of the wife he once treasured greatly. Hamlet’s unpredictable rationale continually transitions from sanity to insanity.  The idea of “to be or not to be” transcends itself into not only as an expression of Hamlet’s nihilistic outlook on life but a representation of his own mental state.  Macbeth and Hamlet allowed the means to achieve their desires at any cost get the better of them and eventually, completely transform them into sociopaths with no one to love and nothing worth fighting for.

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allets's picture

I Used To

read Shakespeare for fun and the poetry - also Chaucer, less for the poetry and more for the irony. You certainly have an interesting take on Mac, Ham, the rational and man of his superstitious times (and whoever wrote it's devices and machinations) held it together remarkably well considering his knowledge of, well, everything horrid in (and around) Denmark. He was more pulled into circumstances out of control rather than being out of control inside circumstance his rational scholarly mind failed to identify until too late. His vision was skewered by a haunting. Made for great drama, less for a case of insanity - since most of the Shakespearean poet's characters are principles and archetypes in latter day morality plays. The moral of the stories: beware of trees as forest that appear to be seen falling AND never follow the advice of a dead parent. Will read again when I can see again. ~Stella~



hopelessly-candid's picture

Hahah... morals I think that

Hahah... morals I think that should still be observed x)..... Thank you for reading, Lady A! I always look forward to reading your thoughts. My professor wanted to challenge me to do a mini essay to see if I could defend the point that madness was actually prevalently manifested by both main characters through the cause of their actions. It was fun to write ^_^. The amazing thing about Shakespeare... which obviously makes his works so beheld scholastically... is the infinite amount of themes and motifs throughout his work... it's magical... he was either a meticulous genius probably on the verge of erudition indused insanity... or somehow managed to stumble on the endless and indelible interpretations by pure coincidence xP