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Hamlet And The Duchess Of Malfi English Literature Essay

At the latter part of the sixteenth century toward the beginning of the seventeenth century, playwrights ‘transformed English popular drama from a crude folk art to a sophisticated literary system. 1 The drama became a strong comment on the socio-political dominion of England; it not only explicitly or implicitly criticised the existing norms and values but it also challenged the prevalent ideologies and traditions. Madness was one of the major themes in this English Renaissance drama, 2 as Salkeld acknowledges, ‘the use of madness as a metaphor for subversion became increasingly marked throughout the first half of the seventeenth century up to 1642/3’, 3 This madness stemmed from a social disorder and a political chaos that flourished in the Elizabethan era; it had a destructive effect on both society and the individual. But it was madness of the individual that was especially attractive to Elizabethan playwrights. This essay discusses in detail the treatment of the theme of madness in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and in John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, particular attention will be paid to the characters Bosola and Prince Hamlet. Particular attention will be paid to the complexity, ambiguity and of these characters within Shakespeare’s and Webster’s tragedies.

William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet is strongly focused on the juxtaposition between true madness and pretended madness, and it is due to this juxtaposition that ‘Hamlet can only ever be interpreted, never presented completely’. 4 Prince Hamlet, the major character of the play, makes constant attempts to persuade other people of his madness. But Hamlet’s pretence is merely a deceit; the prince deceives himself of his sanity. In light of this, pretended madness is embedded in true madness. The very attempt of Hamlet to appear as a mad man before others signifies that something is wrong with his mind. Moreover, many words and actions of Hamlet are so ambiguous that they can not but be regarded as the marks of true madness; as Baldo points out, Hamlet’s madness is especially obvious in ‘the disintegration of the close association of words and things’. 5 Hamlet pronounces too many words, but does little action; when he does perform an action, it is always spontaneous and is directed against innocent characters but not against true criminals. Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, the father of Ophelia, and his attitude to Ophelia are the most vivid examples of the prince’s madness. Experiencing doubts, rage, uncertainty, and anger, Prince Hamlet in his dialogues with Ophelia simultaneously acknowledges that he was and wasn’t in love with her. He knows perfectly well that Ophelia is a virgin, yet he accuses her of betrayal and deceit. Polonius’ assertion of madness can be rightfully applied to Hamlet’s madness,

To define true madness,

What is’t but to be nothing else but mad. 6

Nevertheless, as Berry acknowledges, Hamlet ‘is perfectly capable of distancing himself from his madness, when it suits him’. 7 This distancing signifies that Hamlet turns towards pretended madness; he uses madness as a shield that protects him and conceals his true self. In his dialogue with Gertrude, his mother, Hamlet says,

Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,

That not your trespass but my madness speaks. 8

But by acknowledging his madness, Hamlet simultaneously reveals his inner turmoil that actually stems from his true madness. Shakespeare depicts that Hamlet has a disintegrated self and thus refuses to bear responsibility for his actions and words. As Hamlet states,

If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,

And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,

Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it,

Who does it then? His madness. 9

As the tragedy unravels Prince Hamlet masterfully contrasts pretended madness with true madness; the same dialogue or action may demonstrate both pretended and true madness. In the opinion of Levy, this contrast signifies Hamlet’s ‘loss of reason’. 10 This is consistent with the assertion of Rosenberg who claims that despite numerous signs of pretended madness, ‘Hamlet can still be so anguished that he is in fact on the edge of unreason’. 11 By combining pretended madness with true madness, Hamlet becomes an outsider who is detached from both society and reality and lives in his own realm. By the end of the tragedy, Hamlet’s pretended madness is almost lost, while his true madness engulfs him.

The madness of John Webster’s character Bosola within the tragedy The Duchess of Malfi is also deceitful. Similar to Hamlet, Bosola acts in an ambiguous way, and it is quite difficult to construe when his actions are embedded in true madness and when they are embedded in pretended madness. When Bosola decides to support Antonio instead of the Arragonian brothers (the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand) because he has not received a ‘reward for killing the Duchess’, 12 his mad action is complicated. The sudden transformation of Bosola signifies the change from pretended madness to true madness. ‘Throwing off his disguise’, 13 Bosola does not reveal his ‘guilty conscience’14 but uncovers an ambiguous self and proves the Duchess’ assertion that he (Bosola) is ‘mad too’. 15 His disguises conceal his true madness, similar to Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, but when Bosola discards these disguises, he uncovers his true madness. However Bosola’s true madness is disclosed much earlier when the Second Madman is introduced in the tragedy; this Second Madman is a personification of Bosola, or as Pearson states, ‘a distorted version of Bosola’. 16 This Second Madman depicts that Bosola deceives not only other people but also himself, as is the case with Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet. As such, both Hamlet’s and Bosola’s madness creates in them unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their lives and the world that they live in. As Shakespeare and Webster closely demonstrate, Bosola and Hamlet are in a constant state of melancholy, a state which clearly signifies their madness.

As is depicted by John Webster, true madness is more cruel and ambiguous than pretended madness. As Bosola drops his disguises and uncovers his true madness, he becomes a less attractive character with a ‘significant dimming of his clear moral insight’. 17 With pretended madness, Bosola demonstrates profound insights into different aspects of life, although his actions and behaviour do not reflect this understanding. However Bosola’s conversion ‘produces the same kind of murder and betrayal as his unregenerate self’ 18 because of the substitution of pretended madness for true madness. Ambiguity and cruelty of true madness are also reflected in Shakespeare’s character Hamlet. When he kills Polonius and turns away from Ophelia, thus inducing her to commit suicide, he reveals true madness that is not only ambiguous but also cruel. Hamlet does not suffer from the death of a woman he loved or thought to love; he does not suffer from the accidental murder of Polonius. Yet when he has to take decisive action and murder his uncle who has killed his own father, Hamlet delays the revenge. This ambiguity reveals Hamlet’s true but not pretended madness as well as ‘the fractures and multiplicities of his self’; 19 Prince Hamlet does not feel sorry for innocent victims of his cruelty, for people who loved him, but is unable to commit a crime against the real murderer.

As Levy states, the significance of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet ‘lies not in what is known, but what remains obscure’. 20 This is especially true with regard to the theme of madness; pretended madness of Hamlet is explicitly revealed and constantly emphasised, while true madness is concealed under the veil of obscurity and ambiguity. But it is this true madness that is indicative of everything that occurs within the tragedy. Wilson characterises Shakespeare’s Hamlet as ‘a hero labouring under mental infirmity’ 21 but who does not realise this infirmity. As the tragedy progresses, Hamlet’s mental infirmity worsens, and he begins to express more and more aggression and violence towards his family and friends. He murders without reason, accuses people of betrayal, puts blame on innocent individuals, and does not trust or believe anyone. These are clearly signs of serious mental imbalance and it is this that eventually destroys Hamlet; due to this mental imbalance, Hamlet is unable to make ‘the distinction between falsity and reality, that which happened and that which is assumed or claimed to have happened’. 22 Similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Webster’s Bosola also demonstrates numerous signs of psychological upset, and Webster clearly conveys that there is a great disparity between Bosola’s actions and his words. Agreeing to murder the Duchess, he inadvertently murders Antonio, similar to Hamlet who unintentionally murders Polonius. Feeling that his desire for high social and economic position is not fulfilled, Bosola makes vague and unreasonable decisions that ultimately lead to the tragedy. Although Bosola ‘detests himself’ 23 for spying on the Duchess, he nevertheless performs Ferdinand’s order; as Goldberg acknowledges, ‘Bosola, a mass of contradictory impulses, is infected by the force of Ferdinand’s disease’, 24 or in different terms by Ferdinand’s madness. Although Bosola understands that the Duchess does not deserve death, he nevertheless commits a crime against an innocent woman. According to Goldberg, Bosola ‘would like to see the Duchess fail because that would justify his cynicism. But he would like to see her win because he loves her’. 25

Unquestionably, these ambiguous actions reveal Bosola’s true madness. He is full of contradictions which he is not able to recognise and resolve. By putting on different masks, Bosola loses his true face and his true identity. Bosola seems to comply with the orders of Ferdinand and the Cardinal, yet in other instances he violates their orders and starts to struggle against those who manipulate him. Bosola admires the Duchess and supports Antonio, yet he betrays them, though he does this with some reluctance. Killing Antonio and the Duchess, he decides to revenge Ferdinand and the Cardinal for their murders, though it is he who holds the most responsibility for their deaths. As such, it is true madness that forces both Prince Hamlet and Bosola to kill innocent people instead of real murderers; it is true madness that gives both characters the power to justify their actions and avoid responsibility for their murders, and it is true madness of Hamlet and Bosola that leads to their own destruction and eventual deaths. It is an inevitable end; true madness of Hamlet and Bosola destroys people with whom they interact but it also destroys them, particularly since their true madness is ‘triggered by loss, grief, and rage’. 26 Bosola and Hamlet murder people not for reasons such as want of surviving or for concealment of the truth; they kill because of uncontrolled emotional turmoil and madness which drives them to believe that they have the right to judge other people and to punish them for their deeds.

Both William Shakespeare and John Webster use asides and monologues to uncover the characters’ true madness. While in their dialogues with people Bosola and Hamlet reveal pretended madness, characters’ asides and monologues give insight into characters’ inner thought, ambiguity, and ‘diverse facets of’ their personalities. 27 In Bosola’s interaction with Julia who falls in love with him, he clearly displays his madness; although a slave himself, he treats other people as implements for achieving his purposes. Disregarding Julia’s feelings, Bosola uses a woman to get crucial information and thus succeed in his task. As Bosola acknowledges aside:

Bosola: I have it, I will worke upon this Creature –

Let us grow most amorously familiar. 28

These words are filled with bitter sarcasm and disrespect of other people; such sarcasm signifies that Bosola experiences a serious inner turmoil that makes him loathe everyone around him. Deep down, the character detests himself much more, yet this self loathe is masterfully concealed by Bosola. Bosola’s and Hamlet’s monologues and asides also reveal that their madness stems from the chaos and disintegration of the society that they live in. In an attempt to adjust to and to succeed in the world of affluent people, Bosola gradually loses his identity and enters into madness. Both Bosola and Hamlet fail to remain sane in a world full of greed, violence, envy, aggression, insincerity, and hatred. Through the characters of Bosola and Hamlet, Shakespeare and Webster reveal that the prevailing norms and values within society can bring about an individual’s madness. The characters’ inner selves and minds deteriorate because they are unable to either resist these values and norms or fully accept them. They are victims of the society that they each live in; consequently societies that aim to suppress a person’s individuality and his/her true nature. Living in these suppressive societies, Shakespeare’s and Webster’s characters are unable to do anything besides become mad; as a result, instead of simply avenging the murderers, they create an intricate web of secrets, disguises, and deceit that ultimately affects the majority of the characters within Shakespeare’s and Webster’s tragedies.

Consequently William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi ‘introduce innovative representations of madness’, 29 revealing the relationship between true madness and pretended madness. Under the obscurity of pretended madness, the characters Prince Hamlet and Bosola conceal true madness, thus distorting the distinction between truth and deceit, disguise and sincerity, good and evil. In view of such an interplay, both characters demonstrate unusual ambiguity, they commit murders but are detached from these murders, they refuse to accept responsibility for their crimes but feel the moral necessity to revenge the murderers, they deceive others without realising that above all, they deceive themselves. These Characters and their madness effectively result in the violation of social norms and laws and create a chaos that destroys not only individuals, but the society as a whole.

1. George Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare, Vol.6. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.22.

2. Carol Neely, Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2004, p.27.

3. Duncan Salkeld, Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994, p.144.

4. Andy Lavender, Hamlet in Pieces. New York: First Continuum Edition, 2001, p.20.

5. Jonathan Baldo, The Unmasking of Drama: Contested Representation in Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996, p.149.

6. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. By A. Thompson & N. Tailor. London: Thomsen Learning, 2006, Act II, scene ii, lines 93-94.

7. Ralph Berry, Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999, p.97.

8. Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 4, lines 152-153.

9. Shakespeare, Act 5, scene 2, lines 232-235.

10. Eric Levy, Hamlet and the Rethinking of Man. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 2008, p.99.

11. Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1992, p.389.

12. Katherine Rowe, Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p.104.

13. Jacqueline Pearson, Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980, p.88.

14. John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi. Ed. by John Russell Brown. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997, Act 4, Scene 2, line 356.

15. Webster, Act 4, Scene 2, line 114.

16. Pearson, p.86.

17. Pearson, p.88.

18. Pearson, p.88.

19. Lavender, p.20.

20. Levy, p.100.

21. John Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p.218.

22. Lavender, pp.22-23.

23. Dena Goldberg, Between Worlds: A Study of the Plays of John Webster. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987, p.109.

24. Goldberg, p.110.

25. Goldberg, p.110.

26. Neely, p.27.

27. Lavender, p.20.

28. Webster, Act 5, Scene 2, lines 193-194.

29. Neely, p.27.


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