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Emily Dickinson wrote, "Much Madness is divinest Sense-." William Shakespeare, in his turn, utilized madness in his plays as a tool to illustrate humanity. The madness Shakespeare portrays as part of his tragedies includes: a descent into madness, usually prompted by a move the main character makes against his pre-ordained destiny, or in other words, Nature; a point at which the character either decides to return to sanity or wallow in a miasma of uncontrolled thought; and a period where Nature re-establishes its dominance and order. The plays Hamlet, King Lear, and Titus Andronicus clearly depict Shakespeare's use of potential or true insanity in his characters, and how that state of mind contributes to the cycle of the tragic hero.
"Why, this is [hire and salary,] not revenge.
A took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;"
A truly irrational mind, motivated solely by revenge or insanity, would have taken the opportunity to strike down a vulnerable opponent. Hamlet demonstrated complete self-possession when he chose not to kill at that moment, an attribute a truly insane person would lack. Hamlet does, however, reach a critical point when presented with the death of Ophelia. Hamlet makes himself larger than life when describing his grief over Ophelia's death by saying it "Conjures the wand'ring stars, and makes them stand / Like wonder-wounded hearers" (ibid V.1.246-247), and says he loved Ophelia more than "Forty thousand brothers" (ibid 259). Later, Hamlet admits he could not sleep, because "in my heart there was a kind of fighting" (V.2.4). The fighting in Hamlet's heart shows his struggle for a true return to order, as does his attempt at justifying his behavior to Laertes later in Act V. "Was't Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamletâ€¦Who does it then? His madness" (ibid 211, 215). Even at this point, when Hamlet admits his madness, he knows full well what he is doing: playing his "antic disposition" to his advantage. He attempts to restore his relationship with Laertes by blaming his behavior on the madness that possessed him. A truly insane person would not realize the reality of their mental state, madness or not. Finally, Nature restores its order when all of the conspirators meet their end in a climax filled with irony; the queen drinks a cup poisoned for Hamlet, Laertes receives the poison of his own blade, poison intended for Hamlet, and the king dies after Hamlet wounds him with the same weapon that killed Laertes. Unfortunately Hamlet dies as well, but not before he names Fortinbras as his chosen successor, and prophesies that "th' election lights" (ibid V.2.338) will rest on him. The repositioning of Hamlet back in his proper place as ruler of the land, even for just a moment in order to name his successor, signifies Nature's restoration of order, and so finishes the cycle of the tragic hero.
The character of King Lear also follows Shakespeare's tragic hero formula. His choice to divide his kingdom among his daughters begins the action against Nature, and his inability to discern the truth of the nature of his daughters completes the process. He believes the outward professions of love shown him by his daughters Regan and Goneril, but mistakes the tacit devotion of his daughter Cordelia for a lack of love.
Lear's trustworthy fool knows he has made a mistake immediately: "â€¦and yet I would not be thee, / nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides and left / nothing i' th' middle" (King Lear I.4.181-183). Lear's daughters, emboldened by their new-found power, show their true natures and start to alienate their father so extremely that Lear at one point poses the question to Goneril, "Are you our daughter?" (ibid 213). After he endures hideous rebuffs from both of his "loving daughters," Lear's breakdown begins:
"O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down thou climbing sorrow;
Thy element's below. Where is this daughter?"
Suddenly deposed from his authority as well as his throne, Lear recognizes at this point what he has done; no one obeys his orders any longer, and so a true crisis of identity ensues. Lear's lowest point comes when he strips naked on the heath, adorns himself with flowers (ibid III.4), and then puts the imaginary Regan and Goneril on trial for their behavior toward him. Thankfully, Lear is finally reconciled to Cordelia, and that reconciliation provides the basis for the return of Nature's balance. Once Lear finds himself with his true, loving daughter, his happiness and mental balance return, and he shows that he understands the error of his ways: "for your sisters / Have (as I do remember) done me wrong. / You have some cause, they have not" (ibid IV.7.76-78). Nature's full mending comes when, as in Hamlet, all conspirators against the tragic hero have justice served upon them, a rightful successor takes possession of the throne, and Lear dies of happiness at the thought that Cordelia still lives, after he found her hanged.
Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, also follows the cycle of the tragic character. Titus' first offense against Nature occurs when he shuns the people's will, giving the empery of Rome to Saturninus, when the people, or Nature's destiny, had chosen him (Titus Andronicus I.1). Following his shirking of power, and even more offensive to Nature, Titus allows the emperor to choose his daughter Lavinia for his bride, even though Titus had already promised her to Bassianus. As a result, Lavinia and Bassianus, and when Titus gives chase he kills his own son Mutius for the sake of loyalty to the emperor Saturninus. These errors plunge Titus into a horrific spiral of betrayal and revenge, due to a sequence of events orchestrated by Aaron the Moor, that beg for Titus' madness.
After Titus murders his Mutius, his other sons and cousin Marcus confront him with his wrongdoing, trying to restore him to his proper position: "Father, and in that name doth Nature speak-" (ibid 1.1.374), but Titus will not accept the reality of his parricide, claiming that in fact his sons have dishonored him (ibid 388). Titus' low point comes when all but one of his sons have been killed, and he lays face-down at a literal crossroads begging the stones beneath him for help (ibid III.1). The worst injury, however, and the cause of Titus' return from the brink of insanity, is Lavinia, the "cordial" (ibid 1.1.169) of his age, and the fact that the empress sons have ravished and dismembered her:
"But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn
Is dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul."
Because of his love for Lavinia and his anger over what has happened to her, Titus realizes that feeling sorrow over his situation will not allow him to properly avenge the wrongs done to his family (ibid III.1). And so Titus takes action: he sends his son Lucius to ally with the Goths and then captures, kills and cooks the empress' sons in order to serve them to her in a meat pie. For the resolution required by Nature, once again all conspirators (save Aaron the Moor, whom Lucius binds in a fashion somewhat similar to the mythical Tantalus) and the title character die. Lucius, heir to Titus and therefore the heir to the people's chosen emperor, succeeds to the throne, and so Nature sets itself right again.
The characters of Titus, Hamlet, and King Lear all have moments of sanity, and moments of clarity. For all three however, their formulaic restoration, as befits the required progression of Shakespeare's tragic characters, begins when they reach their point of Dickinson's "Much Madness." Titus' gripping point is his heartbreak over Lavinia, and Hamlet's return occurs when he witnesses the destruction wreaked on Ophelia by his "disposition." Shakespeare allows only Lear to have a happy moment to return from his madness: when he finds himself restored to his truly loving daughter Cordelia. Throughout the three plays, Shakespeare demonstrates his masterful understanding of human nature by showing just how close he can allow all of his characters to come to total destruction due to their brushes with madness.