Mental Illness In Shakespeare's Works Essay

1766 words - 8 pages

Throughout Shakespeare’s many works, mental illnesses have played an undeniable part in many of them, especially his tragedies. From Lady Macbeth hallucination of a bloody spot leading to her suicide, to Hamlet’s faked illness and Ophelia’s very real illness, afflictions of the mind are featured prominently in the Bard of Avalon’s many works. Still, in the Elizabethan era, understanding of mental illness was rudimentary at best, as were the methods of treating it. During the Middle Ages and Elizabethan Era, numerous theories about mental disorders and how to treat them abounded. Three plays of Shakespeare’s that feature mental illness most prominently are King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, while also managing to showcase the conception of mental illness at the time.
Of the three plays, King Lear is the one that examines mental illness the most. King Lear is the story of the titular king, Lear, his decision to exclude his third daughter, Cordelia, from her inheritance, the abuse he suffers at the hands of his other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and his descent into insanity, before dying. Possibly the first indication of Lear’s madness is when he declares, “Since now we will divest us both of rule,/Interest of territory, cares of state,/--Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend.”(King Lear 1.1.49). What Lear is saying here is, to his daughters, that the one who declares she loves him the most will acquire the most land and property. This scene is the setup for the entire play, and so could be viewed as the beginning of Lear’s descent into madness. It is at this point that Lear’s sanity begins rapidly decaying. It begins with him recognizing his madness, crying, “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” (King Lear, 1.5.45)This madness at first stems from the fear of being separated from his daughters, but eventually is due to being abused, shamed, and downgraded by his daughters who claimed to love him the most (Richards). However, with his madness comes a form of insight, especially obvious when, in Act 4, when turned out and wandering, penniless, he proclaims, “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all,” (Shakespeare), meaning he has realized how wealth can be used to shield and conceal wrongdoings (Richards). In his own interesting way, King Lear almost benefits from the insanity that overtakes him, giving him insight and hindsight on what he had done, and causing him to work towards correcting his mistakes.
The play Hamlet, considered by many to be one of Shakespeare’s most tragic stories, is rife with madness and general insanity. The story follows the titular character Hamlet, after his father has been murdered by his uncle, Claudius, who takes the throne of Denmark and married Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet is informed of this by his father’s ghost. Then, over the course of the play, nearly every single cast member dies. The...

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