Shakespeare, Madness and Threatened Identities

Brook Johnson
8 min readJan 3, 2018


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‘Mad as the sea and wind when both contend/ Which is the mightier’ (Gertrude on Hamlet, Hamlet IV, i. 6–7)

The dramatic portrayal of madness can often be a cathartic experience for audiences. By watching actors perform mentally disturbed characters, audiences are freed momentarily to watch their own stresses, fears, pressures and repressed desires emotionally lived out of body through a microcosm of life on the stage. As Adam Phillips notes, madness allows audiences to see themselves through dramatic fictional portraits (15). However, the importance of madness in Shakespeare’s plays extends beyond the audience’s experience. Carol Neely argues that Shakespeare’s plays represent madness as a secular, social, gender, class defined and medically diagnosable condition (322). Maurice and Hanna Charney offer a feminist view of madness as a form of creative liberation from patriarchal oppression (459). While I agree with some aspects of Phillips and Neely, I think Maurice and Hanna Charney have missed the primary function of madness. Shakespeare’s plays teach the destructive influence madness has on identity. I will demonstrate how madness changes the Macbeths and defines King Lear and consider some objections with reference to Ophelia.

Shakespeare and Identity

During 1.2 of Macbeth, the Captain describes Macbeth’s character, “For Brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name), /disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel…unseem’d him from the naves to the chops” (16–22). Later, Rosse informs Macbeth of the praises his comrades lavished upon him before the King (98–99). As the passages demonstrate, Macbeth is considered favourably by King and comrades for his bravery as a warrior. Shakespeare will use Macbeth’s virtues to demonstrate how madness precedes a threat to identity.

Carol Neely’s article, Documents in Madness, provides a historical view for understanding madness during Shakespeare’s age. Neely writes, “The Renaissance gradually and with difficulty began to try to separate human madness from the supernatural (from demonic and divine possession” (318). The period attempted to define supernatural events through rational discourse with treaties on the body, man and woman, insanity, poverty, heresy, melancholy, hysteria and witchcraft (319). Neely writes: “The plays, by representing both madness and the process of reading madness, theatricalize and disseminate the complicated distinctions that the treatises theorize” (321). While Neely may misread Shakespeare when he attempts to separate Shakespeare’s thought from the Elizabethan “chain of being”, he accurately describes Shakespeare absorbing the period’s research and dramatizing madness on stage with the purpose of teaching lessons.

Macbeth, under severe mental duress — the consequences of his morally offensive act of regicide — plots the murder of Banquo and Fleance (3.1. 48–50). After hearing of the hired murderers’ failure to complete the assignment, Macbeth loses his mind (3.4. 20). Adam Phillips offers a definition of madness, “We call people mad when they are unintelligible or when they behave in ways that are excessively disturbing” (16). This definition applies to Macbeth after the introduction of Banquo’s ghost in 3.4. Macbeth cries, “Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee! /Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold” (3.4. 91–92). Macbeth disgraces himself before his subjects, and acts like a coward before phantoms of his imagination. His identity as a virtuous hero is irrevocably lost.

Lady Macbeth is morally reprehensible in her ambition and lust for power. Nevertheless, she displays admirable female characteristics (cf. 1.5 35–44). Part of her identity is characterized by intelligence, rationality, persuasion and assertiveness. With the onset of madness — the result of her moral rebellion — Lady Macbeth is left washing her hands, mumbling to herself while trying to remove an imaginary spot of blood, “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” (5.1. 36). With no cure forthcoming for Lady Macbeth’s moral sickness — she dies, a shadow of her former self. Madness prefigures the death of identity.

Following his wife’s death in 5.5, Macbeth’s mind is consumed by despair, “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools /The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle! /Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player /That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, /And then is heard no more” (18–25). The Macbeth’s moral rebellion has resulted in madness. Madness has led to despair. As Macbeth clings to the witches’ prophesies, “But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn, /Brandished by man that’s of woman born” (5.7 13–14), he is struck down by Macduff (5.8. 34). Macbeth’s death allows Shakespeare to restore order to the play in accordance with the Elizabethan chain of being. Madness has resulted in an irreconcilable change of identity. Lady Macbeth is changed from gifted to pitiable. Macbeth is changed from virtuous to evil. Through Macbeth Shakespeare teaches the destructive influence of madness on identity.

King Lear is a play about consequences. Shortly into 1.1, King Lear asks his three daughters to flatter him. He plans to divide his kingdom according to their love for him, but when Cordelia refuses out of love, Lear disowns her (114). This prompts Kent’s outrage and he rebukes Lear, “be Kent unmannerly /When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man? … /When majesty falls to folly” (1.1. 146, 150). Kent calls Lear mad and a fool. Lear rejects Kent and his claims, but spends the rest of the play living up to Kent’s description. Madness and folly define Lear.

In 3.2 King Lear is out on a heath during a tempest, raving at the storm. Lear begins to confuse the natural world with his relationships, “I never gave you a kingdom, called you children; /You owe me no subscription. Why then, let fall /Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave, /A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man” (17–20). The dignity of Lear’s kingship has given way to madness, self-loathing and shame. Phillips maintains that we can identify and recognize ourselves in the mad characters “if we can bear to” (15). Lear is the cause of his problems. However, Lear is sympathetic in so far as he reminds the audience of their own failings. Shakespeare uses Lear as a warning of folly and a mirror of the audience’s darkest moments.

When Lear encounters a blinded Gloucester later in the play, madness inevitably follows. Lear tells him, “It were a delicate stratagem to shoe /A troop of horse with felt. /I’ll put it in proof /And when I have stolen upon these son-in-laws, /then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill” (4.6. 183–85). The unnecessary repetition of words, the incoherent phrasing, Lear’s bizarre need to inform Gloucester of his feelings, all point to a King who has allowed madness to rule his kingdom. Lear admits his failure to Cordelia in 4.7, “I am a very foolish, fond, old man… /I fear I am not in my perfect mind” (60, 63). Neely comments on Cordelia’s effect on Lear, “He is restored to sanity by conventional remedies, conventionally applied by a doctor-herbal medicine, sleep, clean garments, music, and the presence of Cordelia” (334). Shakespeare uses Cordelia’s love as an opportunity to impart lessons on recovering from a damaged identity. Through Cordelia’s influence, Lear is lead towards restoration and order, however the consequences of Lear’s actions in 1.1 catch up to him. 5.3 is the culmination of Lear’s suffering. His act of folly has resulted in the death of his three daughters and by extension Gloucester, Edmund and Cornwall. Lear enters the scene holding Cordelia and crying, “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stones!” (5.3. 255). Repetition follows, “O thou’ll come no more, /Never, never, never, never, never… /Do you see this? Look on her, her lips, /Look there, look there!” (5.3. 306, 308–9). Lear’s identity as King has become synonymous with madness. His last words, spoken like one having a seizure, serve as a warning. Shakespeare uses King Lear to teach audiences the consequences of our actions. Lear’s actions result in madness. Madness destroys King Lear’s divinely appointed identity as king.


Maurice and Hanna Charney advance a feminist interpretation of madness on the Elizabethan stage. Using Ophelia as an example, they argue, “Her madness opens up her role, and she is suddenly lyric, poignant, pathetic, tragic. Madness enables her to assert her being; she is no longer enforced to keep silent and play the dutiful daughter” (456). They develop their argument by citing Hamlet, Macbeth and other contemporary Elizabethan plays, “Through madness, the women on stage suddenly make a forceful assertion of their being. The lyric form and broken syntax and unbridled imagination all show ways of breaking through unbearable social restraint” (459). They conclude by noting how the saner women are often repressed, while the madwomen can release their emotional and creative powers (459). Madness is considered a form of art where the characters may fulfill their “imaginative energies” (459).

I find their interpretation problematic. The argument portrays madness as having a positive influence on identity, but the text contradicts their position in numerous places. Ophelia recites her song to Gertrude and Horatio, “Nay, pray you mark. /He is dead and gone, lady, /He is dead and gone, /At his head a grass-green turf, /At his heels a stone” (28–32). While I grant that the lyrics are poetic and imaginative, Ophelia is obsessed with lost love, the passing of time and death. She repeats the same words and images, “And will ‘a not come again? /And will ‘a not come again? /No, no, he is dead, /Go to thy death-bed /He never will come again” (187–90). The imagery she recites does not demonstrate her character’s freedom from a repressive patriarchal society, rather her words are in marked contrast to the happy Ophelia Shakespeare established earlier in the play (cf. 3.2. 154–56). Madness has not freed her from the patriarchy of her day. On the contrary, madness has made her obsessive, dark, and irrational. As an explanatory interpretation, this argument equally falters. If madness has a positive influence on female identity, the text should portray Ophelia’s character with a more creative, productive role in life, free from cultural and societal norms. Instead the text portrays Ophelia “asserting her being” and drowning in a brook (4.7. 175). Madness has ultimately destroyed her identity, not freed it. The interpretation that Ophelia is somehow fulfilling her “imaginative energy” is shown to be flawed on multiple accounts.

Others may argue that madness does not threaten identity. Madness is a mental state, unrelated to a character’s identity. Agency threatens identity. Macbeth became evil because of his actions. King Lear lost his kingship because of his folly.

My argument does not claim that agency is uninvolved in destroying identity. In fact, acts of moral rebellion and folly often precede madness. However, Ophelia was primarily victimized and her actions did not necessitate a threat to her identity. Madness is rightfully considered a threat because it takes the classical virtues each character demonstrated and degrades their identity through public disgrace, shame, and folly. The characters might have further developed and grown in wisdom and virtue, but death cuts their lives short. Madness destroys identity and life.


Shakespeare is the consummate teacher. Through Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet, Shakespeare teaches madness as a destructive threat to identity. Madness changes the Macbeths, defines King Lear and destroys Ophelia. Madness represents irrationality, disorder and folly. Women are not influenced positively by madness as the feminist critique would argue, but madness is consistently shown to be destructive. Nor is madness purely a mental state. Shakespeare’s plays use madness as a conduit for imparting lessons and warnings on the destructive influence madness has on identity.

Works Cited

Charney, Maurice, and Hanna Charney. “The Language of Madwomen in Shakespeare and His Fellow Dramatists.” Signs, vol. 3, no. 2, 1977, pp. 451–460.,

Neely, Carol Thomas. “‘Documents in Madness’: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Early Modern Culture.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3, 1991, pp. 315–338.,

Phillips, Adam. “Acting Madness: The Diary of a Madman, Macbeth, King Lear.” The Threepenny Review, no. 126, 2011, pp. 14–17.,

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works. Edited by Richard Proudfoot et al., 2nd edition, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2011, pp. 291–332

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works. Edited by Richard Proudfoot et al., 2nd edition, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2011, pp. 633–669

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works. Edited by Richard Proudfoot et al., 2nd edition, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2011, pp. 773–799