In an ironic maneuver, Shakespeare has Hamlet tell us about the self-destructive power of a tragic flaw:
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth–wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin–
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,–
Their virtues else–be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo–
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.
Believers that virtuousness (or enlightenment) guarantees right conduct, take note!
The key to Hamlet’s flaw, the stuckness that has puzzled so many readers, is lodged, not in the beginning, but in the end–the place of maximum emphasis–of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, the most famous dramatic monologue…
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…udies of Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Fineman, Joel. 1980. ‘Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare’s Doubles.’ In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Coppelia Kahn and Murray M. Schwarz. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 70-109.
Fleissner, Robert. 1982. ‘ “Sullied” Or “Solid”: Hamlet’s Flesh Once More.’ Hamlet Studies 4:92-3.
Fowler, Alastair. 1987. ‘The Plays Within the Play of Hamlet.’ In ‘Fanned and Winnowed Opinions’: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton. London and New York: Methuen.
Freud, Sigmund. 1953-74. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. 24 vols, trans. James Stachey. London: Hogarth.
Hamlet and King Lear – Edgar and Lear
Hamlet and King Lear: Madness – Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King Lear
In both Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character in each play, namely Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King Lear, acts as a balancing argument to the other character’s madness or sanity. King Lear’s more decisive distinction between Lear’s frailty of mind and Edgar’s contrived madness works to better define the relationship between Ophelia’s breakdown and Hamlet’s “north-north-west” brand of insanity. Both plays offer a character on each side of sanity, but in Hamlet the distinction is not as clear as it is in King Lear. Using the more explicit relationship in King Lear, one finds a better understanding of the relationship in Hamlet.
While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelia’s insanity (or breakdown) against Hamlet’s madness, there is instead a clear definitiveness in Ophelia’s condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet’s madness. Obviously, Hamlet’s character offers more evidence, while Ophelia’s breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet’s sanity beginning with the first scene of the play. Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father’s ghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatly improve. Yet, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio says, being the only of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the play, “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes. (I.i.56-8)” Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the King with his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts somewhat from its credibility, but all the men are witness to the ghost demanding they speak alone. Horatio offers an insightful warning:
What if it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o’er his base into the sea, And there assume some other horrible form Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness?