Study ToolsStudy ToolsStudy ToolsStudy Tools
To assist your study of the plays, we have incorporated a range of supporting pages that you may find useful. Click any of the links below to access these pages. Note that material is split according to general contextual information related to all four plays, or that which is specific to each text.

Early Modern Attitudes to Madness with Reference to Hamlet and King Lear

In the early modern period, insanity could be attributed to a wide variety of causes. Amongst the supposed triggers of madness were physical illness, especially fever; an imbalance of ‘humours’ or bodily fluids, thought to give rise to emotional states such as melancholy or anger; astrological influences; a sinful lack of faith in God’s mercy, resulting in despair; difficulties in love; and even demonic possession. [1] The inner faculties of human beings were frequently seen as a microcosm, related to the larger cosmos: Thomas Walkington’s Optike Glasse of Humors (1607), contained a diagram in which the humours are matched with planets, seasons and natural phenomena: Melancholy is associated with the astrological signs Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces, with the planet Saturn, the element of Earth, the North Wind, Winter, and Old Age. [2]

Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, relates that, much like Hamlet, the melancholic is driven by ‘Feare and Sorrow [...] suspition and discontent’. Melancholics have ‘a canker’d soule macerated with cares and discontents, tœdiam vitæ, impatience precipitates them into vnspeakable miseries. They cannot indure companie, light, [they are] vnfit for action’ and ‘their soules [are] tormented’. [3] Love melancholy caused a ‘leane’ appearance, with ‘eyne hollow’ and ‘hew pale’, combined with a ‘solitary disposition’: [4] hence the supposition on the part of Polonius and Ophelia that this is Hamlet’s trouble. [5] Ophelia’s madness is partly induced by grief, which, Burton wrote, could make people ‘cry out, howle & roare for very anguish of their soules, and turn them ‘senseless and stupid’. [6] Burton also felt that unsatisfied sexual desire caused maladies among ‘noble virgins’ and ‘nice gentlewomen’. They could be ‘violently carried away with this torrent of inward humours’ and be subject to ‘teares, sighes, groanes, and grievous miseries’. [7] In her madness, Ophelia’s songs reveal preoccupations with both grief and sexuality, and her drowning may symbolise an inward flood of irreconcilable emotions. [8]

Madness could also be feigned. The Reverend Richard Napier, a seventeenth-century astrologer-physician, records the 1655 case of Alice Child of Ipsley, who ‘pretending herself to be distracted goes peddling up and down disturbing the peace’. [9] Men who pretended to be mad in order to beg were called ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ or ‘Abraham men’ (from the Abraham ward in Bethlem Hospital or ‘Bedlam’). [10] In King Lear Edgar disguises himself like the ‘Bedlam beggars’ who ‘with roaring voices,/ strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms/ Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary’ to force charity from the countryfolk. [11] Such men sometimes called themselves ‘Poor Tom’. [12] Edgar too calls himself ‘poor Tom’ and is called ‘poor mad Tom’. [13] He claims to be vexed by the ‘foul fiend’, [14] and by ‘five fiends’ associated with sins like lust and murder, [15] reiterating the connection of madness with sin and the Devil.

Hamlet, too, feigns madness, or an ‘antic disposition’. [16] The irony Shakespeare exploits in both Hamlet and Lear is that, while characters dissembling madness feature in both, so does the idea that madmen lack hypocrisy and speak the truth. In 1689 Thomas Tryon wrote that ‘Mad People, and innocent Children, do speak, forth whatever ariseth in their Phantasies’, and ‘appeare naked, having no Covering, Vail, or Figg-leaves before them, to hide themselves in, and therefore they no longer remain under a Mask or Disguise, but appear even as they are’. [17] Hamlet’s apparent madness allows him to blurt out truths and shrewd aphorisms along with nonsense, causing Polonius to say, ‘Though this be madness yet there is method in’t’, and ‘How pregnant sometimes his replies are – a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of’. [18] When Lear rants about worldly hypocrisy whereby ‘robes and furred gowns’ of men of authority hide ‘great vices’, Edgar remarks, ‘O matter and impertinency mixed,/ Reason in madness’. [19]

Tryon also questioned whether, as Lear’s speech indicates, the madness of the world, rather than of the individual, is the greatest evil. Tryon argued that sins and vices like ambition, flattery, lust, gluttony and avarice were ‘the main business and the daily imployment of many’, and accounted them ‘far greater, and more mischievous Phrensies, than for a man to pull of his Garments, and sit naked, and spend time in weaving of Sraws or Building with Chalk upon the Walls innumerable Cities, whereof he fancies himself to be Emperor’, [20] an image that vividly recalls Lear in his madness clinging to the remnants of his kingship. Tryon’s vision of the world as ‘a great Bedlam’ conjures up the disordered worlds of Hamlet and King Lear, in which a brother may murder a brother to gain a crown, or daughters feign filial love to gain half a kingdom. As a head of the body politic, [21] Hamlet’s real melancholy and assumed madness reflect that which is ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’. [22]

Karen Kay


1. Cf. Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: CUP, 1981), pp. 173-8 (general) 88-105 (love and madness), and 167-70 (madness as a spiritual affliction); and Basil Clarke, Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain: Exploratory Studies, pp. 208-10 (humours) and 249-66 (demonic possession). Return to text

2. Cited in Clarke, p. 228. Return to text

3. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy: Oxford 1621, The English Experience 301 (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and New York: Da Capo, 1971), Part. I, Sec. 3, Memb. I, Subs. 4, pp. 251-2. Return to text

4. Burton (1621), Part 3, Sect. 2, Memb. 3, Subs. 1, p. 597, citing an excerpt from Historia de duobus amantibus,  an erotic and comic epistolatory novel of the fifteenth century, written by Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II. It was translated into English as The Historie of Eurialus and Lucretia by Charles Aleyn (London: Tho. Cotes, 1639); Burton may have known an earlier translation, or have read it in Latin and translated the excerpt himself. Return to text

5. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), 2.1.82-116, pp. 234-6. Return to text

6. Burton (1621), Part I, Sect. 1, Memb. 3, Subs. 3, pp. 130-1. Return to text

7. Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. by Thomas C. Faulkner et al. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), Part I, Sect. 3, Memb. 2, Subs. 4, pp. 416-7 (a collation of six seventeenth-century editions). Return to text

8. Cf.  Hamlet, 4.5.23-73, pp. 374-9, 4.5.160-92, pp. 386-9, and 4.7.162-89. Cf. also Elaine Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, in Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. by John Drakakis (London: Longman, 1992), pp. 280-95, esp. p. 284). Return to text

9. Warwick County Records, ed. by Ratcliff and Johnson, 3:267, cited in MacDonald, p. 125. Return to text

10. Cf. Clarke, pp. 236-40; also cf. MacDonald, p. 125. Return to text

11. William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. by R. A. Foakes, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 1997, 2005), 2.2.185-7, pp. 237-8. Return to text

12. Clarke, p. 238, citing John Awdeley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561). Return to text

13. Lear, for example 3.4.50, 57, 59, p. 275, and 4.1.28, p. 305. Return to text

14. Lear, 3.4.45, p. 274. Return to text

15. Lear, 4.1.61-6, p. 308. Return to text

16. Hamlet, 1.5.170, p. 225. Return to text

17. Thomas Tryon, A Discourse of the Causes, Natures and Cure of Phrensie, Madness or Distraction, from A Treatise of Dreams & Visions [1689], The Augustan Reprint Society, 160 (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, 1973), pp. 258-61.
Return to text

18. Hamlet, 2.2.201-7, pp. 252-3. Return to text

19. Lear, 4.6.160-171, pp. 339-40. Return to text

20. Cf. Tryon, pp. 262-7; quotes from p. 266. Return to text

21. Polonius, speaking of Hamlet, refers to the ‘whole state’ as ‘that body/ whereof he is the head’ (1.3.22-3). Return to text

22. Hamlet, 1.4.90, p. 210. Return to text



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello