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Hamlet and Macbeth are two of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Each share not only fame, however, but format: Both feature main characters with tragic flaws that become their demise. In the cases of Hamlet and Macbeth, this flaw is madness. Whether their insanity is feigned or unfeigned, it plays a key role in their downfall. These characters have the ability to be something great, but they let their madness corrupt them and bring them into the chaos that only has a fatal end.
In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet seemed to be in a state of madness ever since the demise of his father, King Hamlet. Though at first, no one knows the cause of King Hamlet’s death, but Prince Hamlet soon finds out through a conversation with his dead father’s ghost. In it, the ghost reveals to him that he was poisoned by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. As Claudius pursued Queen Gertrude and married her soon after King Hamlet’s death, the chain of events is all Hamlet needs to hear to be convinced. He promises to take vengeance upon his stepfather, swearing “to put an antic disposition on” (2.1. 173) so that his revenge can be accomplished. His “wild and whirling words” (1.5. 137) evoke empathy from the readers because one can understand his anger towards Claudius. He is “born to set it right” (2.1. 191), and he will, regardless of the consequences.
Hamlet’s plan for his “antic disposition” is to fool all the courtiers, especially Claudius. If his plan goes his way, Claudius will not think that Hamlet is capable of killing him and usurping the throne. Claudius has no idea that Hamlet is capable of such plotting, nor that his murderous secret has been revealed. Yet the outside world’s perception of Hamlet as being mad is of his own design; Hamlet is deciding what he wants others to think about him. Polonius, a close confidant of the King, is the leading person responsible for the public’s knowledge of Hamlet’s madness. He lets Queen Gertrude know “that he is mad, ’tis true; ’tis true ’tis pity,/ and pity ’tis ’tis true- a foolish figure” (2.2. 98-9).
With this knowledge, the Queen goes to speak with Hamlet and decides that “Alas, he’s mad” (3.4. 96). Even though his performance is thorough, his plan starts to unravel. Polonius notes that “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (2.2. 203-04). He sees a reason behind the madness, giving credibility to Hamlet’s act, but King Claudius sees nothing but suspicion in his apparent psychosis. After witnessing the meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet’s love, he makes the decision to keep an eye on Hamlet. He knows that “Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go” (3.2. 188) and that Hamlet’s madness could be dangerous to himself or his prized kingdom.
Everyone believes Hamlet’s apparent madness, and even he is starting to believe it. His plans are coming undone and his insanity controls his every move. At the end of the play, Hamlet’s plan to destroy Claudius comes full circle. His many opportunities to kill Claudius come down to the moment after he learns how Claudius has tried to poison him in a scheduled fight between Hamlet and Laertes. With a quick stab with his sword, Claudius is killed and dies, along with Hamlet and Gertrude.
From the beginning of the play, the reader is torn between Hamlet’s real madness and the idea that he is feigning insanity. As Hamlet “performs,” he also allows a prince of anger and ardor to develop. Whether the psychosis is true or false, Hamlet portrays the role of a madman.
Macbeth’s madness is different than Hamlet’s, because his actions arise from an expression of guilt. The beginnings of this madness arise after the three witches foretell that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1. 10). Macbeth does not know what any of their words mean for his future, but he loves the thought of becoming King. He starts as a good natured man, like Hamlet, but allows Lady Macbeth to control his actions. As the play continues, his evil cannot subside; he finds himself caught in a web of malice. The Macbeths’ plans for greed start out small, but end up in bloody catastrophe. Lady Macbeth devises a plan to kill Duncan, the king, in his sleep so her husband, Macbeth, can gain the title as king. Their plan goes through and Macbeth becomes the new king, but he can not shake his guilt of the murder. It creates chaos in his mind–and in Scotland. He tries to put on a straight face to show that his “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (2.1. 82), but his guilt is starting to overtake him. This struggle between being the good king that he could be and the evil that he has become illustrates his weakness.
This madness that Macbeth portrays makes him dangerous. He he cannot sleep, his mind grows brutal, and his rule over Scotland becomes more treacherous. He recognizes that he has become increasingly mad, but believes that “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (3.3. 36). From there, his conscience holds no boundaries and he murders Banquo, a Thane. He is worried that Banquo’s heirs, instead of Macbeth’s own progeny, will become kings because of the witches’ prophecy. Regardless of his selfish actions, he cannot escape Banquo and is haunted by his ghost. Like Hamlet, it is only he that can see the ghost, adding to his madness. He sees an imaginary dagger floating in front of him that is a figment of his imagination and knows that “O, full of scorpions is my mind” (3.2. 38). He understands that there is nothing he can do to change his state. He realizes that the witches’ prophecies are coming true and decides to stand his fate and “fight till from [his] bones [his] flesh be hacked” (5.3. 33).
Thus, the play begins and ends with Macbeth’s bravery, but it is in its middle that the reader comes face-to-face with his moral weakness. When he promises to go down fighting, he does not redeem himself, but contrasts his prior madness with this physical and moral courage. Throughout the play, Macbeth allows his innocence and loyalty to be completely corrupted because of greed and madness. He loses all of his friends through murder or betrayal and he plunges further into his madness and moral decay.
Both Hamlet and Macbeth, therefore, center around the flaw of madness. Though the characters reach their respective demises through different actions, they both let their insanity influence their rash decisions. While Hamlet’s madness is feigned and Macbeth’s is true, they both have equally fatal ends. Hamlet admits that there have been plenty of times where “[his] brains,/They had begun the play” (5.2. 32-3), but he always tried to find a refuge in his madness. Comparably, both men rise above their insanity and try to rectify the harm they have caused. In Macbeth’s case, he goes down fighting to exemplify that he has acknowledged his wrongs and tries to make them better by dying nobly.
For Hamlet, he recognizes the rashness of his decision to kill Polonius and reveals that to his son, Laertes. Through it all, he finally avenges his father’s death and allows Claudius’ plan to be revealed. Though neither can fully bring sanctity back into their lives, they make an effort with their final decisions. While Hamlet brings justice to his father’s unfortunate death, Macbeth fights until the end so he can “Raze out the written troubles of the brain” (5.3. 44). It is ill-timed in that they tried to resolve their mistakes, only to couple that with their initial chaos that destroyed them physically and emotionally. In the end, both of the characters let their insanity control the chaos of their minds.
In sum, therefore, Hamlet and Macbeth were born with the ability to achieve great things. They lived with bravery and kindness until they let madness overtake them, controlling every aspect of their personalities. It caused them to lose sight of their purpose and the direction of their lives. From greed to treachery, both men found that their tragic flaws caused them downfalls that could not be rectified.
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