Sunday, September 26, 2010

Madness and Sanity 1

I was a small boy when I first heard of strange or mad people.  As a little boy in those years - the early 1960s - parents were wont to frighten their children by threatening them with the "bogey man" if they were bold.  They also warned us not to stray off lest we met with such an individual.  I suppose they were scaring us so that we might not wander off and get lost.  In our particular town in the early 1960s locals warned us about a strange man called "Joe Leavey" who we were told was mad, or indeed was the very bogeyman aforementioned.  Whether this poor old man deserved his reputation I know not.  However, the town's people, along with my parents, used him as a threat.  The poor soul certainly was odd, different, strange, use whatever synonym you wish.

William Shakespeare, 1564-1616
The next mention of madness I heard was from my father who recounted how two or three strong men had to bind a neighbour with ropes so that he could safely be brought away to the nearest asylum.  It was years later that I encountered the concept of madness in Shakespeare's wonderful play Hamlet which we read for our Leaving Certificate examinations here in Ireland.  There are many wonderful quotations on the subject in that great tragedy.  I will list some of them below:

How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As ... I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
... Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,—he comes before me.


Mad for thy love?


My lord, I do not know;
But truly, I do fear it.


What said he?


He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go:
And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their helps,
And, to the last, bended their light on me.

He knew me not at first; he said I
... was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this.

What is the matter, my lord?


Between who?


I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.


Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men
have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams; all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.


[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

         Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 193–206
                    5. HAMLET:

How is it with you, lady?


Alas, ... how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?



What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?


Mad ... as the sea and wind, when both contend
Which is the mightier: in his lawless fit,
Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries, 'A rat, a rat!'
And, in this brainish apprehension, kills
The unseen good old man.


7. […] poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
... Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts:
I have selected seven quotations from Hamlet above to illustrate the theme of madness in this tragedy.  In the first quotation Hamlet tells us, the audience, that he will act mad, that is he will put on "an antic disposition" to show that he is "strange" or "odd."  In other words, it is the strange and the odd people who are deemed mad.  In quotation two from Ophelia we have a discription of a deranged fellow, or at least one who has no cares at all as to the way he is dressed, who goes about badly dressed or partially so, not to mention the fact that his clothes are "fouled." Then she opines that the poor wretch looks as if he had been "loosed out of hell." (Here we have the ancient theme of madness as demonic possession).  Then she tells her father Polonius that she fears this madness in Hamlet.  Once again we have a topic closely associated with madness, namely the fear engendered in others by the one who has gone mad.

Emile Wauters: The Madness of Hugo van der Goes
Ophelia goes on, once again a little later in quotation number two to mention that Hamlet did strange things like sighing heavily, looking into the middle distance and seeming to walk without looking where he was going - all symptoms of those who are so-called mad, that is they are seen as losing contact with the reality communicated by their senses.  In quotation three Hamlet mistakes Polonius as a fishmonger, and the latter describes him as "far gone."  Once again here we have withdrawal from reality - not knowing what is real and what is not.  Polonius here ascribes this to the madness engendered by love.

In quotation four Hamlet pretends to misundestand the purport of Polonius's use of the word "matter."  Again the so-called mad person will not understand the meanings implied by the use of the words of others.  In fact in this quotation Hamlet almost overdoes it with exaggeration, leaving Polonius to be suspicious insofar as he believes there might be method in the tragic hero's madness.  There is irony here as we the audience know that Polonius has, unbeknownst to himself, interpreted things correctly indeed.  In quotation five, once again we have observations about Hamlet's staring into the middle distance and talking to the empty air, this time on the lips of his mother Queen Gertrude.

In quotation six we have mention of the elements, that is, Shakespeare, as well as many of his contemporaries and indeed the literati of many previous generations, compares madness to the disruption of the elements by the likes of storms, strong winds and overpowering seas.  Madness is also seen in Queen Gertrude's report to Claudius of Hamlet's murder of Polonius, which she sees as consequent on his madness and sheer disturbance of mind.  In short madness is dangerous.

In the last quotation above, we have the observation of Hamlet that Ophelia has now gone mad because her lover is lost to madness and beyond true communication with her.  In fact, her personality or psyche, to use very modern terms unknown to Shakespeare, is now divided or split.  Here we have a very salient and indeed disturbing implication that the madness of one lover can make the other raving mad, too.  And further we know that this is not solely the madness of love, but also the madness of revenge and hatred.  And, dear readers, we learn of all these qualities of madness in Shakespeare some four hundred years before psychology or psychiatry came on the scene.

To be continued.

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