The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Madness

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

(V, i, 4–6)

So speaks Theseus, Duke of Athens, at the start of the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elsewhere we have considered elements of these lines (see “Appearance versus Reality”), but this chapter focuses specifically on Shakespeare’s use of the theme of madness, or what we might call “delusion”: how it can be an effective plot device, a reflection of passion run comically or dramatically out of control, or the result of misunderstanding that leads to tragic consequences.

The comic side of madness is apparent in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which country ladies Mistresses Ford and Page realize that they are both the objects of Sir John Falstaff’s attention. Thanks to Sir John’s mischievous associates, Pistol and Nym, this information is revealed to the husbands as well. Page remains confident of his wife’s loyalty, but Ford becomes obsessively suspicious (II, i, 185–188), and schemes to find out the truth. Disguised as Brook, he visits Falstaff and claims to seek his own fling with Mistress Ford. “Brook” carries off the deception, but in the process undergoes great anguish, as he confesses to Falstaff:


Some say that, though she appear

honest to me, yet in other places she enlargeth her

mirth so far that there is shrewd construction made

of her.

(II, ii, 221–224)

His delusion grows more intense when Falstaff acknowledges that he will meet with Mistress Ford, then comments on Ford’s reputation:

-199-

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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction xi
  • Acting 1
  • Appearance versus Reality 9
  • Clerics 23
  • Commoners 35
  • Cynicism 45
  • Divine Right 53
  • Fate 63
  • Fathers and Daughters 71
  • Fidelity 81
  • Fools 89
  • Forgiveness 99
  • Gender 107
  • Generations 117
  • Honor 127
  • Innocence 135
  • Intoxication 143
  • Justice 151
  • Language 161
  • Love and Romance 171
  • Machiavels 187
  • Madness 199
  • Male Friendship 211
  • Marriage 219
  • Money 229
  • Mortality 237
  • Nationalistic Pride and Prejudice 245
  • Nature 255
  • Order 263
  • Politics 273
  • Power 285
  • Reason versus Passion 295
  • Revenge 305
  • Supernatural Phenomena 315
  • The Tragic Flaw 325
  • War 335
  • Conclusion 345
  • Further Reading 347
  • Index 349
  • About the Author 362
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