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:
honest to me, yet in other places she enlargeth her
mirth so far that there is shrewd construction made
(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: