Interpretations of ‘Madness’

From Lear’s breakdown to Ophelia’s malady, examine the ways in which Shakespeare depicts ideas of ‘madness’

King Lear: madness, the fool and poor Tom

King Lear: madness, the Fool and Poor Tom

Article by:
Gillian Woods

Gillian Woods considers how the Fool and Poor Tom, two characters in King Lear who stand outside the social order, enhance the play's investigation of madness, civilisation and humanity.

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Shakespeare and madness

Shakespeare and madness

Article by:
Will Tosh

Will Tosh examines early modern attitudes towards madness, and how these informed Shakespeare's varied depictions of mental illness in Hamlet, King Lear and other plays.

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Ophelia, gender and madness

Ophelia, gender and madness

Article by:
Elaine Showalter

The character of Ophelia has fascinated directors, actresses, writers and painters since she first appeared on stage. Here Elaine Showalter discusses Ophelia's madness as a particularly female malady, showing how from Shakespeare's day to our own Ophelia has been used both to reflect and to challenge evolving ideas about female psychology and sexuality.

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Shakespeare’s fools

Shakespeare's fools

Article by:
Eric Rasmussen, Ian DeJong

Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong consider the actors who first played Shakespeare's fools, and their influence on the way that, over the course of the playwright's career, his fools move from physical comedy to verbal humour and, finally, to melancholy and cynicism.

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Further themes

Comedies

From cross dressing in Twelfth Night to magical storms in The Tempest; from deception in Much Ado to doubling in Midsummer Night’s Dream, discover the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Tragedies

From Hamlet’s melancholy to Juliet’s eloquence; and from Lear’s madness to Othello’s misunderstanding, discover the richness of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Histories

From the staging of disability to the influence of Machiavelli, explore Shakespeare’s history plays.

Shakespeare’s life and world

From the open air Globe to the candlelit Blackfriars; from countryside to city; and from noblemen to strangers, discover the world that shaped Shakespeare’s work and that influenced his legacy.

Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage

From courtship rituals to cross-dressing, examine the ways in which Shakespeare explored identity and gender roles

Ethnicity and identity

From Othello and Shylock to depictions of the ‘New World’ and anti-immigration riots, explore Shakespeare’s fascination with ethnic identity

Power and politics

A murdered king, a homeless ruler, an exiled Duke with magical powers: discover Shakespeare’s fascination with power and powerlessness

Global Shakespeare

Discover how Shakespeare’s work was influenced by other cultures, and how it’s been interpreted in nations across the world for 400 years.

Interpretations of ‘Madness’

From Lear’s breakdown to Ophelia’s malady, examine the ways in which Shakespeare depicts ideas of ‘madness’

Deception, drama and misunderstanding

Investigate the ways in which Shakespeare explores miscommunication, dishonesty, trickery and the nature of theatre

Language, word play and text

Prose and verse, word play, neologisms and rhetoric: discover Shakespeare’s innovative and experimental use of language.

Magic, illusion and the supernatural

Mischievous fairies, monstrous apparitions and scheming witches: examine the ways in which Shakespeare played with the magical and supernatural