“For being not mad but sensible of griefKing John III.iii
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be delivered of these woes…”
Late a few nights ago, having scoured my script for the umpteenth time, my brain asked myself a question before bed: “Why did Shakespeare write a play about losing a parent instead of a child when the parallels between Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and Hamnet, son of Shakespeare, seem awfully transparent?”
In Hamlet, three parents and a step-parent are lost, as well as a sibling, a lover, and friends.
But no parent in the play is alive to witness the death of their child. A deep grief that Shakespeare himself was no stranger to having tragically lost his eleven year old son Hamnet in 1596.
Did Shakespeare write a play about losing a child? Yes, several. A child is lost in King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and King John. The latter was written roughly 6 to 7 years prior to Hamlet, much closer to the passing of Hamnet.
Shakespeare’s grief was raw, whirling, and ever-present it would seem, if we see him mirrored in the freshly childless character of Constance from King John.
Constance explicitly links madness and grief in her speeches, themes that elusively stitch together the acts of our Danish tragedy, mirroring and chasing one another across the play.
There are no conclusions to be drawn as to whether Constance and Hamlet are actually mad. For how could anyone ever define true madness? Is there a Polonius in the house with something to say on the matter?
The answers to that question of sanity are as variable as the actors that fill the roles.
Characters call Hamlet and Constance mad to their faces. They both renounce such claims.
“I am not mad. This hair I tear is mine.”King John III.iii
My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time
And makes as healthful music.”
Though they each claim sanity, they are so deep in mourning, so cloaked in sorrow, that they ask for death themselves.
Hamlet expresses his desire to melt away but makes no poetic riff on the emotions themselves that drove him to that point. Constance, however, gives these feelings poetic form. Upon being accused of loving grief more than her child, she offers a chilling response: in the place of her son, this state of suffering now fills and follows her everywhere.
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,King John III.iii
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me in all his gracious parts,
Stuffs our his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?”
(Side bar: it’s no surprise to me that a woman delivers this depiction of unfathomable sorrow seeing as Shakespeare has multiple characters in Hamlet proclaim grieving to be women’s work… in so many words.)
I wonder if Shakespeare was fond of his grief.
I wonder if Shakespeare, or those around him, doubted his sanity.
“I am not mad, I’m grieving” many of his characters seem to say. Ophelia, too, may be looped into this circle. As she sings funeral dirges between bawdry melodies, those around her label her mad. Aside from explaining the origin of her tears, Ophelia makes no assertion that she is, in fact, in touch with herself and reality as Hamlet and Constance do.
King Lear may also be in this group. However, Lear admits to experiencing a kind of transformation that is speculated to have taken over Prince Hamlet.
“And to deal plainly,King Lear IV.vii
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
Lear offers a logical explanation, repeatedly calling himself old and foolish. But how to explain madness found in the flowering of youth?
Is Claudius correct in assuming it’s a poison that springs from deep grief? Or can grief just look like madness to those not swallowed in its presence? Does one give way to the other? Are they linked at all?
Someday soon when we add a comedy to our Quicksilver repertoire, I will expand this musing of madness and grief towards madness and romance. Bouncing between accounts of antic dispositions across Hamlet and Twelfth Night led me to my next theory:
Neither madness nor grief are the well from which the other springs.
Love is the source.
We would not mourn if we did not first love.
Love, be it well-used or misused is the ground from which madness, grief, romance, and all else may follow.