He’s Mad that Trusts in the Tameness of a Wolf

Earlier today Professor Karen Britland was speaking in a lecture about the madness of Hamlet and whether or not he was truly mad or merely acting, that is if he carried the air of melancholy that so popularly affected young men in London during the 1580’s.  In the lecture she pointed out that Hamlet speaks in long, fluid sentences which carry “rational” thought with them in their progression, lexical choice, and perceived sophistication, but only structure before he has seen the ghost.  For example, Hamlet’s early lines give an impression of knowledge, such as would be the evidence of his recent return from school in Wittenburg.  Hamlet’s use of rhetorical devices, such as anaphora, and the incorporation of them in his speech speak to this learning.

“’Tis not my inky cloak, [good] mother, / Nor customary suits of solemn black, / Nor windy suspiration of fore’d breath, / No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, / Nor the dejected havior of the visage, / Together with all forms, moods, [shapes] of grief, / That can [denote] me truly” (I.ii.77-83).

Once he sees the ghost, the physical composition of his speech changes such as in the two examples below.

“O all you host of heaven!  O fie, hold, hold, my heart, / And you, my sinows, grow not instant old, / But bear me [stiffly] up.  Remember thee! / . . . Yes, by heaven! / O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! / My tables – meet it is I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!” (I.v.92-95, 104-108).

“As th’ art a man, / Give me the cup.  Let go! By heaven, I’ll ha’t! / O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unkown, shall I leave behind me! / If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity a while, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.” (V.ii.332-348)

The instant the ghost leaves him, Hamlet descends into this lexical salad of speech that quite departs from his speech just prior.  Even as he is about to die, Hamlet retains a curious mix of short, staccato sentences which is the point I understood Karen to be making; that is, following the ghost’s contact with Hamlet, his shortened and quicken lines are the written result of Shakespeare’s stock madness.  This can be seen in Othello as well:

“It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul; / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars, / It is the cause.  Yet I’ll not shed her blood, Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alablaster. / Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. / Put out the light, and then put out the light: / If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, / I can again thy former light restore, / Should I repent me; (V.i.0-10).

The repetition, punctuated with emphatic commas are similar to what is seen in Hamlet.  In addition, Sir Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, the progenitor of Hamlet, also shows this madness written into a character’s speech with Hieronimo.

“No, sir, it was my murdered son, / Oh, my son, my son, oh, my son Horatio! / But mine, or thine, Bazulto, be content. / Here, take my handkercher and wipe thine eyes, / Whiles wretched I in thy mishaps may see / The lively portrait of my dying self. / Oh, no, not this! Horatio, this was thine, / And when I dyed it in thy dearest blood, / This was a token ‘twist thy soul and me / That of thy death revenged I should be. / But here, take this, and this – what, my purse? – / Ay, this and that, and all of them are thine, / For all as one are our extremities.” (III.xiii.81-92) *

While I am not here to argue the trueness of any of these characters’ madness, this quickened rhythm in their lines is pronounced and is ultimately what I am interested in.  For, if there is a formula to madness, that begins to shift the conversation into the realm of genre and whether or not what authors write is restricted by the characteristics of a genre.

The overarching reason that I am writing this post is actually based on a study that another one of my professors performed involving speech commands and sheep-herding dogs, hence the title.

Professor Patricia McConnell, in her paper “Lessons From Animal Trainers: The Effect of Acoustic Structure on an Animal’s Response,” found that quick, short notes contrast against long, unbroken notes, regardless of pitch, device, language, or culture, in one particularly interesting way; Professor McConnell found that giving acoustic cues in a staccato manner increases brain/motor activity and responsiveness while longer, drawn out sounds inhibit the same.  (Her blog is available at http://www.theotherendoftheleash.com/ )

If that effect is mapped onto humans, and then translated into writing, the madness of Hamlet, Othello, and Hieronimo would then be exactly what the author intended his audience to notice.  In other words, the acoustic structure of an author’s written words, which are spoken in the play, would be the effect that the author both knew and manipulated to his advantage.  This result could be an acoustic feature delineating a play’s lexical structure and therefore also testament to why Hamlet’s madness is debatable.  It is because Shakespeare used both long and short in Hamlet’s lines; i.e. every time his madness is fully fledged (mostly in conversation with other characters), it become evened out again just as the sentences become lengthened (such as in his soliloquies).  This mixture of long and short commands would send mixed signals to the audience, thereby confounding them (and future generations to come) about the truth about Hamlet’s madness.

I would venture a preliminary guess that any material obtained to perform an analysis from Docuscope would be inconclusive due to the relatively small amount of lines available.  But in the end, it is interesting to think that the acoustic and written structures of a play could intermingle in such way as this.

*For references to the Spanish Tragedy, I used the Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama edited by Bevington.


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One response to “He’s Mad that Trusts in the Tameness of a Wolf

  1. Pingback: Hamlet madness | TelevistaShow

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