Madness has become a revolutionary standard in literary work throughout the centuries. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote both contain characters that use madness to excuse their actions in their lives respectively. Hamlet, filled with vengeance, seeks justice for the unexplained sudden death of his father Hamlet Senior. Don Quixote, a knight that is entranced by tales of chivalry has decided to live his life devoted towards gaining honor through his encounters. Hamlet and Don Quixote alike share the character roles of convincing those around them that they have gone mad.
Specifically, Hamlet utilizes the death of his father to excuse his unpredictable behaviors towards others, while Don Quixote and his squire Sancho travel in attempts to find honor in the name of his knightly title. Hamlet is driven to portray madness due to the appearance of his fathers ghost. Based on the information that is known by the ghost’s accusations, Hamlet forces Horatio to swear by his sword to “never speak of this and that you have learned” (Hamlet Act I, Scene V, 157) Driven to obsession by the unexplained death of his father, Hamlet attempts to convince the court that he is mad.
He was acting so well, that often times he comes close to the verge of actual insanity. He reacts unpredictably and pompous, directly mocking those around him. Referring to Polonius as a ‘fishmonger’ (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, 173), thereby convincing the official that Hamlet is indeed insane. One of the things that help us examine Hamlet’s uneasy personality is the way he acts towards Ophelia, he is often impulsive and contradicts his own intentions. Carrying over his prickly attitude toward his mother, (add to that the altered perception of women) his reaction is carried out towards is love Ophelia. He first declares that he loves her and then suddenly denies his feelings. Based on his hasty change of heart, it is difficult to ascertain Hamlet’s intentions due to his actions towards Ophelia. Not only does it not accomplish anything, but it also aids to Polonius and King Claudius’s suspicion of Hamlet’s madness as a result of his love for Ophelia. Hamlet’s ‘madness’ takes a toll on the reactions of the King and Queen. He uses the various players to display a show for the court testing the reaction of King Claudius.
Other officials in the court may see this play as inappropriate because, it indirectly accused the King of murder. However, Hamlet uses his elaborate excuse of insane that he is not aware of this obvious connection. In the scene with Queen Gertrude and Hamlet in the bedroom Hamlet reacts instinctively. Stabbing the curtain when he hears a stir, he stabs Polonius to death. This can be compared to Hamlet’s missed opportunity of killing King Claudius while he was seen in his bedroom. Hamlet killed Polonius on accident, although when given the chance to avenge his father’s death he retreats.
It is apparent that he is afraid to act rationally, instead choosing to acting without reason hoping to accidentally gain vengeance for his father. The amateur knight Don Quixote on the other hand, repetitively acts stubborn and uncooperative despite his squire Sancho’s attempts to warn his master about his misconceptions. Before journeying on his adventure, Don Quixote dubs a farm girl which he had a crush on to be his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso. First stopping at an unnamed Inn, Don Quixote asks to be knighted by the Innkeeper and falsely believes that two prostitutes are princesses that are present for his entertainment.
Convinced by his chivalric morals, Don Quixote sees this mission not as a failure but as a success for he was properly knighted and gained the company of two ladies. Don Quixote uses his madness as a form of excuse of justifying himself when he is proven wrong. Upon encountering a field of windmills, Don Quixote convinces himself that they are giants, and charges at them. After being defeated by the machines, he claims that it was changed at the last second by a sorcerer to purposefully lure him into action. Also, when leaving the Inn, the second time with Sancho, Don Quixote sees two big clouds of gust which he believes are two armies on the brink of battle. Ignoring Sancho’s warning that the clouds were the result of herds of sheep, Don Quixote kills seven sheep before his teeth are knocked out by the sheepherders rocks. “Didn’t I tell you, Senor Don Quixote, to come back, that it wasn’t armies you were attacking but flocks of sheep” (Don Quixote, XVIII, 131). Quixote engaged in the clouds of dust because he believed that the armies were present even though Sancho objected.
He justifies stealing by referring to it as the actions of a madman. When encountering a man wearing a basin on his head, Don Quixote believes that it is a helmet worn by a great knight, and desires to obtain it. “Tell me, do you not see that knight coming toward us, mounted on a dappled gray and wearing on his head a helmet of gold? ” (Don Quixote, XXI, 153) He ultimately steals the basin from the barber’s head and his thievery is justified by his unpredictable actions as a mad ‘knight’. Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire takes advantage of Don Quixote’s madness to indulge in his own personal desires.
When encountered by two monks that are accompanying a lady in a carriage, he mistakenly believes that they are enchanters holding a princess captive against her will. Quixote springs into action. A battle soon begins and Sancho steals the possessions of the innocent monks. Because Don Quixote hastily jumps to conclusions, his madness indirectly caters to Sancho’s greed. He participates in Don Quixote’s fantasy when it is to his benefit, however continually warns him about the dangers that he faces throughout his adventures.
Don Quixote genuinely believes that he is a knight, he grants himself certain privileges that exclude Sancho. For example, when referring to the balsam healing potion, Don Quixote infers that it will not work on Sancho because he is only a squire rather than a knight. Don Quixote inexcusably uses his split conscious to justify his actions when making mistakes throughout his adventures. When proven wrong, he merely uses the excuse that enchanters are present and are alternating reality to intentionally deceive him.
Though the rest of the characters view that he is universally accepted as being insane, he is not held responsible for his behavior. Often times, the surrounding characters (including Sancho) play into his madness in order to convince him to cooperate and comply peacefully. For example, in the latter half of the first book, Don Quixote tells Sancho that he has planned to stay in the wilderness of Sierra Morena by himself in order to gain honor. Sancho, along with the barber, priest, and their newly acquainted friend Dorothea dress up in costumes in order to portray a damsel in distress to trick Don Quixote to coming home with them.
When Quixote continues to be stubborn and incompliant, the other characters are forced to play into his madness in order to convince him to respond. “Let your magnificence stay on your horse, for on horseback you perform the greatest deeds and have the greatest adventures…” (Don Quixote, XXIX, 246) During this scene, it seems that every character has bought into the fictional world of Don Quixote except for Sancho. Through him, it makes it easier to interpret to what extent is Don Quixote actually in the right state of mind in relation to the rest of the characters.
Using madness as an excuse to justify their actions, the characters of Hamlet and Don Quixote realistically believe that this characteristic validates the actions that they set in motion. Hamlet, greedy for revenge in the name of his father’s death merely pretends to have gone mad to keep his intentions secretive. Don Quixote, entranced with chivalric tales have his senses fool him when his perceptions fool him into believing that he is seeing things that aren’t really there. Together they are both characters utilize “madness” in different ways to their own advantage.