Discuss the role of madness in the delay of revenge in the Spanish Tragedy and in Hamlet

Saturday 7 March, 1998

Marcus Wischik

The role that madness plays in The Spanish Tragedy and in Hamlet, indeed in all revenge tragedies, is a vital one; it provides an opportunity for the malcontent to be converted by the environment into the avenger.

In almost all revenge tragedies, the malcontent takes the form of a renaissance man or woman who is confronted with a problem - the deed to be avenged. This crime, and the criminals that perpetrated it, effect that surroundings to such an extent that it is impossible to remain unchanged by them. At this point, the malcontent is addressed with the question that Hamlet asks:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by doing so end them.
Hamlet 3 i 56-60

Or as Hieronimo put it in The Spanish Tragedy, while holding a noose (this is to symbolise suicide, which is the ultimate form of withdrawal from the world) and a dagger (the tool that is most appropriate for the avenger to interact with the world with):

This way or that way? Soft and fair, not so:
For if I hang myself, let's know
Who will revenge Horatio's murder then?
The Spanish Tragedy 3 xii 16-19

This question is the central dilemma of revenge tragedy; whether it is better to brave what fate can throw at you and remain passive and inactive, or to 'take arms' against them and to actively end them. It is the process of finding the answer to this question that drives the malcontent mad, then to becoming an avenger. The fact that the malcontent is a renaissance figure is also important. This means that they are in possession of a renaissance mind, a mind constantly seeking for knowledge and reason. The question of action or inaction is one that reason alone cannot find an answer to. This is, in effect, asking the malcontent a question that he, as a renaissance man, cannot answer using his reason alone. This drives him to emotion and irrationality. Confronted with this cessation of reason, the malcontent is driven into some form of madness. When the malcontent finally discovers the answer to the question of activity or inactivity, this madness ends and reason returns. This return to reason reveals itself in the rather cold and cynical attitude that the avenger takes prior to their death. This change can be seen in the language and style that Hamlet uses on his return; he no longer uses soliloquy, and has ceased all pretence and posturing. The dilemma is that it is wrong to kill someone, but it is also wrong to go on living when the criminal remains alive and unpunished. This desire not to kill someone else leads on to the desire to kill oneself, to escape from the previous dilemma. This, however, creates another problem: people who kill themselves do not get proper funerals, and therefore do not go to heaven. These two dilemmas can be combined and reduced: to live and kill and be damned, or to die and be damned. The outcome is the same in both cases, so the more satisfying choice is to take the first option, to kill and be damned. This dilemma is illustrated by Hieronimo, holding a dagger and a noose; the proper tools for either a revenger to interact with the world, or for the malcontent to leave it.

The second question that the malcontent is faced with prior to his or her conversion into an avenger is about the legality of revenge. Being set in what we can see to be renaissance civilisations, civilisations that have developed laws and rules governing behaviour, the right and correct response to the original crime would be to allow the legal system to take over, and to suitably punish those that have broken the law. In both Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy, the malcontents attempt to right their wrongs through the law, and, in doing so attempt to sublimate their baser urge for revenge. However, for differing reasons, this fails. In Hieronimo's case it is because Lorenzo continually blocks his access to the king. In Hamlet's case, the reason for not going through the legal system is different; it is because it is the king himself that is the criminal. When this happens, when justice is blocked or corrupted, then the malcontent is left with no choice about what action he or she must take. It is in doing this, in turning away from the Christian view of revenge (God being the ultimate revenger), and taking the more active classical view that constitutes the decision "to be or not to be":

At tamen absistam properato cedere letho,
Ne mortem vindicta tuam tum nulla sequatur
The Spanish Tragedy, 2 i 79-80

This is a distortion of the Christian view of revenge as outlined in the psalms to one that has a more blood-thirsty classical view to it.

The above discussion of reason and emotion doesn't however adequately answer the question. There is no doubt that avengers are to some extent truly mad, but they are however not completely mad. Their madness acts as a disguise in which they can hide from the murderers that they wish to be avenged upon. Through acting as though they were mad, they appear to be insane and therefore harmless. This ploy worked admirably with Hieronimo, who was thought to be a foolish old man to the last, but not so well with Hamlet. Claudius decides, following the realisation that Hamlet has discovered his crime through the play that Hamlet decided to put on, to send Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern where he will be killed.

It is interesting to note the role the soliloquies have in the revenge tragedy; they are predominantly used by characters who are in a state of indecision when faced with the central dilemma of the revenge tragedy. They have to find a moment outside of time in which they can sufficiently gather together their thoughts and decide on the course of action that they will take. In both Hieronimo and Hamlet it the decision to act and die, or just to die is made in soliloquy, and once this decision is made. There are no further soliloquies after these, because there is no possibility to reconsider there decision - to reconsider their action would be to return to the indecision that they faced at the beginning of each play. This is not possible because they cannot return to that state, as that state of existence has been destroyed by the actions of the villains.

The techniques that the avenging characters uses is remarkably similar not only to each others, but to the villains of the play. Both rely upon machiavellian tactics of deceit and deception; they both feign madness to seem unthreatening, then proceed to strike when least expected:

I will revenge his death!
But how? Not as the vulgar wits of men,
With open, but inevitable ills,
As by secret, yet certain mean,
Which under kindship will be cloaked best.
The Spanish Tragedy 3 xiii 20-24

The difference, however, between the revenger and the machiavel is the attitude that they have towards the world. A machiavel embraces the corruption and chaos that they find in it, and take advantage of it. The revenger, however, is disgusted and repulsed by this same corruption. The difference, then, is that a revenger sees the world for what it is, and wants to restore it to how it once was. This can be seen in Hamlet with Hamlet's continuous comparisons between the Hyperion that his father was, and the satyr that his uncle is; he recognises that an age of greatness has been brought to an end, only to be replaced with a pale, and hollow one. The machiavel, on the other hand, uses the condition world to his advantage, taking any opportunity that is offered to further himself. I believe that it is not possible for a revenger to be a machiavel, although it is possible, indeed essential, to act in a machiavellian way; to use the tools of the machiavel. Another distinction can be drawn between the machiavel and the avenger; an avenger acts to right a wrong, while the machiavel acts solely for his own benefit. This is the reason that the avengers become the heroes, and the machiavels as the villains. This is also why we find Hamlet and Hieronimo far more appealing than the likes of Lorenzo, Claudius and to some extent Polonius. However, the avengers, in doing what they do, become corrupted, and therefore must die at the end of the play.

Hamlet echoes the machiavellian sentiments expressed by Hieronimo following his meeting with his father's ghost. This insanity, this posturing and preparation for revenge, though for a good reason, is undoubtedly machiavellian. It is the case that the insanity that both characters experience is not entirely faked for reasons explained earlier. This very real insanity is reflected by the disjointed and metrically irregular verse both Hamlet and Heironimo use when delivering soliloquies:

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 -
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word.
It is "adieu, adieu, remember me."
I have sworn't
Hamlet 1 v 105-112

The idea of striking when ones opponent is most vulnerable is a common ploy of the renaissance machiavel - Claudius kills Hamlet when he is sleeping in his orchard, while Lorenzo and Balthazar kill Horatio when they catch him about to make love to Bel Imperia. In both cases, neither victim can defend themselves, as they are both in situations in which they would not expect to be attacked, the pastoral ideal of a shaded copse, and are therefore unprepared to defend themselves. This is the tactic used not only by Hamlet and Heironimo, but also by Bel Imperia. She is not the main revenger in The Spanish Tragedy, but is clearly an ally to Heironimo: it is Bel-Imperia that provides the stimulus (the letter that falls from the sky, written in red ink) that transforms Heironimo from being just a malcontent into an avenger. This is not the only example of machiavellianism on her part; she takes advantage of Balthazar's and Lorenzo's preoccupation with their own intelligence and cunning to fool them into believing she is harmless - as Heironimo pretends to be mad, she pretends to be stupid:

Brother, you are become an orator -
I know not, I, by what experience -
Too politic for me, past all compare,
Since last I saw you; but content yourself,
The prince is meditating higher things.
The Spanish Tragedy 3 x 82-86

In essence, she convinces them both that she, being a woman, and women traditionally being rather passive members of the revenge tragedy, is in no need of further imprisonment. Although not the central avenger, she acts in a very similar manner to how an avenger would, and to some extent is better at it than the main avengers.

The decision to pretend madness is a decision by the avenger to adopt the machiavellian nature of the villains. It is this decision above that irredeemably compromises the revenger. The compromisation of interacting with the vile and corrupt world is a necessary part of the revenge tragedy, as without it, there could be no dilemma about the legality and morality of revenge. In addition, the decision on the part of the avenger to take up the tools of the machiavel, to become mad, represents the dilemma faced by the renaissance that not all things can be solved solely through the application of reason.

2,043 words.
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 1998