Madness and Memory: Shakespeare's Hamlet and King Lear


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601) and King Lear (1605-06) offer those interested in changing memory systems a unique opportunity to gauge the practical and worldly attitudes a toward memory that occur in the Renaissance. The plays do so by showing natural memory's relation to "madness" or the inability of individuals to function in the world. In providing intelligibility, memory, as Edward Grimestone writes in his Introduction to Nicholas Coeffeteau's A Table of Humane Passions (1621), relies on the proper registering, storage, and retrieval of forms. Memory serves the sensitive soul and knowledge by representing continually "unto the common sense the forms which are consigned unto her." It also serves the intellectual powers and will by faithfully retrieving these same forms "enlightened with the light of the understanding and purged from the sensible and singular conditions which they retain in the imagination" and "representing them general . . . under the form of good and evil."1In the plays, Shakespeare introduces Ophelia and Lear whose memories are clearly disrupted by madness. In addition, he presents Hamlet and Edgar who feign madness and whose memories, one presumes, remain intact. The differences within the individual plays of Ophelia's and Lear's real and Hamlet's and Edgar's mock illnesses as well as the differences between the mental states of Ophelia and Lear reveal not only how much a Simonidean memory system based on correspondences between a microcosm and macrocosm has taken root but also how, by positing an intermediary ordering reference point in a demicosm (much like the interior ordering vanishing points of Renaissance painting), a basis for worldly or human understanding is created. In moving from subjective to objective to divine orders, art for intelligibility need no longer pursue the divine.

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