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Music and Madness in Shakespeare's Plays

Madness and music often go hand in hand during Shakespeare's time. When one's internal harmony is in balance, they lead healthy minds. When that harmony is disturbed, however, one gets cases such as that of Ophelia's.

Madness and music often go together in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’ contemporaries believed in the harmony of the spheres, where music gave the universe order and kept it running smoothly. The music of the spheres was believed to be present on a smaller scale, within each human body. Every individual had an “internal harmony” which kept them balanced and healthy. But while sublime music could create universal concord, out-of-tune or discordant music could have a negative effect. If a person’s internal “harmony” was disturbed, or their mind “full of discord”, it could mean that they had lost their senses.

Shakespeare refers to this repeatedly in his plays. He uses musical imagery to make it clear when a character’s behaviour, and wits, are not as they should be. In King Lear, for example, Cordelia also refers to her father’s madness as “Th' untun'd and jarring senses”, suggesting that his mind has left its proper state of “universal harmony”. When Ophelia believes Hamlet to be mad, she laments: "Now see that noble and most sovereign reason/Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh" (Hamlet, 3.1).

Ophelia herself provides the most famous example of madness and music in Shakespeare. In Act Four Scene Three of HamletOphelia appears onstage after she has gone mad. Her first line as she enters is a song, and in some versions of the play, the stage directions indicate that she is holding a lute. She continues to sing sporadically through the scene, alternating between love-songs and laments for her dead father, Polonius. Gentlewomen were not supposed to sing in public: Ophelia’s songs show that she has forgotten all social restraint. The songs are also bawdy and highly inappropriate, alongside the references to her father:

Ophelia 1970
Ophelia plays the lute in a 1970 RSC production of Hamlet.

[Sings] "By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do't if they come to't
By Cock, they are to blame.

Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me,
You promis'd me to wed.'
He answers:
'So would I 'a' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.'

...He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.
O, ho!"

Click here to see Olivia's songs being performed in the 2009 RSC production of Hamlet (Ophelia is played by Maria Gale).

After she commits suicide, Ophelia’s death continues to be surrounded with inappropriate song. As Hamlet walks through the graveyard in Act Five Scene One, a gravedigger is digging up old graves to make room for Ophelia, singing while he works. The gravedigger is so used to death that he is unaffected by it, and is happy to sing about it - just as Ophelia's madness makes her sing about her own father's death in a similar manner.

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