Sanity, what is it and why do so many plays seem to illustrate the loss of this state? The causes for insanity differ greatly from the death of a father to the end of a dream. For centuries this aspect of the human psyche has fascinated audiences. Why - is it derived from a subconscious enjoyment of watching a person whose mental state is worse than that of their own, or is it due to a classic conflict of 'man verses himself'?
Hamlet is an excellent example of this question. Hamlet 'pretends' to be insane in anticipation of the truth behind his father's murder. Contradictions surround all of Hamlet's actions until they reach a point where the audience is unsure if Hamlet is still acting or if madness has actually possessed his mind. His internal struggle becomes more apparent as he alienates any person who can aid him. Questions of when he should murder Claudius to ensure that his soul does not go to heaven and the act of jumping into a grave with an ex-lover illustrate the decay of his mind. Shakespeare's tragic hero must come to a tragic end, but it seems to always conclude with a decline in some aspect of the mind.
Many of Shakespeare's tragedies include a mind plagued with problems or one, which is susceptible to implementation of extreme thoughts. Macbeth began as a true hero. He was referred to being "too full o' the milk of human kindness" ; yet ambition, and a little persuasion on behalf of Lady Macbeth, causes his state of mind to alter. He admits that there has been a change in his personality, but he does nothing to correct this flaw. Macbeth does not become obviously insane; there is no question of his sanity, yet his attitude has altered. This change seems irreversible, as the condition of Macbeth and the condition of Scotland continue to worsen.
There is another interesting characteristic connecting these plays. Each contains a female partner who is driven to insanity by the actions of their lover. Shakespeare may have incorporated this due to the belief of the time that females were the weaker sex. Lady Macbeth evokes the change in Macbeth, yet she is unable to cope with the aftermath. Ophelia is driven to insanity due to the confusing actions of Hamlet. Both women commit suicide, which may be a reference to their weak character.
The incorporation of suicide often accompanies the theme of insanity. Usually this is done to illustrate an extreme case of insanity; however, this may be a reflection on society. Suicide may be viewed as the lowest point of society and of the lowest point a mind may reach. The incorporation of suicide informs the populace of the extreme nature of the psyche, and delves into the causes, which stem beyond insanity, of this action.
Death of a Salesman touches on the view of insanity, suicide, and responsibility. Willy Loman is known for being absentminded and for talking to himself, originally this may seem a small problem, but it soon escalates into lunacy. The reasons for his madness are quite different from those of other plays mentioned. His dreams of seeing his children rise above his own aspirations is the purpose of his life. The death of his 'American dream' leads to his death. Willy may have been losing his mind, but this may not be the cause of his suicide. His death might have been the final rational action of an insane mind, which was caused by his responsibility to his family.
The distinction between reality and illusion also displays a lack of total competence. The characters in The Glass Menagerie have created a world of disillusion in the hopes that these desires will be justified. When they eventually become aware of reality it is too late to repair damage done to their lives. A domineering mother is the cause of this loss of reality; she imposed her expectations and problems upon her children; by doing this Amanda is passing her mental state onto her children.
The incorporation of mental illness is a popular theme in literature. The extent of the characters' mentality is a reflection of the mentality of society. This causes the popularity of this topic to be enduring.