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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


I am but Mad North-North-West: The Influence of Erasmus’ Moriae Encomium Upon Reason, Madness, and Mondarchy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet


WhileHamletpresides as one of Shakespeare’s most famous, and indeed most analyzed, plays, the authenticity and significance of its melancholic prince’s “antic disposition” has long been disputed, itself cloaked in the ambiguity of its bearer. Despite the immensity and diversity of evaluative approaches to Hamlet’s impassioned madness, the influence of Erasmus’MoriaeEncomium– a text whose praise of folly and discourse upon wisdom and reason was well known in sixteenth and seventeenth century England – uponHamletand the theme of madness has not been critically acknowledged. In answering this oversight, this essay will contextualizeHamlet in respect to theMoriae Encomium, arguing that the Shakespearean tragedy operates as an innovative type of masque apparently designed to influence the notoriously intellectual King James I with the Erasmian conceptions of reason and passion. Understanding the influence of these two antithetical dispositions – reason and passion – upon Hamlet’s actions and overall trajectory allows us to see that Hamlet ultimately functions as a multistage commentary upon rule. In the light of theMoriae Encomium, we see thatHamlet, through the triumphs and trials of its tragic prince, conveys the necessity for passion, not the supposed wisdom of rationality, in wise rule.

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