Writing Hamlet in 1609, in Act V William Shakespeare brings a touch of light relief to thr heaviness of the unfolding tragedy. Hamlet has been sent to England, but has escaped, unbeknown, on the journey, and has returned to Denmark. In a churchyard at Elsinore he encounters two gravediggers at work (cast as clowns in the dramatis personae). Hamlet asks them about their work:
How long hast thou been a grave-maker?
First Clown: Of all the days i’ the year, I came to’t that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
HAMLET: How long is that since?
First Clown: Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that: it was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he that is mad, and sent into England.
HAMLET: Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
First Clown: Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
First Clown: ‘Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.
Audiences would have laughed at the jibe that to be mad in England would be no great matter for the people in England are mad anyway. Perhaps being mad would have been a sensible option in early-Seventeenth Century England.
Shakespeare lived through four decades of the reign of Elizabeth. He would have known life was much easier if you did not express strong opinions, that those accused of opposing the will of the monarch could come to a violent end.
Being mad gave you the option of being at once invisible and outspoken. No-one took too seriously the words of someone considered mad, while the person who had spoken could feel that they have retained their integrity.
However, perhaps not noticing those thought mad was also the beginning of a tradition of tolerance. Elizabethan authorities dealt severely with those who held extreme Catholic or Protestant positions. The approach would have fostered a perception among ordinary people that hardline religious attitudes were something abnormal, that safety lay in an attitude of indifference.
Four centuries later, the attitude persists that strong religious views are not the preserve of ordinary people, that there is something of madness about those who espouse such views. There is an incomprehension of people who do not share the mood of indifference. The gravediggers would have told Hamlet that being mad would include being religious.