Madness – the sign of villainy without the cover of rationality/humanity

At the end of the play, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, the antagonist – the villain – of the play, Sir Giles Overreach goes mad. It reminded me a lot of how at the end of The Duchess of Malfi, the villain of that play (or one of them at least) also goes mad, thinking he is a werewolf.

It seems as if madness, at least in these two plays, serves as the ultimate punishment. But madness also seems to serve as the signal of complete separation from reason, and humanity. Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi was already compared to animals through out the play for his villainy, but that final act of betraying his sister and ordering her and her children’s death seems to be the final act that takes away his humanity – and drives him into madness.

(As for Sir Giles Overreach, he’s no peach.) He is ruthless, unfair, merciless, man who has made his fortune through “usury,” who acts very much like the puppet master, and who despite his amassed wealth has not been able to break though the upper echelons of the society – leading to his quest to marry off his daughter into aristocracy. That is his driving force – to have his legacy (progeny)  connected with nobility. When that driving force is taken away, when his daughter married a mere page boy, and he loses the estate he cheated Wellborn out of,  the string that has been keeping him tethered to rationality and humanity is cut and his depravity takes hold, which without a goal or purpose leads to his madness.

Madness of the villains seems to be the portrayal of a person whose disguise of rationality and humanity is taken away to reveal their inner depravity and villainy.

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2 Responses to Madness – the sign of villainy without the cover of rationality/humanity

  1. I agree with you. I think that madness was retribution for the characters’ actions earlier on in the plays, but more importantly as you note, it serves as the ‘ultimate punishment.’ For Giles, a character who is defined by his unsavory and downright wicked personality traits for the duration of the play, a descent into madness is fulfilling because it eliminates his capacity to continue acting as he had. Even a jail could not contain a fully cognitive Overreach. Curiously, for Ferdinand, the madness serves only as a prelude to his ultimate just deserts, death. But even in his case, there is something extremely rewarding about seeing such an evil character diminished to craziness whether that is his ultimate punishment or not.

  2. It’s also worth noting that only important characters go mad in these plays. It’s a mark of their dramatic size and capacity to respond to the world around them.

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