Insanity Through Shakespeare & Cervantes

Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are undisputed masterpieces of the Western canon, stories dominated by an intricately devised set of motifs that uncover both the overwhelming complexity of human virtues and the ease with which they may be perverted. It is precisely within this context that I argue that while both works present protagonists who, often inspired by seemingly supernatural entities, descend into madness in pursuit of power and fame, these characters differ strikingly in the extent to which they execute their plans for glory ― with Macbeth fearful and indecisive and Don Quixote unwavering and reckless.  

One of the clear similarities between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the extent to which their protagonists lose their sanity, consumed by visions of grandeur and promises of power, fame, and status. In the former, Shakespeare outlines the trajectory with which Macbeth descends into madness. A military elite of high renown, Macbeth interacts with the witches, and, in response to their promises of kingship, is filled with “…vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other.” But the prophecy of his kingly ascent also instills a sense of guilt and existential dread within him, as though he has eaten from “the insane root.” Indeed, Macbeth is torn in two ways, specifically between the thought that he will have to commit the heinous act of murdering Duncan, and his ambition for power. As he hallucinates a ghostly dagger approaching from the distance a while later, with “…the handle toward [his] hand,” Macbeth wonders whether these visions are merely products of a “…heat-oppressed brain,” or whether they are grounded in any sliver of reality. As the play reaches its eventual conclusion, Macbeth’s internal struggles ― between the lofty promises of the witches and the fear of losing his newly earned sociopolitical omnipresence ― erupts into chaos, until, standing on top of a dinner table, much to the dismay of all the other lords in his dominion, he shouts “…hence, horrible shadow” as he pictures the ghost of murdered Banquo.

In Don Quixote, Cervantes constructs a character comparable to Macbeth in both the depth and breadth of his insanity. An unremarkable landowner from the poor town of La Mancha, Sr. Quixano becomes so captivated by embellished tales of knightly adventure that “…the lack of sleep and the excess of reading [withers] his brain, and he [goes] mad,” believing himself to exist in a similar narrative. Driven to become a knight errant, he puts on a set of armor, wields a lance, mounts his trusty steed, and declares himself Don Quixote of La Mancha, a physical and mental metamorphosis aimed towards gaining glory and rectifying injustice in service to the Lord. And yet, the fundamental issue is that Don Quixote, as Cervantes notes, is old and sinewy, rides an equally malnourished horse, wears decrepit and rusted armor, and embarks on trivial adventures that provide no other outcome than an increasing tally of personal injuries. In fact, the only characteristic awe-inspiring about him is the consistency with which he misjudges the physical world around him, seeing windmills as giants, inns as castles, prostitutes as fair maidens, a barber’s bowl as an enchanted helmet, and two approaching flocks of sheep as imposing armies of legendary warriors. In this way, whatever he thinks, sees, or imagines “…[seems] to him to be as it was in the books he’s read” until ultimately, he ― like Macbeth ― holds a reality incompatible with our own, believes himself justified by supernatural forces, and is lured into the deepest layers of insanity by notions of wealth, power, and prestige.

It is necessary to consider, however, that while both Macbeth and Don Quixote bear striking similarities in the intensity of their delusions, they differ in the sheer fervor with which they carry out their plans for glory. While Macbeth is, according to his wife, “…too full o’ the milk of human kindness,” hesitant in his intents to kill Duncan, and emasculated to act with decisiveness, Don Quixote almost exclusively lunges head first into battle and is constantly reigned back by the pleas of his squire. One might argue that this may pertain to the clear difference between their social standings, that since Macbeth has much more to lose ― fighting not only for the acquisition of power but chiefly for its intergenerational preservation within his family ― he is astutely aware that upsetting the cosmic balance may deprive his children of the throne, with “…no son of [his] succeeding.” Quixote, instead, is concerned with matters of relative triviality, finding water, chasing Rocinante for his sexual exploits, saving damsels in distress, and usually does nothing more glamorous than tending to his wounds with snake-oil potions fit only for knights errant. 

It is, for this reason, the natural conclusion that Don Quixote acts with such relative boldness because he has no perch to fall from, nothing but the very beating of his heart left to lose. But it is the more satisfying answer to also suggest that Macbeth, despite his insanity, has some vestige of morality and some inkling of lucidiy left intact, allowing him to sense the moral wrong in Duncan’s murder. Conversely, Quixote is so far beyond any realm of reason that he feels no moral dilemmas, adamant that every waiver of his lance, even in homicide and in theft, is in service to the Lord. It is perhaps a combination of their social standings, the differential clarity of their moral consciousness, and the downright extent to which the tendrils of their madness have occupied their conscious perception, that manifests their insanity in different ways. 


De, Cervantes Saavedra Miguel, et al. Don Quixote. Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015.

Shakespeare, William, et al. Macbeth. Oxford University Press, 2015.

*This work was originally submitted by Masih Tazhibi to the department of Literature Humanities at Columbia University in the City of New York*

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