Twelfth Night: it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad play

So, for the past few days I’ve looked at the meanings and occurrences of some words in Twelfth Night and within the Canon as a whole, “Puritan” and “gull,” in specific.

But there’s another word/set of words/concepts that seemed to be popping up some frequency during my repeated readings: “mad”-man/nessness, and its Elizabethan brethren, “distract.”

While the natural assumption (especially now in the twenty-first century) is that madness is synonymous with insanity, a quick dive into the Oxford English Dictionary shows us otherwise.


1. In a strange or unusual manner.
2.a. Furiously, with excessive violence or enthusiasm; to the point of madness.
  • “mad, adv.; 1, 2a”
    OED Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    December 2014. Web.
    19 February 2015.

(I find it interesting that the concept of rage or anger first appears well after Shakespeare in 1663.)


1. Imprudence, delusion, or (wild) foolishness resembling insanity
2. Insanity; mental illness or impairment, esp. of a severe kind
3. Wild excitement or enthusiasm; ecstasy; exuberance or lack of restraint.
  • “madness, n.; 1, 2, 3”
    OED Online.


A man who is insane; a lunatic. Also more generally (also hyperbolically): a person who behaves like a lunatic, a wildly foolish person.
  • “madman, n.”
    OED Online.

Only the “madman” definition has to be linked to insanity. The others all can be seen as strange behavior, excessive enthusiasm, foolishness, or ecstasy–all qualities in ample supply in Twelfth Night.

Distract, too, while associated with insanity also meant

1. Torn or drawn asunder, divided, separated; scattered; torn to pieces.
2. Drawn away, diverted; having the attention diverted.
3. Perplexed or confused in mind by having the thoughts drawn in different directions.
a. Deranged in mind; crazy, mad, insane.
b. Driven mad, distracted.
  • “distract, adj.; 1, 2, 3, 4.a,b”
    OED Online.

Again, “distract” could mean insane, but just as easily scattered or confused.

Now, let’s take a look at the frequency of these words. Within in the Canon, I’ve found that these words occur most frequently in three of the plays, Twelfth Night, its twin-comedy brother, The Comedy of Errors, and its melancholic cousin, Hamlet. In the table below, for each row, I present the word and its number of occurrences (with the number of speeches in which the word appears in parentheses); each column represents a play.

word Twelfth Night Comedy of Errors Hamlet
mad 22 (21) 25 (19) 21 (18)
mads (verb) 1 (1) 0 (0) 0 (0)
madly 0 (0) 2 (2) 0 (0)
madma(e)n 7 (7) 2 (2) 0 (0)
madness 6 (5) 2 (2) 22 (18)
sub-total 36 (34) 31 (25) 43 (36)
distract- 4 (4) 2 (2) 6 (6)
total 40 (38) 33 (27) 49 (42)

When you tally up the columns, you find that while Hamlet has the most “mad/distract” references in the Canon (as we’ll see over the course of the next couple of months, this should come as no surprise as the main character claims to be feigning madness throughout the play), Twelfth Night isn’t too far behind (with the mad confusion of the double set of twins in The Comedy of Errors making frequent reference to the concept as well).

But in the two comedies, there is no character who is insane (or pretending to be). In the earlier play, it’s the world that seems confused because of the twins. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is “diagnosed” as being insane, but never is.

No one is insane in the play, but everyone seems mad, and acts in a strange or unusual manner or with a lack of restraint… as if in a world turned upside-down.

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