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Why Would Hamlet Want to Feign Madness?

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When reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a class, the first thing that most teachers or professors point out is the argument/idea of sanity, specifically Hamlet's sanity. I believe that Hamlet is, in fact, feigning his madness. What I do not know is if I believe this because it is what I was taught or if I came up with the idea myself based on my own interpretation. When I was taught Hamlet there was no argument it was just fact that he was faking his madness.

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In the beginning Hamlet announces that he is going to feign being mad and as one of Hamlet’s ruses to prove himself mad, he forces himself into Ophelia’s room and behaves like a mad man. This will allow Hamlet to accomplish two things. One he can tell Ophelia how much he loves her and he wants to convince everybody that his insanity is due to his relationship with her and Hamlet also knows that Ophelia will report the incident to her father who will report it to the king. While pretending to be mad, Hamlet accomplished his goal. Ophelia did tell her father and her father told Hamlet’s mother and Uncle. They were convinced that he was mad at this point

What Hamlet didn’t realize was his impact on Ophelia herself. This was the onset of her depression. She didn’t understand why he was treating her in this manner and at the time was very much in love with him. The next example of Hamlet pretending to be mad is his unusual conversation with Polonius. As cited by John Brown, John Russell in Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet. Connotations 2.1 (1992): 16-33, ” This part of Hamlet’s character–for ambiguous and complicated speech is a distinctive element of the “mind” with which Shakespeare has endowed his hero–this characteristic operates on various levels. Hamlet’s conduct and behavior clearly shows someone who was in control of himself and using his pretended madness as a cover for his revenge on Claudius. He displays cunning, nerve and purpose. One definition of insanity includes “losing touch with reality, lacking the ability to determine right from wrong, or having no concept for the consequences of one’s actions.” Hamlet proves he is still sane at this point in the play by his ability to re-write a play to demonstrate the complexity of his father’s murder. Writers and story tellers often must immerse themselves in their characters so much that they begin to fantasize of becoming them, a vicarious escapism. Shakespeare as a writer was no doubt well aware of this trait when one pretends plays or assumes the role of another. It is entirely feasible that Prince Hamlet’s descent into madness came as a result of his choice to feign madness as a ruse. Although we know that he is intentionally setting this stage to prove he is mad, you can almost start to believe it due to the emotional intensity of his behavior. Hamlet’s transition from sanity to insanity begins at the point where his mother, Gertrude summons him to her closet to demand and explanation. After several moments of harsh interaction between Hamlet and his mother in the bedchamber, Hamlet hears a noise behind a tapestry. Polonius is hidden there spying on them. Hamlet believes it to be Claudius and stabs wildly through the tapestry, killing Polonius supporting the case for insanity because of his inability to determine right from wrong and having no concept of the possible consequences of his actions. Claudius, fearing for his life, banishes Hamlet to England on a pretext, closely watched by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s school friends, with a letter instructing that the bearer be killed. Hamlet switches the letters and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up being beheaded. The deaths of these two men were indirectly related to Hamlet’s actions. If he had not feigned madness in the beginning, worrying his mother, she would not have asked his friends to come and see about Hamlet’s welfare, thus causing their death.

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To this end, he formulates a very cunning and intricate plan to expose Claudius guilt. Taking into account his mental dexterity and conscientiousness with which he organizes the play, there can be no doubt that he was sane at that particular point. Despite maintaining his charade, he was well in control of his wits. His style of madness was actually so unique that even after Polonius reported to Claudius that Hamlet was mad, he was forced to admit that this madness was methodical (Shakespeare 34). The fact that Hamlet wanted to prove that his uncle was the true killer and went out of his way to gather evidence to the fact, that proved that façade of madness was reason and method behind his actions that could not have been motivated by the ravings or hallucination of a lunatic. Despite this evidence of sanity, there is a considerable amount of contrary information that suggests that he may, at some point, have taken leave of his senses

For example, when he was able to confirm that Claudius had indeed killed his father, he followed him to his chambers and had a chance to confront him. However, when he finds him praying, his contemplative nature does not allow him to go ahead and revenge simply. The main reason is that he feared to send the murderer to heaven. This was confusing for the young man, and the audience without a doubt will have a hard time reconciling their reasoning with Hamlet’s. In any case, why does he want his revenge to transcend the mortal realm? If he had actually killed him when he had a chance, he would have actually indirectly saved several lives of the people he ended up killing or causing to commit suicide. Hamlet claims in his conversation with the Doctor that he was truly faking it when he raved at Ophelia. In reality, he actually loved her. However, from a psychological point of view, it is possible that he was purging his negative feelings about women in general and that his diatribe was not entirely superficial (Sullivan 30). In a way, he blames his mother for being complacent with regard to his father’s death because she was then married to his murderer (Bohannan 28). He was likely disillusioned by his bitterness against his mother and his hurtful sentiments for Ophelia. If he was actually only intending to prove he was mad, he could have done it in other ways, and his extreme insults to her were what spurred her to kill herself when her father died. She realized that the two men she loved most were no longer there for her. She felt that there was no need to live because her father was not alive to offer her important guidance in life. She was desperate. She needed love, but she could not find it anywhere. Some critics have postulated that it was actually Ophelia who could be considered mad on the premises of her irrational and self-destructive actions (Camden 250). If he had been acting rationally or even sanely, he would have known that his actions could result in dire consequences, in the end, owing to the psychological effects they were bound to have on her. In addition, the manner in which he kills her father seriously brings to question his mental consistency.

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Thus, the First Player cries as he delivers a sad speech, and Hamlet asks whether the Player’s pretended feelings are stronger than his own real feelings, since Hamlet’s feelings are not strong enough to make him cry. Hamlet seems to believe that acting can be as real, or realer, than real-life emotion, which raises the possibility that by pretending to be mad, Hamlet has actually caused his own mental breakdown. Another interpretation could be that Hamlet acts mad as a way to express the strong, troubling emotions he can’t allow himself to feel when he’s sane, just as the actor can cry easily when playing a role

Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles to determine which role he should play—thoughtful, reticent scholar, or revenge-minded, decisive heir to the throne—and by acting both parts, Hamlet explores what his true role should be. Hamlet forces us to question what the truth is: how can we tell between reality and pretense?

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Camden, Carroll. “On Ophelia’s madness.” Shakespeare Quarterly 15.2 (1964): 247-255. Print.

Clifford, John, and John Schilb. Making Arguments About Literature: A Compact Guide and Anthology. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “The death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet.” New York Review of Books 51.16 (2004): 42-47. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Vol. 2. Raleigh, NC: Hayes Barton Press, 1950. Print.

Sullivan, Harry Stack, ed. The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. London United Kingdom: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Wilson, J. D. (1959). What happens in Hamlet. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. Print.

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