How Can an Appearance of Insanity Help Hamlet Achieve His Ends?
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark tells the story of Hamlet, the young prince. When the play opens, his father has just died, and his mother has just married his father’s younger brother Claudius. A few soldiers on guard report to him that his father’s ghost has been seen, and he sees the ghost when he goes with them the next night. The ghost tells him that his uncle killed him to get his crown and his wife, and makes Hamlet swear to avenge his death. Hamlet decides to pretend to be insane to make sure the king doesn’t suspect him. Ophelia, the daughter of king’s advisor, Polonius, also rejects him, adding to his melancholy.
Similarly, when Hamlet is sent to England, he acts skilfully and ruthlessly to escape, which suggests that even at this late stage in the play he is capable of perfectly sane behavior. For every piece of evidence that Hamlet is mad, we can also point to evidence that he’s sane, which contributes to the mystery of Hamlet’s character.
As Hamlet and Horatio had previously speculated, this encounter is crucial in the development of the central conflict of the tragedy, as it is the very moment Hamlet recognizes the murder plot meticulously designed by Claudius. The apparition warns him of the rottenness of the Danish Court and implores him to avenge not only his unfair assassination, but also the incestuous marriage recently carried out: “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / a couch for luxury and damned incest.” After having been emotionally damaged by recent events, Hamlet struggles to verify the authenticity of certain happenings, and, consequently, his judgement becomes completely unreliable. Albeit his intimate character makes his identity rather dubious to the people surrounding him, his intimate monologues provide the audience with a glimpse into his inner nature. This is a truly effective dramatic device, as, instead of being absent from the action, the audience becomes Hamlet’s most trustworthy confidant. An example of Hamlet’s ambiguity would be the appearance of the ghost of his late father in the opening act of the play: is the ghost’s serious accusation real or is it an insight of what it might be going through Hamlet’s mind? The fact that father and son share the same name somehow indicates a persistence of memory; Hamlet is forced to remember him.
I believe that the reaction of Claudius and the confrontation with his mother served as the final catalyst which pushes Hamlet from pretended madness to actual insanity. His rashness coupled with his incestuous affair with his mother as portrayed in Zifferilli’s version of the play seem to indicate a truly demented character. I contend that Hamlet’s transition to madness comes about honestly and becomes a feature of his actual persona by association. By practicing to be mad, combined with the real and traumatic events surrounding his father’s death, the betrayal and other points of stress, he loses his grasp on reality and becomes what he played.
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