How Can an Appearance of Insanity Help Hamlet Achieve His Ends?
William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600, telling the story of a prince dealing with the death of his father and the quick remarriage of his mother to his uncle. The play uses mental health, both real and faked, as a way to show human behavior. Commonly studied in high schools all over America, this tale has had a profound effect on the way mental health is viewed. 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.
Hamlet may already be going mad when the play begins, and his later decision to fake madness is just a cover for real insanity. The first line addressed to Hamlet is: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” (I.ii.): Claudius thinks it’s strange and unhealthy that Hamlet is still grieving for his father. In the same scene Hamlet tells us that he is wearing “solemn black” and a “dejected ‘havior” (I.ii.), which audiences in Shakespeare’s time would have recognised as signs of “melancholy,” a condition which Renaissance doctors believed could lead to madness. Although several characters see the Ghost during Act One, only Hamlet hears it speak, which opens the possibility that the Ghost’s speech is a hallucination of Hamlet’s. Later Hamlet wonders the same thing, asking whether the Ghost’s story was a trick played on him by the Devil, “Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits” (II.ii.). The possibility that Hamlet is mad when the play begins forces us to question the truth of everything he says, making his character even more mysterious. Hamlet’s misogynistic behavior toward Gertrude and Ophelia can be seen as evidence that Hamlet really is going mad, because these scenes have little to do with is quest for justice, and yet they seem to provoke his strongest feelings. We see little evidence in the play that either Gertrude or Ophelia is guilty of any wrongdoing, and they both appear to feel genuine affection and concern for Hamlet. Yet he treats them both with paranoia, suspicion, and cruelty, suggesting he has lost the ability to accurately interpret other people’s motivations. Hamlet describes Gertrude’s marriage as “incestuous” (I.ii.), but no one else in the play agrees with his opinion. Even though the Ghost instructs Hamlet not to “contrive against thy mother aught” (I.v), Hamlet’s disgust with his mother’s sex life mounts as the play continues: when he finally confronts Gertrude he paints a picture of her “honeying and making love over the nasty sty” (III.iii). Hamlet demonstrates a similar attitude to Ophelia’s sexuality, telling her “Get thee to a nunnery” rather than become “a breeder of sinners” (III.i). After giving Ophelia a long list of what he sees as women’s faults, Hamlet confesses: “It hath made me mad” (III.i). The fact that Hamlet’s biggest emotional outbursts are directed against the sexual feelings of the women in his life suggests that his mad behavior is not just a ploy to disguise his revenge plans.Despite the evidence that Hamlet is actually mad, we also see substantial evidence that he is just pretending. The most obvious evidence is that Hamlet himself says he is going to pretend to be mad, suggesting he is at least sane enough to be able to tell the difference between disordered and rational behavior. Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus that he plans to “put an antic disposition on” (I.v). His “mad” remarks to Polonius—“you are a fishmonger” (II.ii)—are too silly and sometimes too clever to be genuinely mad: even Polonius notes “How pregnant sometimes his replies are” (II.ii.). Hamlet’s most mad-seeming outburst, against Ophelia, may be explained by the fact that Claudius and Polonius are spying on the conversation: if Hamlet suspects that he’s being spied on, he may be acting more deranged than he really is for the benefit of his listeners. If Hamlet does know that Claudius and Polonius are listening, the fact that he can instantly adjust his behavior points toward the idea that he has a firm grip on reality and his own mind. 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.
It is worth mentioning that, right from the very beginning, Shakespeare immerses the audience in a gloomy world of secrecy in which the real and the fantastic merge into a single truth. This dichotomy anticipates the conflict of madness upon the play is constructed: “This opening sets the tone of the whole play, with emotional confusion and doubt beginning to break up the rational order of everyday life.” (Boorman, 1987: 152–153). In the opening line of Hamlet, Barnardo poignantly asks: “Who’s there?” (I, i, 1). So, right from the outset of the play, Shakespeare experiments with the fear of the unknown, as Lee highlights: “From the first lines of the play, the importance of identity and identification is acknowledged, and the fact that neither needs to be established is recognized.” (Lee, 2000: 5). Then again, Horatio fears Hamlet’s fragile state of mind and effectively foretells Hamlet’s descent into insanity. The outcome of Hamlet’s first encounter with King Hamlet’s ghost is his firm decision to use madness as a disguise. 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.
Overall, as Hamlet’s journeys and plans reach their end however Hamlet shows a marked lack of his earlier resolve and appears more driven by baser instincts such as revenge and hatred. 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.
Boorman, S. C. Human Conflict in Shakespeare. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.
Bradbrook, M. C. Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Coddon, Karin S. ““Suche Strange Desygns”: Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture”. Renaissance Drama, ns 20, 989: 51–75. Web.
Lee, John. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Controversies of Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lidz, Theodore. Hamlet’s Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet. Madison: International Universities Press, 1975.