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Is Hamlet Really Sane Throughout the Play, or Does He Ever Cross the Line Into Madness?

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In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the lead character, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, has been interpreted in numerous ways

Throughout the play Hamlet takes on different personas, making it hard define him as only one character type. Often when critics analyze the character of Hamlet, they question his sanity because of his ambiguity soon after he sees his father's ghost. What does it mean to be insane? The definition of the word "insane" says that the person must "exhibit serious and debilitating mental disorders." does Hamlet truly go insane, is his father's ghost just a figment of his tormented imagination, or is Hamlet a smart actor?

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Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the tragic play about a son seeking revenge for the murder of his father. Hamlet’s father, the late king of Denmark, is murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who then marries Hamlet’s mother. Finding out the true nature of his father’s death, Hamlet sets out to avenge his father’s murder. In acting with all the passion of an avenging son, Hamlet is perceived to be mad by his peers, and the King and Queen. Thus the question arises, is Hamlet insane? Insane can be defined as one who is utterly senseless or/and when one is irrational, one is not governed by or according to reason. There are three paths of interpretation one can take with this line of reasoning: Hamlet is totally and completely insane, Hamlet is somewhat mad, but still somewhat in control, or Hamlet is totally insane, and absolutely in control. With a cursory examination of the evidence, the first two options seem quite viable, but with further attention, the true condition of Hamlet’s mental facilities becomes clear. There is evidence from virtually every character in the play that Hamlet is less then sane. In fact, a major portion of the book is given to Hamlet’s insanity, with several characters being given the sole task of determining Hamlet’s sanity, or lack thereof. Their conclusion: Hamlet is insane. The first character to notice Hamlet’s odd behavior is Polonius, the father of Ophelia, Hamlet’s love

Polonius comes to the King (Claudius) and Queen with the news that their “noble son is mad.” Polonius first begins to believe this when he intercepts a love letter intended for Ophelia, and wonders why a high Prince like Hamlet should be interested in his lowly daughter. In subsequent conversations with Hamlet, Polonius comes to the conclusion that Hamlet is mad with love and anguish over his father’s death. Polonius explains that he sees Hamlet experiencing the classic stages of the declination into love-madness–“And he, repelled, fell into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watch, thence into weakness, thence to (a) lightness, and, by this declension, into the madness wherein now he raves, and all we mourn for.” (91) In conversations with Hamlet, Polonius notes that Hamlet makes replies with “a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and (sanity) could not so prosperously be delivered of.” (97) In seeing Hamlet “rave” in a state of happiness only obtainable through irrationality and senselessness, Polonius concludes that Hamlet must be starting to go insane with love. Ophelia also begins to believe that Hamlet is going mad. Hamlet goes from treating her with great tenderness, to telling her she is a whore, and he does not love her. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia can definitely be considered irrational, and without logic. In a letter to Ophelia, Hamlet declares his love by saying “doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.

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In the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare creates a master of deception and manipulation. He clarifies his mental status for his mother in the Act three. He tells her that his actions are intentional, and that he only wants to manipulate the events to gain knowledge of his father’s death. "I essentially am not in madness/But mad in craft." (III.iv.187-8). The King does not believe in Hamlet’s insanity and instructs his men to "Get from him why he puts on this confusion" (II.i. 2). This scene shows that Claudius sees the deception for what it is and that Hamlet is not mad: "What he spake, though it lack'd form a little./Was not like madness." (III.i.163-4.) Still, he declares him to be insane and it is the excuse he uses to send him off to England

There are times when Hamlet's madness appears to be real. These instances bring to light Shakespeare’s theme of appearance versus reality. When Hamlet kills Polonius he says, "How now! a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!" (III. iv. 25). Hamlet's madness is real when he kills Polonius instead of Claudius in a rash way. Similarly, Hamlet commits acts of murder without careful thought. One can say that Hamlet eventually becomes a cold-blooded murderer as he loses his reasoning. His grief consumes him to the point that he no longer selects his actions but instead act without thinking. This irrational behavior leads the reader to realize that even people who are educated succumb to grief and that everyone is capable of murder. Nevertheless, one can argue that the actions of Hamlet are not acts of feigned madness, but of someone who is inherently a cold-blooded killer who uses revenge as an excuse for killing. His reckless actions as he pulls away from his friends to approach the ghost show that Hamlet is headstrong. He notes "Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen--/ Heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!/ I say, away" (I.iv.84-86). He does not think about the consequences but walks towards the ghost without thinking of the risks. Hamlet’s behavior shows the rash and thoughtless actions of an insane psychopath. One can question his schizophrenic behavior and see through his madness when he tells Polonius "Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here/ that old men have gray beards; that their faces are wrinkled; their eyes purging thick amber and/ plum-tree gum" (II.ii.197-200). His deceptive madness works to his advantage when he insults Polonius indirectly. The reader realizes that Hamlet skillfully crafts the clear portrayal of Polonius’ character. Hamlet's wit and education reveals that he is not insane. Another example of Hamlet's feigned madness is Hamlet's communication with the ghost. In concluding, Hamlet’s grief and need for revenge are real. They show that his character is human. However, he allows his grief to consume him and eventually his pretense at insanity becomes real. He becomes depressed and fights his inner conflict of his very existence: “To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them” (III.i.58-59). It is this soliloquy that forces the reader to understand his pain and anguish of losing his father. To add to his grief, his mother marries her brother-in-law immediately after her husband’s death. The reality is that, while Hamlet is motivated by his grief to seek revenge, he is weak emotionally because he allows his emotions to dictate his life and ultimately lead to his demise.

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Usually, 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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Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009.

Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 15 Aug. 2008.

Mays, Kelly (2013) “The Norton Introduction to Literature Shorter 11th Edition” University of Nevada. W.W.Norton & Company. Print. ISBN 978-0-393-01339-2

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