I think that one of the most poignant themes of Hamlet is the presentation and importance of madness. We first see a glimpse of madness with Hamlet, who pretends to be mad, using it as a cunning mask while he battles with his mind and conscience over the idea of revenge. There is also the character of Ophelia, who turns mad with grief when she hears of her father’s death.
Although while Hamlet is holding up this pretence of madness, he slowly becomes drawn into a depression, which is so deep at some points it is unclear whether he is insane or deeply depressed; I would not call this depression madness in any way because the term madness is something more obvious. It is a very blunt expression, which automatically makes one think something very stereotypical, similar to how Hamlet deliberately acts.
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Also, there is no actual evidence of Hamlet being insane. However, insanity is considered the loss of control of one’s mind and acting against society. This is almost irrelevant as the society where Hamlet exists is one that he constantly is fighting to go against normal behaviour because of those in power and control. Hamlet assumes madness as a device while pursuing revenge; an aspect of the play I choose to question is whether Hamlet truly ever is mad.
In Act 1 Scene 2, during a gathering of the court after the wedding of his mother and uncle, we see Hamlet dressed in dark, sombre clothes, which are unsuitable for the celebratory occasion. These clothes indicate the state of mind Hamlet is in and his perception of his mother and Claudius; they could also foreshadow his future behaviour and mood. Hamlet’s antic disposition could be regarded as a subconscious way of avoiding the revenge of his father’s death by using it as a displacement behaviour.
Shakespeare could have intended for his character, Hamlet, to appear to be engulfing himself in convincing everyone that he is, in fact, mentally unstable rather than having to take action and decide what he should do. Although Hamlet first feels the idea of the antic disposition is a good one, it becomes apparent that even Hamlet doubts his genuine sanity. This quote shows Hamlet commenting on his actions, which he regrets. Through what he is saying, he is even doubting his sanity and almost suggesting a second personality.
“…. His madness. I’d be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged, His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy” It seems unclear to the audience at times if Hamlet is speaking in the act of insanity or when what he is displaying to the audience is his authentic self, particularly in Act 3 Scene 4 when Hamlet argues with his mother. He wants to show his mother a mirror that can reveal her true self so she can see how others see her. His mother does not understand this and feels it to be a threat to her life, so she must be worried about feeling threatened by her son.
Hamlet “Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge; You go not till I set you up a glass Where you may see the inmost part of you.” Queen Gertrude “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho!” Even at the point where true insanity seems most likely, in Act 3, Scene 4, his actions are still directed to his primary purpose, the revenge of his father. “Thou wretched rash, intruding fool, farewell.”
He kills Polonius thinking of Claudius without regret and then offers the mothering advice he genuinely believes to have value. He can explain his opinion of her and Claudius’ relationship and marriage. Hamlet is speaking openly and honestly for once. This shows a huge character change from his first soliloquy when he says that he will have to hold his tongue. “It is not, nor cannot come to good:
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” Act 1 Scene 2. This profound change in Hamlet can also be seen in his comparison of himself to Hercules, which shows Hamlet must be feeling very low and have low self-esteem to want to compare himself to a hero. He is upset about his lack of skill and talent, as shown in Hercules, which is very worrying; it shows Hamlet to be very depressed, which I think is almost merging into insanity due to the profound change in character that is evident. In Act 1 Scene 2, “My father’s brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules.”
Hamlet uses this comparison to show that he is unlike Hercules to the extreme. Hercules is a god, a mythological being who was known for strength and courage. So he is saying he is not Hercules, meaning he is not strong and aggressive. But in Act 5 Scenes 1, “Let Hercules himself so what he may, The cat will mew, and the dog will have his day.” Here Hamlet is saying that not even Hercules could stop him from doing what is needed. Hamlet shows the comparison that a cat will mew and a dog will have its day; this is nature – what will happen, and no one can change it. So, therefore, he means no one, not even Hercules, can prevent him from doing what should be done.
This change from a man, who indicates his weakness compared to Hercules to a man who claims that even Hercules could not stop him, shows the growth in Hamlet from indecisive weakling to active tragic hero. This change in personality and character shows the change in his state of mind. It is as though Hamlet has developed a second personality, his side, that can take action. This shows a loss of control and a vast difference from our first impression of Hamlet but does not mean that he is mad. It could just show the decrease in Hamlet’s care for the world.
In today’s society, I do not think that Hamlet’s actions would be classed as an act of insanity but merely violent, ruthless behaviour. When Hamlet most acts insane, he knows what he is doing and uses clever puns and wit, so I am compelled to think that it is at these times he is saner than at other points. Someone who knows what they are doing cannot be insane because they still regain some self-control, if only a weak grasp.
It is not a question of whether Hamlet truly is mad, because this we are not able to prove either way without personally questioning Shakespeare; it is more deciphering the act of madness from the deep depression and mental state which could be the cause of his actions later in the play and whether this grief descends into insanity at any point. Hamlet assumed a state of madness to complete the task given to him by his father; this mask was able to conceal Hamlet’s accurate clever plan and distract Claudius from knowing the truth, which is that Hamlet knows about him murdering his father.
He tells us at the start of the play in his first soliloquy that he is in such a low state that he would consider killing himself had not godded “fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”. This deep depression could be caused by his father’s recent death and his mother’s rapid remarriage. We do not know of Hamlet’s character before the start of the play, so it is assumed these occurrences cause his state of mind. Too many of his “wild and whirling words” carry direct meaning for us to believe he’s mad for any great length of time. In his ‘mad’ exchanges with his enemies, Claudius, Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, there is far too much method in his madness.
Hamlet’s act of madness has a purpose: to confuse or frighten Claudius, to prevent Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from finding out the truth. He also uses his state of mind to indulge in some malicious humour, as is the famous style of Shakespeare. Polonius, the butt of many sly attacks, never suspects him to be anything but mad. It is him who first informs Hamlet’s mother and uncle that Hamlet has been acting odd. Polonius “I will be brief: your noble son is mad. Mad I call it, for to define true madness, What is ‘t but to be nothing else but mad?” Act 2 Scene 2
On the other hand, the more intelligent and cunning Claudius suspects throughout the play that Hamlet’s madness is feigned. This could be because he can see through what Hamlet says, as there are definite reasons for what he does and says. He also tests Hamlet. He spies on him and sends in Hamlet’s close friends from university as spies to investigate whether he is furious. This, in turn, infuriates Hamlet more because Claudius is now turning his old friends against him. This could be enough for Hamlet to be pushed over the edge into a more sinister mood, which would explain his later actions.
Assessing Hamlet’s madness becomes even more complicated when he apologizes to Laertes, sincerely, for the wrongs he has suffered. Hamlet blames not himself but his madness, which makes it seem as if he admits that he fell foul of his own pretending and did do mad things: including killing Polonius and driving Ophelia to suicide. Or else he could just be blaming himself for his mask of madness; the pretence going too far and achieving his revenge consumed him and was as though the mask took over his body, soul. “Was ‘t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away, And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes, Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness. It is so; Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged; His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.” He is grieving and could be entering into depression again now he has realized that his actions had caused the death of the women he ‘loved’: although we are never sure of his true feelings. Hamlet goes through extreme mood fluctuations throughout the play; he goes through intense depression, melancholy, and sudden excitement. The depths of despair and sudden bursts of hatred he reveals through his soliloquies show his troubled mind.
Hamlet’s pretence of madness has a significant effect on other characters of the play. He mainly affects Ophelia, which in turn convinces Polonius of his ‘madness’. Ophelia’s madness is very stereotypical and is never questioned. She sings and laughs and appears to have no sense of what events have happened. Such as the death of her father, which is the presumed cause of this madness. In comparison to Hamlet’s ‘madness’ Ophelia’s mental state still shows her passive nature but looks positively pathetic and tragic compared to Hamlet’s behaviour. Hamlet’s feigned madness and depression result in aggressive attacks and sly battles of wits.
Ophelia descends into harmless humour. She is mad with grief and leaves herself almost instantly to nonsense, but her madness is entirely genuine. Her words have no connection with other characters. Though themes are running through the remarks, snatches of songs and rhymes she says in her appearances merely suggest the causes of her madness. She does not slip in and out of madness, as does Hamlet. In Act 3 Scene 2, Hamlet and Ophelia confront each other while watching Polonius and Claudius. Ophelia returns the love letters sent to her by Hamlet.
Hamlet abandons verse for prose and presents a savage attitude. His speech is disjointed, and he uses puns. For example, he uses the word nunnery, which means convent and the Shakespearean slang for brothel; we are not told which meaning is intended, but it is not clear whether Hamlet knows either. But this does not resemble madness, although he appears to have a change of character, the themes are consistent, and he is speaking his mind, although he should not be doing so to a woman as he should act like a gentleman. The king and Ophelia’s father watch this, which convinces the king that Hamlet is not insane. Claudius is clever, as is Hamlet, and can see through the mask at the game Hamlet is playing, although it worries the king, as he does not yet know why Hamlet is doing this.
The madness of Hamlet and Ophelia shows a lot about society. It could be the society’s corrupt behaviour that causes the pretend madness of Hamlet and the true insanity of Ophelia; the corrupt power of the court has infected other people, such as Hamlet, so his actions could be blamed on the behaviour of Claudius and Polonius, which in turn killed Polonius. The feelings of the younger generation, Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, have been ignored and quietened for so long that the depression and grief build up to the point of loss of control.
Society sees Hamlet’s madness as dangerous; it is a way of expressing himself, which is often confused with rebellion. Hamlet presents an aggressive and dangerous distortion of the world, and his mask consumes him whereby at the end of the play, all of the normal society has left Hamlet, and it is as though he is in his society. It is a massive contrast to the insanity of Ophelia, who spoke about her feelings and had no control over her mind. However, this is also going against society because women were not meant to speak out. Therefore, it was not correct for a woman to talk openly and behave how Ophelia was.
The society of Elsinore is very controlling and does not see insanity as an illness but as a threat. The king sees Hamlet’s madness as “turbulent and dangerous.” He suspects that his madness may be a pretence and considers it more depression but views Hamlet as a problem because of what he may say or do, with no control over his mind. So sends him away to England to control him and have him killed, but we can see through Hamlet’s escape Shakespeare uses this to prove at this time he is not mad; he is clever. Hamlet has managed to prove his sanity by escaping this fate left for him by his uncle; this shows the state of mind of the prince has improved or was never mad to start with.