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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Madness in Hamlet

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Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Hamlet, and his sanity can arguably be discussed. Many portions of the play support his loss of control in his actions, while other parts uphold his ability of dramatic art. Madness in Hamlet has been a popular topic of discussion by both critics and readers for some time. It is quite simple to see why. The play gives us evidence to prove the power of the claim of Hamlet’s true madness, or, rather, a view that the actions and words coming from the apparent madness, is an insincere antic disposition as proclaimed by Hamlet himself. This uncertainty in my view is the question that has bothered many readers of the play, since a dramatic device like this has its purpose. However that purpose is not made clear due to conflicting evidence found within the play. Some have even attributed this uncertainty as carelessness on Shakespeare’s part. My view however is that the unresolved tension these questions bring up, have a part in playing out the plot and also in showing the uncertainties of human nature. Madness is not an absolute concept it’s occurrence varies with the situation, or for Hamlet, it varies in the degree he allows his emotions to carry him.


One sign of madness is Hamlet’s mood swings. He has mood swings that change very abruptly throughout the entire play. He appears to be mad at the time he receives news of his father’s death. He speaks these wild words “Why, right, you are right in the right. I hold it fit that we shake hands and part...” (Act I, scene 5, lines 1-1). In the play there seems to be two sides to Hamlet, one sensitive and the other insane. Hamlet can be a trustworthy friend where he is rational. However when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive he changes he behavior as to make them believe he is mad. Hamlet tries to say that the King and Queen’s marriage is what is bothering him. Whereas, with Polonius and Ophelia it is the case of frustration of love that is making him crazy. He has an outburst of rage towards Polonius and with no remorse he says “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune. Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger” (Act III, scene IV, lines -4). Hamlet also has outbursts with his mother. These seem to be more directed towards jealousy. He is the only person to see his father’s ghost in his mother’s bedchambers and every other time a ghost has appeared someone else has seen it. In this scene he shows his madness and directs it towards his mother because she does not see the ghost. “On him, on him! Look you how pale he glares! His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones, would make them capable” (Act III, scene IV, lines 1-11).


Hamlet’s behavior throughout the play is inconsistent especially towards Ophelia. He jumps into her grace and there fights with Laertes. He professes his love for Ophelia in act five. “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up me sum. What wilt thou do for her” (Act V, scene I, lines 4-45). Although Hamlet may profess his love for Ophelia in her grave, when she returned his letters earlier in the play he says he never loved her.


Madness can also be seen on another level. Hamlet tries to win over Claudius, which is his enemy so that he can get more time to confirm the ghost’s allegations. His trusts for the ghost wavers throughout the play because it is hard to hold onto solid evidence because of the potential evil and abuse that could encounter should he be tricked. The ghost commands murder and this goes against is personality so his first words to the ghost are “Be thou a spirit of goblin dam’nd, Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked or charitable” (Act 1, scene 4, lines 40-4). This shows his first time of confusion because he does not know how to react to seeing his father’s spirit. And he even swears to heaven in scene V line 10-105 “and thy commandment alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven”. The potential for evil and the appearance of the ghost leads Hamlet to believe that the ghost is evil. “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil, and the devil hath power T”assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps, out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me” (Act II, scene II, line 55-558). Hamlet cannot be blames for he lack of trust. In his eyes he has already lost the two women in his life, his mother and Ophelia. Fair weather friends Rosencrantz and Guildensten arrive at royal request to give the reason for Hamlets madness. This causes him to be even more doubtful of any trust in friendship. It is only under the cover of madness that he will be able to recognize the situation around himself better. This cover as acts as a distraction of his purpose to expose Claudius.


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The final difficulty of reading madness [...] is that in the act of doing so, one dissociates oneself from it or associates oneself with it, and in either case becomes disqualified as an interpreter. To read madness sanely is to miss the point; to read madness madly is to have ones point be missed (Neely 16).


We learn that there is a reason to fear each other friendships when Claudius speaks these words “…what he spake, though it lacked form a little was not like madness. There is something in his soul o’ er which his melancholy sits on brood” (Act III, scene I, lines 15-161). We have the right to fear each other knowing Hamlet’s potential revenge and Claudius precautions of this happening. Claudius tries to console Hamlet after his father’s death with great skill and tact and are lost on Hamlet. Claudius is not willing to believe the simple reason that Hamlet’s madness comes from the non-reciprocation of his affections to Ophelia. Hamlets mother, Gertrude, is another character in the play that seems to go mad. She does not try to confront or discern her son directly after Claudius attempts to console Hamlet on his father’s death. Here Gertrude expresses her concern and is ready and willing to allow the scheming plots of Polonious and Claudius to uncover him. The way she stays away from Ophelia when she goes mad, hints that maybe there is some kind of subconscious fear she may have in her experiences of the disintegration of people around her whom she loves. This agrees with her general attitude of liking happiness and not tempting any ill force to destroy it. Like one critic has said, Gertrude’s character is like a sheep in the sun”, enjoying a blissful and untainted life. Gertrude’s belief in Polonius’s reason for Hamlet’s madness is seen when she tells Ophelia “…I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause Of Hamlet’s wildness so shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted way again, to both your honors” (Act III, scene I, lines 8-40).


Hamlet may not be completely insane as there are times when he shows sanity. Hamlet only appears mad around certain characters. Hamlet behaves unreasonably around Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. On the other hand while being around Horatio, Bernado, Francisco, The Players and Gravediggers he is very sensible. There are characters in the play that confess there may be some sanity in Hamlets insanity. Claudius confesses that yes Hamlet’s actions are strange but do not seem to come from madness. “And I doubt the hatch and the disclose will be some danger; which for to prevent I have in quick determination” (Act III, scene I, lines 161-16). Polonius can’t seem to make up his mind as he admits that Hamlet’s actions have a method and reason behind them and seem to be logical in nature. “Though this be madness, yet there in a method in ‘t” (Act II, scene II, line 01). At another point during the play Polonius is certain that when Ophelia returned Hamlets letters and denied access to her that Hamlet would be driven mad. He informs the King and Queen “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 II, scene II, lines 1-)? Each character has their own insight to the madness and I believe that each found the cause for madness in their own way.


Ophelia is often seen as cowardly and is unwilling to show or act according to the way she feels. Other then the fact of setting aside the threats of her father one wonders why she does not participate in helping Hamlet to his sanity. Her knowledge of the situation is shallow and not surrounding her audience. She has no knowledge of the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, or of Claudius’s murder. All she knows, according to her father, is that Hamlet is mad because of her rejection. This realization placed a heavy burden on her. And it is thus in order that she can provide Hamlet some help to overcome his madness does she eagerly participate with her father by telling him of Hamlet’s appearance to her in her chamber, showing him Hamlet’s letters, and by allowing their conversation to be heard. Robert Tracy notes, the `grave is a common term for bed in Elizabethan literature, just as death commonly denotes sexual climax. (85) These things she does out of her love and concern and because she has no one else to turn to for help. Ophelias unique development has given her an especially permeable mind. Motherless and completely restricted by the men around her, Ophelia has been shaped to conform to external demands, to reflect others desires. Her name deriving from the Greek word for help or greatest possible succor, (Representing Ophelia) she appears condemned to martyrdom on the altar of male fantasies and priorities. Ophelia’s life revolves around only three people, these being her father, brother, and Hamlet. In all her sweet innocence, she loves them dearly. As shown before, she strives to help Hamlet, is faithful to father’s wishes and shares secrets with her brother. However, Hamlet’s descent, coupled with the wrath of his anger made to kill her father, upsets her to her breaking point. As poor Ophelia cannot see why her world changes suddenly with the stabbing of her father by her lover. It is too shocking, unlike Hamlet’s gradual process into descent, whose critical point was slower. That is why she plunges into a much deeper madness than Hamlet. Her brother, being far away in France is unable to do anything. Her loneliness thus compounds her sorrow further, leaving her no one to turn to.


Hamlet is a tragic hero and he meets his tragic end not because he was sane or insane. He ends tragically because of his own tragic flaw, procrastination and grief. Whether he was sane or just lost control of his actions both theories support it’s own. The support makes each theory a sensible decision either way. Hamlet was seen as a grief stricken prince until rage and passion developed through stages by sanity and madness. If Hamlet was mad it was unlike that of Ophelia’s. Hers was more conventional madness of the mind, Hamlet was mad of the heart. His madness only came out of the rage and emotion bottled inside him.





Works Cited


Neely, Carol Thomas. `Documents in Madness Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeares


Tragedies and Early Modern Culture, Shakespeare Quarterly 4. (11) 15-8, at 16.


Representing Ophelia Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,


Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York Methuen, 185), 77-4, n1.


Tracy, Robert. The Owl and the Bakers Daughter A Note on Hamlet 4.5.4-4, Shakespeare


Quarterly 17.1 (166) 8-86.


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