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Hamlet's Insanity

Updated on January 27, 2011

Hamlet's Insanity

Is He Really?

            Despite what one may think, there are some things one cannot control including one’s sanity. Madness is complex to discern because it is hidden in the mind, develops slowly over time, and is difficult to prove. Hamlet decides to feign madness in order to discover the truth surrounding his father’s death. The plan goes well until he begins to slowly slide down a dark tunnel causing his mind to spin out of control. What began as an act of insanity or antic disposition becomes less and less an act, until it finally ends up as Hamlet’s reality and tragedy for all.

            The events at the beginning of the play are enough to drive anyone mad. When Hamlet returns home to Denmark, he learns of his father’s death. Not only has his father passed away, but his mother has married Claudius, the brother of the deceased King Hamlet. The castle guards proceed to tell Prince Hamlet that they have seen the King’s ghost. He decides to stand guard one night and the apparition appears. Prince Hamlet immediately recognizes his father’s spirit and converses with it. He learns that his father was brutally murdered by Claudius, in his uncle’s attempt to become King of Denmark. When Prince Hamlet receives this news, he is utterly devastated, vows to avenge his father’s death, and plots to trap Claudius.

As part of his scheme, Hamlet pretends to be insane. He first adopts this behavior to see if the ghost is telling the truth. He says “The spirit that I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power t’ assume a pleasing shape…” (Act 2. Scene 2. lines 627-629). Prince Hamlet is not sure if the apparition is real or a spirit of the devil, but he believes it is the only way he can obtain information to build a case against Claudius.

In the beginning, it seems as though Hamlet has complete control over his mental faculties. In fact, after listening to the ghost’s account of his father’s death, Hamlet says to Horatio and Marcellus, “How strange or odd some’er I bear myself - I perchance hereafter shall think meet, to put an antic disposition on…” (Act 1. Scene 5. lines 191-192). Hamlet lets his friends in on his deliberate intentions to appear insane so they do not need to be concerned. Later on, Polonius refers to Hamlet saying, “…though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t…” (Act 2. Scene 2. lines 223-224). Polonius recognizes that Hamlet is rational in their conversation and that madness is not. Therefore, Polonius doubts Hamlet’s act.

Initially it seems as though Hamlet simply plans to find out what happened to his father, but he may have other reasons for pretending to be mad. He states, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (Act 2. Scene 2. lines 577-578). He wants to exonerate his father’s death, but is a coward. Hamlet knows the importance of having the correct facts because otherwise he may unjustly kill his uncle and have to deal with the consequences. By pretending to be mad, Hamlet can gain details about his father’s death, behave without question, and not be accountable for his actions. In other words, his fake insanity will be his excuse. Yet Hamlet is grief stricken and cannot control himself. He slips into further depression and considers his existence when he asks, “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…” (Act 3. Scene 1. lines 58-59). In this soliloquy Hamlet strongly considers suicide.

Prince Hamlet begins his antic disposition by changing his demeanor from a vigorous youth to an ill-looking man. He is in love with Ophelia and she with him, but her father forbids her from seeing him. She describes Hamlet as being “a soldier” and “a scholar” with “a noble mind”, but as he begins his transformation into feigned insanity, Hamlet becomes extremely rude and someone she no longer recognizes (Act 3. Scene 1. line 64). When Ophelia confronts him about their feelings toward one another, he calls her a whore, her father a fool, and says he never loved her (Act 3. Scene 1. lines 117-162). Ophelia is distraught by Hamlet’s behavior.

One night, after seeing the ghost, Hamlet finds Ophelia, who is astonished at his appearance. She exclaims to her father, Polonius, that Hamlet has “his doublet all unbraced, No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle, pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other, And with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosed out of hell…” (Act 2. Scene 1. lines 88-93). This drastic change from the previous handsome Hamlet scares Ophelia, but is part of Hamlet’s plan. He knows Polonius will relay this story to Claudius hoping to convince him of his madness.

Hamlet’s insanity gradually becomes less and less intentional. He acts irresponsibly with little thought to consequences. In fact, it seems that he does not think about anyone at all. He treats those who are important to him as if they mean nothing. Rational thought slips away when Hamlet curses and bashes Ophelia in act three and later regrets it. When Hamlet confronts Ophelia, says he has no feelings for her, and curses her when he says, “…give his plague for dowry: be as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, shalt not escape calumny…” (Act 3. Scene 1. lines 146-148). These cruel words make it seem like Hamlet has no love for Ophelia. Yet later Hamlet says, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum…” when he argues with Ophelia’s brother about who has the greater love for her (Act 5. Scene 1. lines 285-287). If Hamlet’s madness really is feigned, he would show some respect to those he cares about.

Not only does Hamlet’s hurt Ophelia, but he also offends his mother, Queen Gertrude. She becomes fed up with Hamlet’s attitude and confronts him. It is obvious he has hurt her emotionally when she says, “What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue in noise so rude against me?” (Act 3. Scene 4. lines 47-48). When Hamlet and his mother are talking; he hears a man, Polonius, behind the tapestry and proceeds to murder him without remorse. This Hamlet is extremely different from the one that was introduced at the beginning of the play. The sane Hamlet was kind, respectful, handsome, and behaved responsibly. This mad Hamlet is cruel, impulsive, slovenly and unforgiving.

The king, queen, and Polonius are curious to know if it is Hamlet’s father’s death or break up with Ophelia that is causing his peculiar behavior. Claudius is desperate to find out if Hamlet thinks he committed his father’s murder. Hamlet knows exactly what is happening and that what he says to Ophelia will be relayed to those who are listening. However, Claudius is on to Hamlet’s ruse and decides it is best for all if he goes away.

As Hamlet maintains a thin thread of sanity, he decides to write a play that denounces Claudius and certifies his own insanity to the court. Through all of his trials, Hamlet has not yet avenged his father’s death because he doesn’t want the burden of the consequences. Instead of relying on those who could help him, he disrespects and rejects them. Upon returning to Denmark, Hamlet ventures upon a funeral only to find it is Ophelia’s. Hamlet completely loses touch with reality at this point.

Hamlet’s plan of feigning madness to avenge his father’s death ultimately backfires. Not only does Hamlet offend those he is close to, he directly or indirectly kills them. Hamlet murders Polonius, which leads to Ophelia’s suicide. Laertes is also upset with Hamlet for murdering his father, Polonius, and conspires with King Claudius against Hamlet. When Hamlet’s two very best friends plot against him, he simply has them murdered without a second thought. The plot Laertes creates results in his own death, as well as the deaths of Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, and King Claudius.

What began as Hamlet’s folly of feigned madness becomes his reality. In the end, the insane Hamlet is unaware of the complete and utter chaos that he inflicts on himself and everyone he loves. Instead of controlling his antic disposition, it controls him resulting in tragedy and death.


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