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Hamlet's Madness: Is Hamlet Mad?

Updated on March 27, 2016
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's Degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Hamlet's Madness: Hamlet is taking Ophelis by her wrist and advises her to go to nunnery instead of getting married.
Hamlet's Madness: Hamlet is taking Ophelis by her wrist and advises her to go to nunnery instead of getting married. | Source

Hamlet's Madness: Is Hamlet Mad?

Hamlet’s madness is an enigma to critics as wells as to the readers. We cannot decide precisely as to whether Hamlet’s madness is real or feigned. There are many situations in the play, which suggest that Hamlet madness is feigned. Bradley says in this regard, "Hamlet is not mad, he is fully responsible for his actions. But he suffers from melancholia a pathological state which may develop into lunacy. His melancholy accounts for his nervous excitability, his longing for death, his irresolution and delay.” Let’s play the devil's advocate:

Hamlet’s Madness is Feigned

If we closely observe the character of Hamlet and the environment around him, we will come to know that his madness is feigned and it is not based on reality. Stopford Brooke says in this regard, “The fact is that Shakespeare never intended to represent Hamlet as mad or half-mad, or verging on madness. Shakespeare expressly made Hamlet a feigner of madness, and when he wished to represent real madness and to contrast it with feigned madness; he created the real madness of Ophelia, and did it with wonderful truth and skill. There is not a trace of madness in Hamlet.” In Act I, Scene V, Hamlet tells Horatio and others that from now onward he shall behave like a mad:

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd so e’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet,
To put an antic disposition on……..

The above-mentioned lines clearly show that Hamlet is going to act as a lunatic person so that he may be able to find out whether the words of the ghost and the murder committed by Claudius are based on reality or it is just the product of his hallucination. His feigned madness provides him a great opportunity to find out the reality. Deighton asserts that “In every single instance in which Hamlet’s madness is manifested , he has good reason for assuming that madness: while, on the other hand , whenever there was no need to hoodwink anyone, his thought, language and action, bear no resemblance to unsoundness of intellect”

Hamlet's Madness
Hamlet's Madness | Source

Hamlet’s madness is feigned on the ground that, on various occasions, he is seen in a good temper. His usage of phrases and ideas are not like that of an insane man. He rarely talks in a manner that compels us to say that Hamlet’s madness is real. In the Closet Scene, Hamlet tells his mother:

That I essentially am not in madness
But mad in craft.

King Claudius also suspects the very behavior of Hamlet. He says,

Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger:

Hamlet's Madness
Hamlet's Madness | Source

To prove the words of the ghost, Hamlet is going to stage a mock-play. Such an action is not a symptom of madness. No mad person can handle such things. Moreover, Hamlet also directs the actors about the play they are going to enact before the King. Hamlet also tells his friend, Horatio, to keep an eye on the King to catch his conscience. Is it possible for a mad man to act like this? No, never. No man can manage such a play other than a man of sense and intellect. Even Guildenstern and Rosencrantz do not think that Hamlet is mad. They describe his behaviour as a “crafty madness.” Hamlet himself confirms it by saying that “I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hand-saw.”

In the Closet Scene, Hamlet convinces her mother in such a manner that she is compellet to accept her guilt. She says:

O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

Hamlet’s comments on the art of acting are so effective and precise that such kinds of statements could not have come from the lips of an insane man. He advises the actors in the following manner:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness..…….

Polonius is so much impressed with the replies of Hamlet that he remarks:

“ How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness his on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.”

Hamlet’s Madness is Real

Many critics are of the opinion that Hamlet’s madness is real on the basis of some grounds. There are many instances in the play, which suggest that Hamlet is really mad. Though, in the beginning of the play, he tells his friends that he is going to pretend as mad, yet due to the circumstances, his melancholic nature and grief over hasty marriage of his mother bring about drastic changes in his mental behaviour. Look at the following lines taken from Act II, Scene I, wherein Ophelia gives an account of the strange behaviour of Hamlet:

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
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
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.

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She also tells her father that he took her by hand and took such a sigh, which was “so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk.” Polonius, when hears her statement about the strange behavior of Hamlet, concludes that the strange behavior of Hamlet is due to disappointment in love. Polonius calls his strange behaviour as “the very ecstasy of love.” Consider the following lines taken from Act II, Scene II; wherein Hamlet calls Polonius as fishmonger and Polonius is convinced that Hamlet has gone mad:

How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter.
Yet he knew me not at first.
He said I was a fishmonger. He is far
gone, far gone!

In the nunnery scene, Hamlet insults Ophelia in the same manner as he insulted her earlier in the play. He advises her not to marry but to go to nunnery.

“If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry. Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go. Farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell.”

This strange behaviour of Hamlet convinces Ophelia that he has really gone mad. She expresses her grief over the mental ailment of Hamlet in the following words:

Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!—
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,……
Oh, woe is me,
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Final Thoughts on Hamlet’s Madness

Keeping in view the above-mentioned proofs from the play, it is clearly vivid that Hamlet’s madness is feigned and he is not mad in reality. There are numerous examples in the play, which can support our view that Hamlet’s madness is feigned.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Interesting hub. I enjoy reading aloud some of the lines you have included here.

    • Rafiq23 profile image
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      Muhammad Rafiq 2 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Aesta for stopping by and commenting!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      I have always found Hamlet difficult to read, because Shakespeare was so accurate in describing the descent into madness, whether feigned or not. An interesting hub, thank you

    • Rafiq23 profile image
      Author

      Muhammad Rafiq 2 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Harrison for stopping by and commenting. Have a nice time!

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      Mufeed Al-Abdullah 16 months ago

      I agree to the material in the video. However, let me add that Hamlet;s feigned madness is a technique to test the story related by the Ghost about the murder of his father. Originally, he is sad because of his mother's rush to marriage, but he at the time of marriage ceremony does not have the input about his father's murder. So when the Ghost reports the story of the crime, Hamlet finds it necessary to verify this story. This need for verification stems from his initial suspicion of the Ghost, which could be an evil spirit intending to mislead him, or it couls be a good spirit to guide him to fulfill his duties as a gentleman by revenging the death of his father.

      Shakespeare never leaves an occasion in the play to remind us that Hamlet's madness is fake and he is only acting upon the other characters except Horatio, who is aware of this antic disposition he assumes. We can see evidence of that when he talks to Polonius in the famous exchange in Act II, Scene ii, or his conversation with his mother in the closet scene, among others.

      Real madness as the video points out is that of Ophelia after the murder of her father.

      It worth mentioning also is that Hamlet acting mad is integral to the theme that Hamlet is a play about playing and acting. Almost all characters act upon Hamlet for different reasons. However, he outshines them all in acting mad. Nevertheless, his madness does not succeed in verifying the story of the Ghost. So he utilizes the power of drama to outshine every other character and achieve his goal of verifying the the truth about the murder of his father. He uses the professional German theater group visiting Denmark to enact the story of the Ghost in the play-within-play. He also plays the roles of actor, director, playwright, critic and audience during the Mouse-Trap scene. This shows the power of drama in showing the falsity of natural life.

      Let me add another idea connected to Hamlet's show of madness. In Hamlet, Shakespeare maps the components of human existence: the body, mind, psyche, and the soul. These components are discussed and analyzed fully in the play. The human mind, for instance, is discussed after the departure of the Ghost in the speech when Hamlet talks about memory and what we keep in our memory. Then in the pretended madness of Hamlet which he affects by changing his dress, changing his language, and behavior. Then more is said about the loss of reason in the words of Ophelia in response to her first encounter with him after he puts the antic disposition on. Shakespeare later shows genuine madness in the case of Ophelia.

      Reading the play carefully, we find a lot about the human body, soul, and psyche under Shakespeare's scrutiny.

      I am sorry for the long comment, but I wanted to share that much about a play that I have taught for scores of times at university.

    • Rafiq23 profile image
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      Muhammad Rafiq 16 months ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Mufeed for stopping by and commenting. Have a nice time.

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