Hamlet’s situation in the play concerning family and love for Ophelia is obviously going to affect him, however the term madness has been questioned as too dramatic and perhaps a more accurate condition to describe Hamlet’s behaviour is melancholic behaviour. Melancholic behaviour is a condition causing emotional insanity accompanied by extreme depression. Many incidents and speeches of Hamlet are similar to melancholic behaviour:
King: ” Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul,
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.
(Act 3, Scene 1)
Although this term is not commonly used these days, in the past and still in Shakespeare’s period melancholic behaviour was a recognised condition.
Further support that melancholic behaviour was commonly termed in the 16th century comes from Timothy Bright’s: ‘Treatise of Melancholy’ (1586):
” The perturbations of melancholy are for the most part sad and fearful…as distrust, doubt, diffidence or despair sometimes furious and sometimes merry in appearance, through a kind of sardonic and false laughter as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversions.
Therefore not only would Shakespeare be familiar with this behaviour but the audience of the time would also identify it.
This condition could be identified by symptoms Hamlet shows for example, Hamlet with good reason displays suits of woe, he sighs and his:
‘dejected ‘haviour of the visage’
(Act 1, scene 2)
In particular after Hamlet has spoken to his father’s ghost he begins to feel paranoid, he even distrusts the ghost at first not only that but the purity of Ophelia and his own inability to act.
Other relevant symptoms include the fury towards his Mother because of her marriage and his sardonic joking with the players from ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The theory of melancholic behaviour is suggestible and rational especially as it was a recognised condition at the time the play was written, however, it doesn’t explain enough of Hamlet’s behaviour or the language, which is used to portray it.
In some parts of the play Hamlet talks to other characters and appears to be ‘mad’ when he is obviously not. For example in Act 2, scene 2 Hamlet seems to patronize Polonius by answering his questions in a way he is clearly in control of:
Polonius: “Do you know me my Lord?”
Hamlet: “Excellent well, you are a fishmonger,”
Hamlet obviously knows Polonius, but as Polonius has asked him this question as if he were mad Hamlet answers as if he were mad, but clearly just to humour him. This is supported by Hamlet’s statement as Polonius leaves the room:
“These tedious old fools”
Hamlet also taunts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and leads them astray by what they realise as, “Crafty madness”. To add to this the way in which Hamlet expresses his feelings to his Mother all suggest his behaviour and the way he talks to people isn’t madness but excuse to act how he feels and speak his mind in a court where no one speaks the truth.
This style of Hamlet’s is allusively presented in his language which also through his ‘madness’ is allowed to be more rich and creative rather than aristocratic like the other characters. Hamlet uses many proverbial sayings and puns in the play.
The authenticity of Hamlet’s madness is a mystery that cannot be solved, this is perhaps why the play is enjoyed by the audience so much, the huge sense of mystery and uncertainty surrounding Hamlet’s madness is a main attraction of the play.
It is possible that Hamlet is suffering from madness of some sort as my essay suggests perhaps ‘melancholic behaviour’, or the anger and jealousy Hamlet feels is just too much for him to conceal. However it is also possible that Hamlet’s behaviour is ‘madness’ put on by himself, there is evidence to support this theory as everyone in the play who states that Hamlet is mad has like himself got reason to imply this.
Hamlet has stated that he would consider putting on an ‘antic disposition’ as a disguise to conceal his revenge plot against Claudius.
It is also a very significant point that the play of Hamlet is not a true story and consequently Hamlet is not a real character/personality in real life, therefore Shakespeare was able to present him and make him seem however, he wished to. It is possible and likely that Shakespeare intended to present Hamlet’s madness in this ambiguous way giving almost equal reason for Hamlet to be genuinely mad as there is for him to be ‘acting mad.’
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