Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Story of Ages Depicting Madness and Sanity of a Society
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become a story for the ages. The play, written sometime between 1599 and 1601, has been produced thousands of times on stage and has been adapted into countless musicals, films, ballets, and moreover the past four centuries. The story behind Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been around for a longer than the play, predating it by more than 500years. The purpose of this essay is to discuss if Hamlet is truly mad or is just merely acting to be mad.
In this play, we are introduced to hamlet’s character as a sad protagonist. He has just returned from school and has been informed that his father has deceased and his uncle Claudius has taken his mother’s hand in marriage. I think hamlet is not mad is just pretending to be mad because Throughout Shakespeare’s play, the main character, Hamlet, is confronted with the obligation of attaining vengeance for his father’s murder. He decides to feign madness as part of his plan to gain the opportunity to kill Claudius. As the play progresses, his depiction of a madman becomes increasingly believable, and the characters around him react accordingly. However, through his inner thoughts and the apparent reasons for his actions, it is clear that he is not really mad and is simply an actor simulating insanity in order to fulfill his duty to his father.
Evidence of Hamlet’s sanity appears in several scenes. In the (fifth scene of Act I), Hamlet says, “How strange or odd some I bear myself”. He is telling Horatio that he plans to behave like a crazy person so that he has the freedom to determine if Claudius is responsible for his father’s death. Acting like a madman would make him appear as less of a threat, drawing attention away from his investigation. Both Claudius and Polonius admit that Hamlet’s actions, while odd, do not seem to be related to genuine madness. Polonius even says, “Though this is madness, yet there is method isn’t,” indicating that there seems to be a reason for Hamlet’s strange behavior. Finally, Hamlet only behaves like a madman when he is around certain characters. His madness appears when he is with Claudius, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Gertrude. Hamlet behaves normally when he is with Francisco, Bernardo, and Horatio. If he were truly mad, he would not be able to maintain such precise control over his behavior.
Hamlet acts perfectly sane when acting insane is unnecessary. When he talks to Horatio about watching Claudius for signs of guilt during the play, he says “Give him a heedful note, for I mine eyes will rivet his face, and, after, we will both our judgments join in censure of his seeming (ACT3, Scene 2.87)”. His words to Horatio are those of a sane man. Horatio is one of the few people to whom he does not need to prove he is “insane,” and as such, he does not try. Also, when he is explaining to the players how to act, he is surprisingly organized and natural sounding. For example, he asks “You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in ‘t, could you not (2.2.565)?” His question is direct and simple as all his instructions are, and it seems that the player not only understands completely but also is comfortable with Hamlet and what he asks. It is much more plausible that a sane man could play an insane one than an insane man could play a sane one, and so reason would deem Hamlet sensible.
Additional proof that Hamlet must be sane is that even in his “madness” he is clever in his retorts and speech, and has a full understanding of the situations around him. He plays his madman character almost too well, and each phrase he utters appears to be an attempt towards conveying his madness or confusing his adversaries. Not one of his remarks, although laden with hidden meanings, made to Claudius for example, is a normal statement that would not be considered insane. When he talks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not only is Hamlet clever enough to realize their true purpose for visiting, he tells them he is not really mad – in a manner that would be considered insane! “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw. (2.2.401). Hamlet is able to toy with his two friends through his illusory madness and, thus, free from their questioning, able to maintain the secrecy of his thoughts and goals. Later, he is even able to have them killed in his place using his father’s seal, through the method cunning for even a sane man, let alone an insane one. In fact, Hamlet, in the same conversation with Polonius mentioned above, is so creative in his responses made to convey a countenance of madness that Polonius remarks on their ingenuity. “Though this is madness, yet there is method isn’t (ACT 2, Scene 2.223)”. Hamlet’s wit and role-playing of a madman combine to make too witty of an exaggerated madman, for him to actually be insane.
Most importantly, Hamlet does not think as a person who is mad would. When he sees Claudius praying he thinks very logically and realizes that he will not attain full revenge if he kills Claudius and sends him to heaven. “Now might I do it, now he is a-praying, and now I’ll do’t? And so he goes to heaven, and so am I revenged…A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven (Act 3, Scene3.77)”. His thoughts to himself are common sense, follow a logical progression, and are in no way jumbled or erratic in nature. He is a sane man acting only for the audience around him. In each of his soliloquies, he thinks through the same inner debate a sane man would. For instance, he realizes that his father’s ghost may have been a devil in disguise and so he plans to watch the king during the play he has engineered for his own means. “I’ll have these players Play something like the murder of my father Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks; I’ll tent him to the quick…The spirit that I have seen maybe a devil… (2.2.623)”. Hamlet even goes further to ask Horatio to watch with him in case he is biased. I think a madman would not have had the foresight, reason, or possibly even care, to think in this very organized fashion. Even when questioning whether “to be or not to be (3.1.64)” Hamlet is sane in his thinking. He measures the “pros and cons” of his situation, and although at this point he appears mad to most everyone, he is most definitely sane in thought.
Another piece of evidence that points towards Hamlet’s sanity is that he reveals to his mother in Act 3 scene IV that he is not in madness, but mad in craft (Hamlet, Act 3. Scene 4 Lines 187-188). This is an admission to his mother that he is feigning his insanity, and he asks her mother that not to reveal this to Claudius so that he can continue to use his true purpose. Unfortunately for Hamlet, Claudius himself does not believe that Hamlet is insane. Another piece of evidence pointed out by Alexander Crawford in his analysis of the play is that Hamlet maintains his humor throughout the play. He argues that Shakespeare was too good a judge of character…to mingle such humor with madness; Even in his false bouts of insanity, Hamlet maintains his witty banter with other characters and because humor and madness do not travel the same road. Hamlet can surely only be demonstrating one of these two qualities of humor. Hamlet remains sane throughout the entire play and uses his false insanity as a way of tricking Claudius and his cohorts. At no point during the play does Hamlet display sings of actually being insane, he simply uses the false pretense of insanity to attempt to achieve his goal of revenge.
Also, another piece of evidence is in (Act 1, Scene 5) when Hamlet plans on acting mad to confuse his enemies and who are his real friends. I know the good king and queen have sent for you. Hamlet instantly knows that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not playing a social visit to Hamlet, but was in fact sent as spices for the former king of Denmark to find out the cause of his sudden madness. Hamlet immediately knows that he cannot trust his former school friends and that he must take caution in what he says when is around them both. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern talk with Hamlet but with a crafty madness (Hamlet) keeps aloof and they are unable to find the cause for his odd behavior. Hamlet’s true intellect is brought out in Act 3, scene 2 when he plans on putting on a play. If his occulted guilt does not itself uncannily in on speech Hamlet only claims madness because it allows him to say and perform actions he otherwise would be prohibited from, while keeping people from taking his actions seriously. This seems to be part of his initial plan that is first mentioned when he asks Horatio and Marcellus not to make any remarks in relation to his “antic disposition (ACT 1, Scene 5.192)”. Hamlet’s madness allows him to talk to Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Polonius in a manner unsuitable for a prince. He is often disrespectful and insulting in his remarks.
Although his acting backfires during his speech to Gertrude, Hamlet is able to severely criticize her for her actions because she thinks he is insane. During the play, he also makes many sexual innuendos and even blatantly sexual remarks towards Ophelia such as “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs (ACT 3, Scene 2.125)”. His convincing insanity act gives him the chance to vent his anger towards Ophelia for her abandonment. Similarly, in another scene, he is able to tell Polonius his true feelings through his guise. Upon Polonius deciding to “take leave” of Hamlet, Hamlet replies, “You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal (ACT 2, Scene 2.233)”. Furthermore, Hamlet uses his madness as almost an excuse, and definitely part of his apology, towards Lacerates for his murdering of Polonius. Would a madman be able to realize he was mad and call his actions uncontrollable? Were it not for his “madness” he would have been reprimanded rather than feared, pitied, or ignored. Hamlet’s madness redirects attention away from what he is thinking about his father’s death and puts it on why he has gone insane. This allows only himself to know what he is truly thinking, does not require him to answer any questions as to why he might be acting strange and allows him to continue to plan his assault on Claudius. His plan to maintain the appearance of a madman is an ingenious one, and the fact that he does a good job in his portrayal only makes him more ingenious, not more insane.
In conclusion, Hamlet can be considered no worse than an eccentric, determined, and possibly single-minded man, who was made so by his father’s murder and his request for revenge. His feigned madness is maintained because it allows him to continue with his plans. This madness is not, however, sustained when the guard is unnecessary.
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