Insanity in Hamlet
Insanity in Hamlet
The issue of insanity is central the plot of Hamlet. The play follows the story of Hamlet, the young Prince of Denmark, who finds out from his father’s ghost that his uncle killed his father and claimed the throne and the queen for himself. Upon this revelation, Hamlet starts to plot the revenge against his uncle the king. In his quest to seek vengeance, Hamlet pretends to be insane. This insanity serves multiple purposes within Hamlet’s plot and eventually contributes towards its success in killing the king. By pretending to be insane, Hamlet is able to mask his real intentions as well as the fact that he is aware of his uncle’s actions and is ultimately successful in his quest for vengeance.
The Question of Insanity in Hamlet
The issue of insanity first comes up in Hamlet in Act I Scene V. In the scene, the ghost of his deceased father confronts Hamlet. Hamlet is initially unsure whether the ghost is actually an apparition of his father or a demon seeking to torment him. However, he does not care about his life and therefore decides to follow the ghost despite the risks. When he finally converses with the ghost, it explains that his uncle killed his father so that he could claim the throne. The ghost compels Hamlet to seek vengeance against Claudius the king and this sets off the main plot in the play. After this confrontation, Horatio and Marcellus arrive at the scene where they find Hamlet looking agitated. He refuses to explain what happened but tells them that he will pretend to be insane. Hamlet then forces his friends to swear that they will not reveal the truth about his sanity to anyone.
Hamlet’s main reason for feigning insanity is to find out the truth about his father’s death. Hamlet is an educated young prince and this affects the nature of his personality in many ways. One of the most significant effects of his education is that it makes him a person who is very thoughtful. In most situations, Hamlet seeks to appeal to reason and logic more than to anything else. After he finds out about his uncle’s exploits, he chooses to delay any course of action until he is sure that Claudius is guilty of murder. The madness plays a role in this plot as it allows Hamlet to seek the truth without any obstacles and intrusions. Indeed, Hamlet’s perceived insanity leads his companions and family to believe that he is yet to recover from the grief of losing his father. This misperception serves Hamlet well as none of the people in the castle are aware of his true intentions towards his uncle, Claudius. Additionally, Hamlet understands that his conversations with Ophelia are relayed to Polonius, Claudius and Gertrude who are using her to spy on him. He uses this to his advantage until he stages the play that finally helps him confirm that Claudius killed the king.
Hamlet’s feigned insanity also helps him deceive Polonius, Claudius and Gertrude. Initially, Hamlet is well in control of his actions and the state of his condition is solely the result of his act. Understanding that Claudius, Polonius and Gertrude are spying on him, Hamlet takes advantage of the situation and uses Ophelia to relay false information to them. Hamlet achieves this by making sure that Ophelia sees in compromising situations, with a good example being the disheveled state in which she saw him after one of his encounters with the ghost. As Ophelia passes this information to Polonius and the royal couple, she unknowingly plays into Hamlet’s plan. This allows Hamlet to proceed with his quest for the truth as Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius are preoccupied with their concern for his safety.
Hamlet’s act is successful as various characters soon begin to question Hamlet’s sanity. In act II scene II, Ophelia goes to Lord Polonius and describes an encounter with Hamlet in which he appeared to be in a poor state. Ophelia explains that Hamlet had, “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;” (Hamlet act 2 scene 1 lines 77-8). Hamlet’s condition is a cause for concern for both Ophelia and Lord Polonius. Lord Polonius soon concludes that Hamlet is mad because of his love for Ophelia saying that Ophelia’s rejections of his advances “made him mad” (Hamlet act 2 scene 1 line 109). Eventually, Claudius and Queen Gertrude are convinced of Hamlet’s declining sanity and have his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, visit the prince in the hope that it will help him recover.
Hamlet’s act of feigning insanity is made more compelling by that fact the he sometimes switches between rationality and madness. Before the death of his father, Hamlet was a student. This involvement in scholarly activities had made Hamlet a person who always appealed to reason and logic. Indeed, when he first sees the ghost of his deceased father, his initial reaction is to question that which he had seen as he wonders whether he saw an apparition or a demon trying to trick him. The play further alludes to Hamlet rationality and reason when he delays any act of revenge until he is completely sure that Claudius was the man who killed the king. Hamlet’s appeal to reason and logic borders on an obsession that is only quelled after he sees Claudius’ reaction to the play. Hamlet’s ability to switch between madness and reason leaves some characters baffled as they question the nature of his insanity. This confusion is made obvious when Lord Polonius muses, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t” (Hamlet act 2 scene 2 line 201). Polonius makes this observation after he has a conversation with Hamlet about the book the latter is reading, in which Hamlet shows reason and understanding in relation to his activity.
Despite the fact that Hamlet is initially pretending to be insane, his erratic actions imply that there is an element of truth to his madness. The sane Hamlet is a kind and caring person who is polite to the people around him. This personality endeared Hamlet to the people in the castle, winning him many friends. However, the insane Hamlet is impulsive, abusive and disrespectful. Though the insanity starts as an act, it soon overwhelms Hamlet, as he insults even the people about whom he cares. In act III scene I, Hamlet insults Ophelia, telling her to, “marry a fool; for wise men know well enough / what monsters you make of them” but later reveals that he actually has strong feelings for her (Hamlet act 3 scene 1 lines 151-2). This implies that Hamlet is losing grip of his sanity and is no longer in full control of his actions. The later is confirmed when Hamlet stabs Polonius, who was hiding behind a curtain in Gertrude’s room. Though Hamlet thought that Claudius was the one behind the curtain, the erratic and unreasonable nature of his insanity sees him stab the person hiding without looking to see who it was.
Insanity is a key theme in Hamlet. The situation starts out with Hamlet pretending to be insane so that he can find out the truth about his father, but ends up with the young prince seemingly losing his mind. Through his insanity, Hamlet alienates himself to Ophelia and kills her father but eventually discovers the truth about Claudius murder of the late king. The way the situation plays out strongly suggests that the insanity in Hamlet was a latent issue that came out following his long running act and the pressure of his quest for vengeance. Ultimately, Hamlet’s feigned insanity helps him avenge the murder of his father but at great cost to him, his family and his friends.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet: 1676. London: Cornmarket Press, 1969. Print.
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