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Shakespeare's Hamlet is the tragic play about a son seeking revenge for the murder of his father. Hamlet's father, the late king of Denmark, is murdered by Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who then marries Hamlet's mother. Finding out the true nature of his father's death, Hamlet sets out to avenge his father's murder. In acting with all the passion of an avenging son, Hamlet is perceived to be mad by his peers, and the King and Queen. Thus the question arises, is Hamlet insane? Insane can be defined as one who is utterly senseless or/and when one is irrational, one is not governed by or according to reason. There are three paths of interpretation one can take with this line of reasoning: Hamlet is totally and completely insane, Hamlet is somewhat mad, but still somewhat in control, or Hamlet is totally insane, and absolutely in control. With a cursory examination of the evidence, the first two options seem quite viable, but with further attention, the true condition of Hamlet's mental facilities becomes clear. There is evidence from virtually every character in the play that Hamlet is less then sane. In fact, a major portion of the book is given to Hamlet's insanity, with several characters being given the sole task of determining Hamlet's sanity, or lack thereof.
Their conclusion: Hamlet is insane. The first character to notice Hamlet's odd behavior is Polonius, the father of Ophelia, Hamlet's love. Polonius comes to the King (Claudius) and Queen with the news that their "noble son is mad." Polonius first begins to believe this when he intercepts a love letter intended for Ophelia, and wonders why a high Prince like Hamlet should be interested in his lowly daughter. In subsequent conversations with Hamlet, Polonius comes to the conclusion that Hamlet is mad with love and anguish over his father's death. Polonius explains that he sees Hamlet experiencing the classic stages of the declination into love-madness--"And he, repelled, fell into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watch, thence into weakness, thence to (a) lightness, and, by this declension, into the madness wherein now he raves, and all we mourn for." (91) In conversations with Hamlet, Polonius notes that Hamlet makes replies with "a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and (sanity) could not so prosperously be delivered of." (97) In seeing Hamlet "rave" in a state of happiness only obtainable through irrationality and senselessness, Polonius concludes that Hamlet must be starting to go insane with love.
Ophelia also begins to believe that Hamlet is going mad. Hamlet goes from treating her with great tenderness, to telling her she is a whore, and he does not love her. Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia can definitely be considered irrational, and without logic. In a letter to Ophelia, Hamlet declares his love by saying "doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love." These words sound like those of a romantic and dedicated lover, and yet, Hamlet turns around and acts with complete coldness at their next meeting. Only a few days later, Hamlet denounces his love, and accuses Ophelia of being dishonest, saying: "I did love you once...I love you not...if thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou salt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery [mockingly meaning a brothel], 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." (133) this is quite a contrast from Hamlet's request for Ophelia to "never doubt [he] loves." When asked by Polonius, her father, whether she thinks Hamlet is "mad for thy love?ââ‚¬Â Ophelia answered, "I truly do fear it." (79) By any measure, Hamlet's treatment of his love Ophelia defies logic, and thus can be considered quite irrational.
Claudius and the Queen come to a stronger conclusion than Polonius and Ophelia. They do not suspect Hamlet to be insane, or somewhat mad, as the other two do, but instead are sure that Hamlet is totally and completely insane. To be sure of this, they employ Hamlet's two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to talk with Hamlet, and find out conclusively whether or not he is insane, and if so, the cause of his insanity. 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. (123) The Queen is the one to discover the conclusive evidence showing Hamlet's insanity. Hamlets own mother cries out alas, he's mad after Hamlet kills Polonius and begins talking to unseen ghosts. (177) The Queen describes Hamlet as being "mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is mightier." (189) a mother's assessment of a child's sanity is a hard thing to contend with. Who knows Hamlet better than his own mother?
The answer to this question is, of course, the reader. Only the reader knows Hamlet better than the other characters within the play. To find the true nature of Hamlet's sanity, Hamlet is the source to which one must look for information. Polonius, the unapproving father of a supposedly innocent daughter, has a motive in accusing Hamlet of being insane. He does not want his daughter caught up in the passing fancy of the Prince and aside from this motive; Polonius seems to dislike Hamlet's personality as well. Thus looking upon the words of Polonius as gospel, or the words of any other character, for that matter, is unfair to Hamlet. It is Hamlet's sanity that is on trial, so let us look at Hamlet. Hamlet's changed behavior is the major reason why the people around Hamlet fear he is losing his sanity. They speculate that Hamlet's loss of his father and his love for Ophelia has pushed him over the edge. Hamlet's rants and "raves" are used as the primary evidence of his insanity. For several years preceding the murder of his father, Hamlet has been in school at the university in Wittenberg. Thus the characters within the play have no better basis of comparison than readers have when analyzing Hamlet's behavior, because they have not seen Hamlet for several years, and it is quite possible he changed during this time. So the argument that the characters knew him before, and therefore can make a better assessment of his health than readers can, is a moot point. Furthermore, his past several years of education have most likely sharpened his wit, and his perceptions of reality. Thus in returning to Denmark, it is not surprising he acts somewhat differently.
In reading the words that are exchanged between Hamlet and other characters, it becomes quite clear that Hamlet plays mental games with those he does not like, namely Polonius. Hamlet attempts to make fun of people using sarcasm and other forms of jest in order to make the other person look silly. To the person being made fun of, this often comes off as being incoherent, or illogical. At one point in the play, Hamlet and Polonius have a series of exchanges that seem harmless and inconsequential, but they are a prime example of the ways in which Hamlet continually makes fun of everyone around him who he dislikes:
Hamlet: My lord, you played [in the theatre] once in the university, you say?
Polonius: That I did, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet: What did you enact?
Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed in the Capitol. Brutus killed me.
Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there...
in this exchange, Polonius is bragging about his acting exploits while Hamlet mocks him. Using a play on words, Hamlet replies that it was "a brute part of [Brutus] to kill so capital a calf there [in the Capitol]..." Hamlet is thus making fun of Polonius's claims at being a good actor by sarcastically saying that was harsh of Brutus to kill such an important young cow as Polonius. Throughout the play, Polonius and Hamlet have such exchanges, dueling back and forth mentally with Hamlet always winning decisively, and Polonius often leaving confused or unaware.
Also making Hamlet seem somewhat shady is his constant struggle with how to react to his father's call for revenge. He cannot decide "whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against the sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them." (127) Hamlet's indecisiveness makes him squirm, and uncomfortable. Hamlet cannot decide whether no action makes him a coward, or action would make him a villain like Pyrrhus, the murderer of Priam. Hamlet does not know who he can trust, or what course of action to take. Being alone in such a situation, it is quite easy to understand why Hamlet might act somewhat differently than normal.
But despite any eccentricities that Hamlet might show, his ability to reason and use logic are quite sound throughout the play. Hamlet acts out of grief and passion, but always with reason as the foundation of his actions. This can be clearly seen in Hamlet's approach to the news that his fatherââ‚¬â„¢s ghost brings him. In the beginning of the play, the ghost of Hamlet's father comes to Hamlet to tell him the true nature of Claudius' accession to the throne. This surprises Hamlet. The ghost explains that Claudius murdered him while he slept in his orchard by pouring a lethal poison in his ear. Hamlet is understandably shaken by the experience of having the ghost of his dead father come talk to him; accordingly, he does not jump to conclusions. Rather than immediately following the words of the ghost and exacting a Pyrrhus-like revenge, Hamlet decides he must have some evidence to show the true nature of Claudius' guilt--very logical indeed. In a series of well-planned and well-reasoned steps, Hamlet employs a company of actors to reenact his father's death for the royal assembly. By watching the reaction of Claudius, Hamlet reasons that he will be able to conclusively determine his uncle's part in the murder. But Hamlet does not just leave it up to himself to determine his uncle's guilt, for he also employs his friend Horatio to obtain a second opinion. Hamlet explains to Horatio: "There is a play tonight before the King. Once scene of it comes near the circumstance which I have told thee of my father's death. I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot, even with the very comment of thy sole, observe my uncle...For I mine eyes will rivet to his face, and, after, we will both our judgments join in censure of his seeming." (141) Hamlet does not want to condemn Claudius without a second opinion. All these plans and safeguards which Hamlet so craftily puts into place are clear evidence of an individual whose mental facilities are in good order. If Hamlet was "utterly senseless, and irrational" he would have simply killed Claudius without a second thought. He would not have bothered meticulously making sure that the ghost was telling the truth. In possibly an even greater act of reason and restraint, Hamlet stays his sword from action when given the chance to kill Claudius at prayer. Having found Claudius guilty and solidified himself toward action rather than restraint, Hamlet comes upon Claudius at prayer, sees his chance to avenge his father. But then, in an act of clear logic, he stops to think about his actions. "Now might I do it (pat,) now he is a-praying, and now Ill do it". [He draws his sword] And so he goes to heaven, and so am I (revenged). That would be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven. Why, this is (hire) and (salary,) not revenge." (167) Hamlet realizes that if he kills Claudius while at prayer, "when he is fit and seasoned for
his passage," he would not be getting revenge, but rather doing Claudius a favor. So, using his reason, and logic, Hamlet decides to wait until Claudius is in the act of sin, and then get his revenge. "When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in the' incestuous pleasure of his bed...or about some act that has no relish of salvation in 't--then trip him, that his heals may kick at heaven, and that his soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes." (169) Hamlet plainly sees that the only way to send Claudius to "hell" is to catch him in the act of sin. This would not be the conclusion and action of an irrational man.
The final question a reader must deal with in finding the nature of Hamlet's sanity is the issue of Ophelia. How could a rational person treat Ophelia as Hamlet does? One minute he says he loves her, and will love her forever, while the next minute he tells her she is a whore, and he loves her not. The answer to this question is that love is a pursuit that is neither rational nor logical. Love is governed by the heart, and thus is difficult to explain. Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia is irrational, and illogical, but this does not make Hamlet insane. Hamlet is confused and angry over his father's death, and adding to this, Polonius tells his daughter not to speak to Hamlet. All these factors together help explain why Hamlet treats Ophelia as he does.
In fact, Ophelia's model is a good foundation from which to define insanity. There is no question that Ophelia goes insane after her father is killed, and Hamlet leaves. After going mad, Ophelia no longer speaks in regular sentences but sings in verse that has coherent no meaning. She does not even recognize or acknowledge her own brother when he comes to her; instead she walks around giving people flowers, and not making any sense whatsoever. In comparison, Hamlet speaks in regular sentences, and is able to converse normally with those around him. With much thought, and careful planning, Hamlet searches for evidence to determine the truth about his father's murder. And with this in hand, he departs on a path to avenge his father that is both reasonable and rational. While Hamlet might not carry the best of luck with him throughout the play, he certainly holds onto his mental integrity and ability to reason through challenges.