In William Shakespeares play Hamlet, there are many profound yet controversial themes that occur repeatedly throughout the play. One of the most controversially debated themes throughout history is the theme of Hamlets madness. The question comes up over and over again if Hamlet is sane or insane. Hamlets life events, from the death of his father to the death of his lover, can be enough to push anyone to the edge of sanity and fall into insanity. The theme of madness is crucial to the plot and character development throughout the whole play. Madness is essentially introduced by Hamlet to carry out his plan of revenge. Hamlet puts on an act of insanity; however, mentally he is sane.
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First of all, there are many occasions where Hamlet says he is not crazy, but just acting as if he was. After Hamlet has talked to the ghost, he says: “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet, To put an antic disposition on” (1.5. 179-180). This quote is very important because Hamlet reveals that from now on, he will have an “antic deposition” on. When his friends see him he will be acting crazy but will actually be pretending. The antic disposition is part of Hamlets brilliant plan to see if Claudius did kill his father, and take revenge. Hamlet is very smart, because for someone who just recently lost his father, acting crazy, or a bit “off” would seem normal, and no one will think he is actually preparing to take vengeance on the king. Another very important quote is when he is talking to Gertrude, he says: “I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft” (3.4.189-190). Here Hamlet is telling his mother that he is only pretending to be mad, but essentially is not crazy. A lot of people will say that those who are crazy will constantly be telling people that they are not crazy. If this is the case, then those who are actually not crazy will be telling people that they are, however this is wrong. He also tells Gertrude not to tell King Claudius because then there is no point of his whole antic disposition act. Hamlet is only pretending to be crazy, but when it comes down to it he knows what is right and what is going on. He tells Rozencrantz and Guildestern: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know hawk from a handsaw” (2.2 368-369). When Hamlet decides not to kill King Claudius while he is praying shows that he is not crazy and can act and think rationally. Sure one can say that just because someone is crazy doesn’t mean they cannot think rationally, however, Hamlet killed Polonius in a fit of madness, and since his madness is caused by Claudius killing his father, the same madness would take over Hamlet and would kill Claudius the chance he had. There was no better chance to kill King Claudius then while he was on his knees, vulnerably praying. He did not even know Hamlet was standing behind him with his sword raised. This shows that Hamlet is sane because of his ability to make rational decisions quickly without doubting himself. He is fully in control of his mental and physical state.
It is true that Hamlet wears the mask of insanity only in front of certain people, however even they believe that his madness is not shear madness but has a reason to it: “Though it lacked form a little, was not like madness” (3.1. 163-165). It looks like Hamlets antic disposition act worked perfectly because he has King Claudius believe his words are crazy; however there is a reason to them. Polonius also says: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (2.2.203-204). This quote clearly shows that Hamlet is crazy, but there is reason behind his craziness, and sure enough there is. Lately, Hamlets life is tragic event followed by another. First he finds out his father passed away, and then the ghost tells Hamlet that it was Hamlets Uncle Claudius who killed him, and to top it off his mother has married his Uncle Claudius, the murderer and king. Not only that, but he dumps his girlfriend and pretends not to love her only to find out that she committed suicide mostly because of him. Hamlets life has only gone from bad to worse, and worse to devastating. After all these horrific events, to go crazy would be an understatement. When Hamlet received the news of his father’s murder, he did what anyone would do in his situation. He puts on the antic disposition to find out if Claudius did kill his father and plan his revenge. On the other hand, when Laertes found out about the death of his father he suspected Claudius and immediately confronted him without much thought. He acted irrationally by confronting the king without much thought, although he did have a mob to back him up: “I thank you, keep the door” (4.5. 114), while Hamlet acted rationally and had a plan together; however this does not make you crazy. Hamlet is just reacting to the death of his father like Laertes, but differently.
The question always remain whether Hamlet is crazy or not, but there is no denying Ophelias madness. Both of them have tragic events occur in their lives. Ophelia is asked to stay away from Hamlet from her father; she then gets rejected by Hamlet, tricked into giving up her chastity, and worse of all her father is killed by her ex lover. Ophelia starts singing about her father’s death, Hamlets trickery and all the tricks of this world. To be singing after the death of your father clearly shows there is something wrong with you: “A document in madness” (4.5. 175-176). Hamlet does not completely lose it after the death of his father but keeps his cool and mind focused on his plan. Also, Hamlet constantly talks about suicide throughout the play: “To be or not to be, that is the question” (3.1. 156). On the other hand Ophelia does end up committing suicide and does not receive a proper Christian burial: “Her death was doubtful” (5.1. 211). It is wrong to constantly think and talk about suicide but to actually go through with it means you are insane. Tragic events happen in both their lives but Ophelia could not take it no more, like the wood of insanity has always been in Ophelia just waiting for something to torch it. Hamlet has many causes as well but the wood of insanity is not there no matter how hot the torch got.
In conclusion, Hamlets madness is questioned by the reaction of others and his feigned madness. William Shakespeare leaves us Hamlets words, actions and others reactions to interpret his madness with one’s own perception. Hamlets feigned madness clearly shows difference to Ophelias true madness. In a crazy world, sometimes one has to act insane themselves to achieve their goals, in this case revenge. He played his antic disposition perfectly, not only fooling King Claudius but the audience too.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009
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