The issue of insanity has often been uncomfortable, for the average human being as well as for the writer. It often provides a fascinating subject for drama, as has been demonstrated brilliantly by William Shakespeare as insanity plays a key role in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. In this play, the young prince of Denmark is informed by the ghost of his father that his Uncle Claudius, now married to Hamlet’s mother, murdered his father with poison. Hamlet creates a plan in which he’ll act insane in order to discover the truth, but he might already be insane since he truly believes he is seeing and talking with ghosts. While Hamlet at first seems to be truly insane, Shakespeare demonstrates through language and action that there is a definite method behind Hamlet’s madness and therefore he is only pretending to be insane.
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When the play opens, Hamlet appears to be an intelligent young man who is maybe a little spoiled. He is aware of his duties as a prince and a son and he had once a bright future ahead of him as his father was king of Denmark. At the same time, though, he is quickly associated with the idea of insanity. His first spoken words in the play, “a little more than kin, and less than kind!” (I, ii), are spoken in an aside to himself, indicating the disdain in which he holds his uncle and mother, but could also be interpreted as the first signs of insanity as he is seen to be talking to himself. Responding to his uncle, his next words, “Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun” (I, ii), demonstrate his ability to turn a phrase and perhaps is another sign of insanity. In addition, Hamlet demonstrates an almost suicidal depression following his father’s death and his mother’s betrayal, only kept from killing himself by his religious upbringing: “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (I, ii).
Throughout the play, Hamlet displays lapses in reality, wishing he were dead or participating in wild antics designed to convince others of his instability while allowing him greater freedom, revealing not that he is insane, but that he is greatly conflicted. “One part of him says that he must take revenge, another part finds it horrible; he attempts to reconcile these conflicting feelings by saying that he fears the Ghost may be a devil” (Westlund, 1978: 252). With Ophelia, he is able to get away with many sexual remarks that would not have been allowed otherwise although he makes it clear he wants nothing to do with her and he confuses others with wordplay. This is seen in his responses to Polonius: “Do you see that yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? … Methinks it is like a weasel … or like a whale” (III, ii). Each change in animal is not voiced until after Polonius has provided him with agreement, such as one might for a child or mentally fragile person.
Despite his insane ravings and actions, however, there is a certain method to Hamlet’s madness that indicates a sane mind furiously at work. This is first and mostly evident in the language he uses and his skill with the language of others. “The soliloquy, the last scene, the first scene, the play – each and together – make an impossible coherence of truths that are both undeniably incomparable and undeniably coexistent” (Booth, 1969: 171). His ability to quickly catch a double or triple meaning in a phrase or a word is the first indication of a very active mind. The biggest clue that Hamlet is sane, though, is his ability to turn his sanity on and off depending upon who might be listening. When Horatio tells him of the ghost, Hamlet asks detailed, sane questions about the ghosts appearance – “Armed, say you? … From top to toe? … looked he frowningly? … Pale or red? … And fixed his eyes upon you? … Stayed it long? … His beard was grizzled, no?”
(I, ii). Hamlet’s quick appraisal of his father’s message based upon this description indicates he is very observant, very intelligent and is able to work his way through to a reasonable conclusion and appropriate course of action quickly, all traits that indicate he is sane. The vital clue in this early section that perhaps Hamlet is not as crazy as he pretends is contained in his requirement that both Horatio and Marcellus swear on his sword never to tell anyone about the ghost and “here as before, never, so help you mercy, / How strange or odd some’er I bear myself / (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / to put an antic disposition on)” (I,v) to stop believing that he knows what he is doing. Throughout the rest of the play, even in his antic ramblings, Hamlet proves himself remarkably astute in his observations, just as he appears in the beginning.
The final proof lies in his ability to keep up the insane act in front of the people he knows it is imperative to fool and in his consistent course of action in proving his uncle’s treachery. Every motion he makes from the time he sees his father’s ghost, is geared toward publicly proving the ghost’s revelation and in bringing about the revenge his father demanded. Before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he remains the fool until he comes across the player and hatches his plan to stage “The Murder of Gonzago” as a means of forcing the guilty spirit out of his uncle. His brilliant handling of the assassins proves that while he is busy working to bring about his uncle’s downfall, he is not so single-minded as to neglect to pay attention to other warning signs. “He places inordinate importance on doing and knowing perfectly; throughout most of his experience he also places the responsibility for that knowing and that doing solely on himself” (Hassel, 1994: 610). Although his treatment of Ophelia is often seen as harsh, Hamlet recognizes that her kind words and sweet spirit also threaten the single-minded hunt he’s embarked upon. His rejection of her causes her to go truly insane in a stunning counterpart to Hamlet’s feigned performance.
Through language, actions and comparisons, Shakespeare is able to demonstrate both Hamlet’s madness as well as his sanity, leaving it ultimately up to his reader, or audience, to make the final determination. This final question boils down to whether it is accepted that Hamlet was sane at the beginning of the play. Within the timeframe of the story itself, with the acceptance of Hamlet as a completely sane and rationale although upset young man, there is little doubt that Hamlet is as sound of mind as most of the rest of the characters. His use of language, his consistent ability to stay true to his course and his final success in denouncing the king demonstrate that he had a purpose, a will and a logical course of action. This is compared against the actions of Ophelia, who is not capable of participating in a simple conversation, has no purpose and no final triumph following the onset of her madness.
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Booth, Stephen. “On the Value of Hamlet.” Selected Papers from the English Institute. Norman Rabkin (Ed.). New York: 1969.
Hassel, R. Chris Jr. “Hamlet’s ‘Too, Too Solid Flesh.’” Sixteenth Century Journal. Vol. 25, N. 3, (994), pp. 609-622.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York: Viking, 1969, pp. 930-976.
Westlund, Joseph. “Ambivalence in the Player’s Speech in Hamlet.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 18, N. 2, (1978), pp. 245-256.