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Is Hamlet Mad? The Dilemma of Shakepeare's Hamlet



Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark


 

English Literature

 

No, he is not mad. Hamlet conveys to Horatio and Marcellus that he is going feign an ‘antic disposition’ [pretend to be mad ], soon after the Ghost appears to him. But Hamlet is certainly in shock and deeply depressed. He is struggling with a number of issues and his behaviour is in many ways, a psychological coping mechanism for all that ails him.  Moreover, he is of a deeply introspective and philosophical disposition which causes him to speculate and ruminate, not only on his personal dichotomy but on many broader dichotomies about life, death, incest, women, revenge and morality. Philosophical abstractions genuinely matter to him but also prevent him from making decisions and lock him into endlessly circular quandaries. For example, although his procrastination is a psychological safety device, contrarily, it adds to his dilemma because procrastination in itself also becomes a dichotomy: should he act, or should he not? Is vengeance a noble action or a despicable anti-Christian one? Should he live or should he die? These are evident trains of thought in Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy: To be or not to be. Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or, should we take arms against a sea of troubles? Hamlet is so troubled that he contemplates suicide. If he dies, he ends the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. But supposing there is a life after death! He ponders over the idea that suicide is sinful and could cause him to be sent to hell. A man could easily his quietus make [end his life] with a bare bodkin [a dagger] if only the Everlasting had not fixed/his canon 'gainst self-slaughter. [Act 1 scene 2]. There is the respect for religion that, ..must give us pause. [Act 3 scene 1]. We suffer the pangs of despised love….we grunt and sweat under a weary life and bear the whips and scorns of time because of the dread of something after death…..The undiscovered country from where no traveller returns. We tolerate it all because we fear the unknown: Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all. 


Conscience and consciousness are often described as both a blessing and a curse to humanity; a blessing because both enable us to think abstractly and to make moral decisions and a curse because if we think about the subject deeply enough, we have no way of objectively knowing from where conscience and consciousness originate, and therefore, of the necessity to adhere to the precepts of conscience. Is it innate? Is it a social construction designed to ensure order? Is it a gift from God and therefore, worthy of faithful adherence or the consequences of guilt if we refrain from abiding by it? We know that the source of consciousness and conscience is the organic brain but we do not know why. Is it because language and symbolism have facilitated such abstractions or is it metaphysical? In Act 2, scene 2, Hamlet contemplates the Greek philosopher Protagoras's idea that Man is the measure of all things and Baruch Spinova's idea that nothing is either good or bad [in itself] but thinking makes it so. In other words, we make ourselves prisoners by attributing abstract symbolic meanings to the ‘realities’ we have constructed, inherited and labelled via philosophical cognition and language. Such thoughts are a distraction for his inaction but as aforementioned, they also really matter to him. There is nothing mad about such thoughts. Philosophers have been contemplating them for centuries.

 

Following along the lines of the way Hamlet thinks, albeit as part of his procrastination, it could be construed that he is not quite sure whether there is a God. He could be searching for meaning. It is as if he wants metaphysical proof;  an objective meaning? He doubts and wonders whether life has any meaning other than the meanings human beings attribute. Conscience doth make cowards of us all because we have internalised abstract ideas as possible truths. Hamlet’s words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern : Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so / To me it is a prison, may not only  relate to his philosophical meanderings on aspects of existentialism, religion and ethical relativism but also because he feels that the Palace, and Denmark, are prisons because he feels oppressed and degraded within them.

 

Hamlet has a great deal on his mind. He has difficulty coming to terms with the harsh, illogical reality that the good and the bad suffer alike. He is deeply bereaved and confused over the death of his father. If the Ghost is to be trusted, his Uncle Claudius, has committed regicide, the murder of a King, to gratify his ambition.The killing of a King was a serious offence since historically, monarchs ruled by Divine right and therefore, the murder of a monarch was an affront to God. Claudius has also committed fratricide [the killing of a brother], a despicable and mortal sin. Hamlet is also distressed about the speedy marriage between his mother and King Claudius, especially since his father died only two months ago. It is making him so depressed that he hates the world. He has lost faith in humanity. He feels that the world, and humankind, are contemptible, including himself.  He becomes obsessed with all things vile and rank because he feels angry, disconcerted, degraded and cannot make a decision : 

 

…..O God! O God!

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘tis an unweeded garden,

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature…

[Act 2, scene 2]

 

He continuously berates himself for the same reasons:

 

Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I !


and :

 

But I am pigeon liver'd and lack gall


With regard to Claudius:

 

I should have fatted all the region kites [ birds]

With this slaves offal: bloody bawdy villain !

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain !

O, vengeance !

Why, what an ass am I !.........

[Act 2, scene 2]

 

 Moreover, a woman marrying her deceased husband’s brother was considered incestuous:

 

O, most wicked speed, to post

With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!


How did it come to this? His father is but two months dead. His father was an excellent king. He likens his father to Hyperion  [a brave Titan of Greek mythology] who has been replaced by a satyr.[ A mythical woodland creature.] Why has his mother attached herself to his uncle? He is repulsed by it. He believes Gertrude has grown lustful:

 

………why would she hang on him?

As if increase of appetite had grown

By what it fed on: and yet, within a month-

Let me not think on’t- Frailty thy name is woman!

[Act 1, scene 2]

 

His mother’s hasty marriage makes him feel dubious about the motives behind women's behaviour. If Claudius is a murderer, is his mother aware of it? Was she a party to the murder of his father? He cannot confront her directly at this stage. It causes him to generalise about women in a misogynistic way. That is why he wrongly transfers his contempt and anger by uttering profanities to the 'fair Ophelia'.

 

Another quandary troubling Hamlet is that he is not quite sure if the Ghost is a spirit from heaven or ‘a goblin damned.’ If it is a goblin damned, he could be in the clutches of Satan, such was the belief. Correlative with the aforementioned in the second paragraph, is that he is also in internal conflict regarding the social values on revenge. Is revenge only justifiable in war and politics? The Christian Church’s biblical teachings for example, state that only God can exact revenge, not man: Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord { Romans 12: 19}. In contrast, ancient Roman ideas prized family revenge killings as honourable endeavours. Elizabethan audiences were interested in that dilemma. Which is morally right? Which is more conducive to human beings' sense of justice? Again only thinking or perspective gives these contrasting values any validity. Revenge for murder was a criminal offence in England but bloody revenge plays were very popular at the Globe theatre in London during that era. Often, plays depicted a ghost revealing how it had met its gruesome end due to some terrible treachery. For the sake of family honour, vengeance was imperative. The Ghost was important. It would call upon the hero of the play to exact revenge but there must always be a delay, otherwise the play would end too quickly; hence, the technical effect of Hamlet’s procrastination.

 

 

The Ghost of Hamlet’s father is also called Hamlet. The Ghost speaks like a Christian because it, or he, states that he is suffering in purgatory. The young Hamlet is torn between duty to a Ghost who might be his father and obedience to God. As aforementioned, he is not certain whether the Ghost is from heaven or ‘a goblin damned’ from a hellish sphere. He is puzzled. He wrestles endlessly with his conscience. He must be sure. He wants time to distinguish appearance from reality, truth from deceit. That is why he decides to pretend he is mad. By behaving madly, he can say and do things that a sane man would not get away with. Moreover, it enables him to discreetly observe Claudius's reactions. He may be able to glean information or proof that his father was murdered. If he does decide to exact revenge, he can blame it on his madness.

 

His antics with Ophelia are foolish and tragic in light of the seriousness of what later happens to her. He was unaware of Ophelia’s delicacy and should have been more careful. But when Ophelia frantically runs to her father[ the loquacious Polonius], exclaiming that Hamlet appeared to her with his ‘doublet all undone’, it is quite comical seeing him or picturing him with his tights down to his ankles, his knees knocking, staring at her as if ‘loosed out of hell’. He plays his game too well because Ophelia has no idea that he is playacting:

 

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;

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;

And with a look so piteous in purport

As if he had been loosed out of hell.

[Act 2 – scene 1]

 

It is equally amusing when Polonius thinks that Hamlet has 'gone mad for his daughter’s love' and reports it to the King. However, Polonius is quick to realise that there is 'method' in Hamlet’s ‘madness’. At other times, however, Hamlet is genuinely grieving. He is in mourning - dressed in black. He is concerned about appearance versus reality. He plays on words, or rather, he focuses on the meaning of words which are often spoken casually in passing. For example, when Gertrude states that he should take off his mourning clothes because lots of people lose their fathers so “why seems it so particular with thee?’’ Hamlet picks up on the word seems. He replies that he is not seeming to be full of melancholy, he really is. There is a vast difference between seeming and reality; the former is merely an act:

 

“Seems”, Madam? Nay it is. I know not “seems”

Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black……..,

Nor the dejected ‘haviour of the visage…….These indeed “seem”,

For these are actions that a man might play.

But I have that within which passeth show,

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

[Act 1, scene 2]

 

His depression is also exacerbated because he is aware that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there to spy on him. He is aware that Claudius wants to find out if there really is ‘method in his madness’ and if his, ‘too much i'’ the sun’ stepson and nephew, knows the truth. Simultaneously, Hamlet really does feel that the world is gross and rank; an “unweeded garden”. These are his real feelings, his real thoughts, which reflect the state of his mind.  He tries to convey how he feels:

 

 I have of late – but

wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom

of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily

with my disposition  that this goodly frame, the

earth, seems a sterile promontory………


He wishes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were true friends in whom he could confide but he knows that they are superficial and only carrying out the new King’s orders. They appear to mock Hamlet. He is not in the mood for facetiousness or humour. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern smirk when Hamlet expresses that 'man delights not me: no, nor woman neither.’ With the exception of Horatio, he feels that he cannot trust anybody, not even Ophelia. He believes that the others are spying on him - which they are.

 

 

None of the characters are mad. With the exception of Hamlet and Horatio, the other characters are quite shallow. Horatio is a philosopher. He is educated and trustworthy. He too, saw and heard, the Ghost's words. He is Hamlet's only true friend. He believes Hamlet. He believes in him. Critics often state that Hamlet should have taken revenge when Claudius was in prayer. He did not want to seize that opportunity because killing somebody in prayer meant they would go straight to heaven. Hamlet does not want to grant Claudius entry into heaven. He wants  him to go to hell. Critics have stated that that was cruel but Hamlet wants Claudius to go to hell because he is angry that he murdered his father and sent him to purgatory. As a result, the young Hamlet is in hell - a living one. Consider that Claudius only cares about the murder of his brother and prays to God because he realises that Hamlet is certain about his guilt due to the staging of what Hamlet calls the, The Mousetrap; otherwise, he would not have bothered. After praying, Claudius carries on exactly the same without any indication of remorse. Subsequently, he even schemes to persuade Laertes to kill Hamlet. The scheming, ambitious Claudius cares only about himself. It is his deviousness that precipitates the entire domino effect.


Ophelia is in shock. She is bereaved due to the mistaken-identity murder of her father. Her singing and seemingly strange words relate to her grief, confusion and fragmented inner thoughts. She feels guilty, believing it is her fault that Hamlet 'went mad’. We also have to consider the way the play is presented and directed in each production. Ophelia is quite an underdeveloped character in the play. She has been typically groomed to be demure and placid as a potential wife. Grooming girls for such deferential roles, as appendages to the male, as 'other', can deplete them of all self-confidence and render them emotionally weak. Her father dictated what she must do; how she must be. She does not know 'what to think.' On the other hand, we have to consider that Polonius and Laertes felt a great need to protect her. There is a lack of proper communication. She does not really engage with Hamlet. She does not ask him what on earth is the matter or question why he is behaving so oddly. She believes her father’s view that Hamlet is 'mad for her love.’On the other hand, Ophelia is very young. She is motherless and naive. She is pure hearted and virtuous. Only in the bawdy songs she sings in her disturbance does she live up to Hamlet's cruel and feigned perception of her as a lascivious woman, which reveals how deeply it hurt her. Ophelia loved Hamlet and he loved her. Foolishly, he made unwarranted, unkind innuendos and uttered profane things to Ophelia due to his confusion about sexual matters and his mother’s ‘wicked speed’. [‘Get thee to a nunnery.’]. Everything has turned horribly awry. He tells Laertes that he too suffers greatly over Ophelia’s death:

 

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers

could not with all their quantity make up my sum.

[Act 5, scene one]

 

Ophelia admitted that she repelled Hamlet’s letters and this added to her feelings of guilt. Polonius wanted her to stay away from him and she generally obeyed. She takes her own life because she is nervously broken down with shock. She is bereaved, consumed with feelings of loss, devoid of all self-confidence. If anybody takes their own life in modern times, the verdict will be that he or she took their own life while the balance of their mind was disturbed. Nobody would say they that he or she was mad, except perhaps in a very loose way. In Elizabethan times, the term 'madness' was a sweeping label for anybody who was not socially evaluated as constitutionally strong, who did not display run-of-the-mill behaviour or to people who displayed behaviour that was out of keeping with their particular social strata or gender. Madness in the Hobbesian sense was attributed to ''excess of the passions''. Another view of madness was the Hippocratic idea of  ''imbalances of the humors''. There was little understanding of the causes of ''excess'', or of psychological coping devices and their correlative behaviours. Emotional trauma was not widely understood. ''Odd'' behaviour was also attributed to the devil or to evil spirits trying to take the afflicted individual over. People have different ways of dealing with emotional upheaval; different ways of perceiving - their personal perception of things is moulded due to their early experiences, influences, education and degree of insight. In modern times, ‘madness’ is attributed to schizophrenia or psychosis, especially when the afflicted individual loses all sense of reality with no hope of return. Hamlet was certainly horrible to his mother during Act 3, scene 4, when he stabbed Polonius through the arras [curtain] by mistake. His long disturbance caused him to become frenzied. He wants Gertrude to realise the reality of Claudius but she seems oblivious and certainly not a party to the murder of Hamlet's father. Hamlet is prone to impulsiveness and neuroses and today, may even be labelled as bipolar but he is certainly not mad. Most reasonable people would not want to feel under obligation to commit murder but simultaneously, revenge killings understandably occur when the victim is a loved one. It would be a horrible undertaking and the dilemma would play havoc with the mind, especially if the suspect's guilt is not proven. Notwithstanding all the philosophical dichotomies and political responsibilities as a Prince that run through Hamlet's mind, you only have to imagine how you would feel if you admired, respected and truly loved your father but you strongly suspected that your uncle had murdered him, and in two months, married your mother. 

 

Dominic Fairfax


 

 

 
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