According to Webster’s New World Dictionary madness is defined as “mental derangement that makes a person incapable of what is regarded as rational conduct or judgement.” There is much madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; written around 1600, but Prince Hamlet is not included in the insane camp. Throughout the play Hamlet’s seemingly irrational behavior served quite rational and sometimes ingenious ends. The Madness of Hamlet is certainly counterfeit and was recognized by Hamlet as being necessary to complete the revenge of the Murder of his father.
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In act I, scene i we are introduced to the Ghost of Hamlet’s slain father. The reader may be more inclined to believe that Hamlet’s madness is in fact true if he himself was the only one to view the Ghost. However, there were actually three individuals to whitness the Ghost. Hamlet’s sane and trustworthy friend Horatio says “Before my God, I might not this believe/ without the sensible and true avouch/ of mine own eyes” (I. i . 55-57). It was a warning from Horatio that gave Prince Hamlet to fabricate his madness to more easily work out his plan of revenge. Horatio warns Hamlet, “… And there assume some other horrible form/ which might deprive your sovereignty of reason,/ and draw you into madness? Think of it ” (I. iv. 72-74). Hamlet respected and adamantly listened to his father, so when the Ghost told him “but howsomeever thou pursues this act,/ taint not thy mind.” (I. v. 83-84). Hamlet would surely listen and obey these wishes of his father from beyond the grave.
Hamlet’s first signs of his fraudulent insanity are revealed at a meeting with Ophelia. She describes him as “… No hat upon his head; his stocking’s foul’d/ undergarter’d and down-gyved to his ancle/ pale as a shirt; his knees knocking eachother; …” (II. i. 80-83). It is because of these seemingly insane actions that Polonius believes Hamlet to be truly demented. Polonius asks Ophelia if Hamlet is “Mad for thy love?” (II. i. 86); however already jumped to the conclusion that was indeed neurotic. The more fully convinced Hamlet could persuade the court members that he was insane, the easier he could seek hi revenge on king Claudius. Hamlet acts reasonable; not like an insane man by knowing that a faked madness would facilitate his plan, and being able to successfully undertake it further proves his sanity.
Polonius later realizes that Hamlet’s madness is controlled and there seems to be an alterior reason for it. In an aside Polonius remarks to himself “Though this is madness , yet there is method in it.” (II. ii. 200-201). He also noticed “… how pregnant…” (II. ii. 203); meaning witty and preempted Hamlet’s replies are. These observations denote the actions of a rational man, not those of a man who has lost all ability to reason.
The evident conscious of Hamlet that is presented throughout the play is proof enough that Hamlet is not at all mad. Hamlet criticizes himself “Why, what an ass am I ! This is most brave/ That I, the son of a dear father murdered/ Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell/ must unpack my heart with words …” (III. i. 37-40). Hamlet realizes that he should be assuming the revenge that he desires but a conscious that he has held from birth; to be a relatively passive and understanding is holding him back. Hamlet has never committed such an atrocious sin and the thought of doing so certainly disturbs him.
More of Hamlet’s rationalizing and contemplation is shown later in the play. In one of his most famous soliloquies Hamlet says ” To be, or not to be, – that is the question:/ Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ or to take arms against a sea of troubles . . .” (III. i. 56-59). Hamlet is well aware of the repercussions of the murder of Claudius, but he truly desires to avenge the murder of his beloved father. It is this continuous dialogue between Hamlet’s conscious and raw desires that are clear signs of Price Hamlet’s sanity.
Hamlet shows a comprehensive understanding of his actions and their consequences throughout the play. Having a golden opportunity to assassinate king Claudius, however he opted for a more optimal time. “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;/ And now I’ll do it – and so he goes to heaven;/ And so I am reveng’d: – that would be scanned: . . . ” (III. iv. 73-75). Knowing that seeking his revnge then would send Claudius strait to Heaven; which didn’t seem like a suitable punishment for the crime of regicide he committed, he waits until Claudius would get what he deserves.
The King’s failed attempt to assassinate Hamlet shows the reader a mooment of Hamlet’s brilliance and yet another point against the case of Hamlet’s apparent madness. In scene ii, act II the King petitioned two of Hamlet’s “friends” Rosencrantz and Guilderstern to inquire what the reasons for Hamlet’s peculiar behavior are. Later, in scene iv, act IV; the king seeing Hamlet as a serious threat to his throne reorders the two execute Hamlet. After catching wind of the two’s intentions Hamlet jumps ship onto an attacking vessel, while en route to exile in England. Knowing Rosencrantz and Guilderstern won’t follow into an uncertain future at the hands of the attackers, Hamlet, using his noble credibility sends his own orders to England; to kill Rosencrantz and Guilderstern as soon as they land and without quesstion. This elaborate scheme was not thought of by a madman, but a rational and brilliant individual.
Hamlet’s relative sanity is shown clearly when in contrast with the actions of other characters in the play. King Claudius’ sick obsession for power leads him to the brutal murder of his own brother, adultery, and massive gluttony (Winser 7). Hamlet’s murders; one of revenge against Claudius, another in a duel, and one by mistake are of a much more noble basis than the petty greed and obsession of Claudius’ crimes. Ophelia’s madness is also shown in sharp contrast to the fictitious insanity of Hamlet. Ophelia’s breakdown is much swifter than the apparent onset of madness in Hamlet. Within a matter of hours after hearing the news of the murder of her father Polonius Ophelia is functionally disabled. Her replies to the remarks and questions of the King and Queen are made in song, with memories of long past promises of marriage by prince Hamlet. After trying to converse with Ophelia, Laertes’ comment about her exemplifies Ophelia’s insanity; “A document in madness – thoughts and remembrances fitted.” (IV. iv. 171). Hamlets counterfeit madness was a gradually escalating process wherein he methodically planned his revenge and always acted in conscious manner. When compared to Laertes, Hamlet used much more judgement and discretion whenn seeking his revenge. Immediately upon receiving news of his father’s murder, Laertes storms into the castle in a rage. He showed no plan, but sheer anger when seeking his revenge. He was emphatic and wild, whereas Hamlet was controlled and rational.
Examples throughout the play show that Hamlet was in no uncertain terms completely and absolutely sane. He was rational and invariably conscious of his actions. In comparison to other characters in the play Hamlet’s sanity is clearly defined. Hamlet knew that a falsified madness would hold off opposing forces long enough to seek revenge, and brilliantly played the part.