This essays delves into the question whether or not Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is insane or merely feigning this state. Through the utilization of several quotes and deeper analysis of the protagonist’s actions and words, this essay endeavors to provide enough information to buttress the fact that Hamlet is not actually marred by insanity, but rather that his sanity was so well presented that everyone believed in it, while he cleared his path towards a bloody revenge.
For centuries, Shakespeare’s melancholy prince Hamlet has been the centre of debate among critics, urging to prove or disprove his sanity. Events which would most certainly deem him insane in the eyes of postmodern psychoanalysis, such as seeing ghosts, speaking philosophical and existential truths that are beyond the grasp of courtiers and royalty he is surrounded by, and finally taking up an extremely unhealthy interest in his mother’s sexual life, may be utilized to buttress the theory that Hamlet is mad, if not right from the start, then by the end of the drama certainly. However, Hamlet’s actions throughout the drama actually give reason for both theories, the true beauty of the play being its utter ambiguity in allowing the readers to make up their own minds and thus, adorn the tragedy-stricken prince with the appropriate label. Accordingly, in light of a liberated, free interpretation, though he is deemed by other characters as utterly insane in his words, as well as actions, the fact of the matter is that Hamlet is not truly insane, but is merely putting on the appearance of insanity, for the purpose of concealing his true mission, which is to avenge the heinously unjust death of his father.
Insanity is a term defining a state of a person’s mind which is characterized by a lack of mental capacity to comprehend the result of his or her own actions; a deranged state of mind where there exists little, or no reason and the person merely acts on impulse, rather than on a preconceived set of socially prescribed rules of conduct. According to this definition, Hamlet might be deemed an instable person, incapable of adhering to these rational rules of conduct. However, as Polonius himself states: “Though this be madness,/ yet there is method in ‘t,” Hamlet madness is not characterized by irrational outbursts of words and actions that lead nowhere, rather, his plan is a masterful conception of a long-winded revenge, where every little detail has to be initially planned and prepared properly for the grand finale of the final revelation (Shakespeare, 1998, II.ii.203-204). This is exactly why Hamlet’s replies appear to do very little with the question he is asked. For instance, on being asked what he is reading, he replies “Words, words, words” and he refuses to divulge the location of Polonius’ body: “The body is with the king,/ but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing” (Shakespeare, 1998, II.ii.192, IV.ii.25-26).
Thus, Hamlet’s mystifying replies to the most simple of questions lead everyone around him to deem him utterly insane, while in fact, his answers bear a greater depth than those around him can comprehend: “I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is/ southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (Shakespeare, 1998, II.ii.378-379). With these words, Hamlet assures everyone that he is aware they all think him mad, yet, when the time is right, he will know exactly what to do, which proves the fact that his streak of supposed madness is just that: a feigned madness, undertaken for the purposes of creating a diversion, allowing himself an open path towards a revenge that shall be devastating to his enemies: “O! from this time forth,/ My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (Shakespeare, 1998, IV.iv.65-66).
Furthermore, Hamlet’s feigning of madness is truly an astonishing one, where he gradually introduces his deranged state to Polonius, then in his conversations with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and through his erratic behavior before and during Ophelia’s funeral. In order for his plan to be successful, Hamlet’s mastery of a deranged mind needs to be complete, no errors are allowed, as he has only one chance to portray himself as a lunatic, to get to his final goal. If discovered, all his efforts would prove to be worthless and inconsequential. Thus, his feigning of madness must be impeccable and must deceive everyone, even the reader himself. The initial and easiest target for Hamlet to commence his dangerous journey of willful deceit is Polonius, whom Hamlet rightfully believes will succumb to Hamlet’s supposed madness due to the intense love Hamlet feels for Ophelia, his daughter. Polonius is all too quick to believe in the prince’s transformation: “That he is mad, ‘tis true; ‘tis true ‘tis pity” (Shakespeare, 1998, II.ii.97). And others will equally easily follow in the same footsteps.
Suspecting that Ophelia, too, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is there to spy on him and report to the king, Hamlet puts most efforts in his conversations with her, because despite of his sharp, arrow-pointed words that stab her right in the heart, beneath Hamlet’s disgusted exterior burns a fire of love, as evident when he breaks down during her funeral, stricken with grief and professes his undying love for her, which now, he must not let overpower him, for that would ruin everything, and undo the oath he gave to his murdered father. She would be a distraction and he must not permit himself the privilege of one. Thus, his words slowly transgress mere coldness and enter into the realm of cruelty, which will finally result in Ophelia’s suicide and her realization that “a noble mind is here o’erthrown” (Shakespeare, 1998, III.i.150).
Consequently, what many people refer to as Hamlet’s inability to act is actually his long pondering on the right manner of action to be undertaken, because revenge is not a thing to be taken lightly. As the old saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold, and Hamlet concocts a complex plan as to how he will reach the object of his murderous desire, the current king Claudius. His plan is not put into immediate action, as Hamlet himself knows that it is highly unlikely his madness will appear plausible if it happens in a matter of days, so between the first two acts, a substantial amount of time passes, as Polonius’ conversation with one of his servant about Laertes’ stay abroad proves. Thus, Hamlet has enough time to mature his idea into a plan, and eventually, when the time is right, take appropriate action, only when his madness will appear most believable by everyone around him.
Shakespeare, W. (1998). Hamlet. New York: Signet Classics.