Hamlet (Prince of Denmark) is a Shakespearean tragedy. (Shakespeare, 1600) This is a tragedy because the primary characters in Hamlet, and most of secondary characters die. In this essay, will be explored a unique element which drives the plot—Madness. We will explore madness at two different levels and in more than one character, to answer the question: Does Hamlet pretend to be mad because he is driven by the need for vengeance and he is calculating, or is his behavior driven by a deep-seated insanity that does not overtly manifest itself but drives his calculated and seemingly in-control behavior?. Ophelia on the other hand shows pathological symptoms of madness. Of all the characters in the play, Ophelia is the most tragic. All she wants is for Hamlet to lover her. There is no guile about her. There is nothing calculating about her. She does not have a hidden agenda, like every other character in the play, other than to be together with Hamlet.
What might have caused any mental illness in Hamlet? Hamlet might have been depressed from the grief of having lost his father. This grief and possible depression might be exacerbated when he learns, through the ghost that his father, the king, did not die of a snake bite but from the hands of his own brother Claudius. If the ghost appeared only to Hamlet, one might have put this down to delusional behavior that arose from grief, but the ghost appears to other too, before it appears to Hamlet.
Claudius was having an illicit affair with Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, the Queen. To get rid of competition, according to the ghost, Claudius poured poison into Hamlet’s father’s ears. The knowledge that his mother was, one, possibly complicit in his father’s death; and, two, that she might have been having an affair, could also have driven Hamlet to re-enact the scene of his father’s death, which to those around him might seem like insanity.
On the other hand can we say that this was just revenge or a deep-seated emotional problem? Hamlet’s actions are invariably self-destructive. He pushes the notion of revenge so far that he ends up losing his own life and causing, albeit indirectly, the death of several people who are very close to him, including the brother and father of his betrothed, Opehlia. The tragic consequence is that Ophelia kills herself out of grief and remorse.
Shakespeare does not attempt to hide or disguise the fact that Hamlet is pretending to be mad. The German litterateur Goethe described Hamlet as a poet, a sensitive man who is too weak to deal with the political pressures of Denmark. Goethe drew parallels of Hamlet to his own work “Werther.” (Goethe, n.d.) Sigmund Freud viewed Hamlet in terms of his oedipal urges: that Claudius had taken Hamlet’s father’s place. Freud is careful to note that Hamlet represents modern man. He does not kill Claudius and eventually sleep with his mother. But rather, Hamlet kills Claudius to revenge his fahter’s death. (Freud, 1900).
Hamlet’s pretend madness is not consistent. To different characters his behavior is subtly different. Polonius is led to believe that Hamlet is mad because Ophelia rejects him. This is despite Polonius not being entirely convinced of Hamlet’s madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern believe that Claudius having ascended the throne gets in the way of Hamlet’s own ambitions to ascend the throne. They spy on Hamlet, but Hamlet is aware of this. Claudius is one character, who Hamlet attempts to persuade that he, Hamlet, is mad, is skeptical. But the above are people who Hamlet wants to believe that he is insane.
On the other hand, he takes others into his confidence. He openly tells Horatio that this is how he will behave and if his behavior is bizarre, pay it no mind. Hamlet’s actions in the play after meeting the ghost lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy, yet that madness is continuously checked by a consciousness of action which never lets him lose control.
Others he takes into confidence are Francisco, Bernardo and actors whom he convinces to put on the play that would reenact his father’s murder. With his mother he vacillates between behaving insane and throwing her subtle hints that this is merely an act.
Shakespeare deliberately contrasts Hamlet’s behavior with that of Ophelia. As has been mentioned here before, Hamlet’s madness may or may not be genuinely overt, but Ophelia certainly shows clear signs of insanity. For two reasons, Hamlet drives Ophelia to insanity and causes her to commit suicide. The first meeting is one where Hamlet delivers his famous monolog –“To be or not to be.” This is where he pretends to be insane to Ophelia. Instead of pledging his affection for Ophelia, he tells her that she should go to a convent. This is a blow to Ophelia who now realizes that her love for Hamlet will remain unrequited. On the other hand, at the viewing of the play, Hamlet openly makes amorous advances towards Ophelia. The second reason that drives Ophelia mad is grief; this is from her father having been killed at the hands of her would-be lover. Heartbroken, Ophelia commits suicide by throwing herself into a river. Before this, she demonstrates several instances of her insanity. Unlike in the case of Hamlet where we know that Hamlet might be pretending to be insane, in Ophelia’s case there is no such ruse.
Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment. Hamlet’s actions in the play after meeting the ghost lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy, yet that madness is continuously checked by a consciousness of action which never lets him lose control.
In conclusion, we see that Hamlet’s madness can be construed if one looks deeply into his behavior. But Shakespeare denies us any information that might cause the audience to suspect anything else but fakery. Hamlet’s madness is defined from many different perspectives. However, his madness never really established as true insanity. The anger from his father’s murder is understandable. Maybe he is mad with love with Ophelia. These are different things that people might consider when they read the play.
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