William Shakespeare is one of the most influential authors in world literature. Known as dramatist, playwright and poet, Shakespeare is considered as the most remarkable writer of the English language. He had left an impressive body of work, which included numerous plays and poems. Among the tragedies that he created, Hamlet stands out from the rest. It is not only known for its length and popularity; it is also distinguished by the themes it discussed. One of the main themes of the play is madness. The play presents with the fine line between real insanity and fake madness.
Was the title character genuinely insane or was he merely acting crazy? In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet was a sane individual who used madness to conceal his plot for revenge. This essay seeks to analyze the authenticity of madness in the play of William Shakespeare. Many are convinced that the character of Hamlet is genuinely mad in the play. His actions and words persuade the readers and viewers that he had become insane in the course of the play. However, there is enough proof within the play that suggests that his madness was feigned. The first proof is the warning he gave his friends.
It is important to consider that Hamlet’s so-called madness only began after his encounter with the Ghost that was supposed to be his father’s spirit. The Ghost had asked Hamlet to avenge his death; it was only after the latter received this order that he started acting crazy. After he spoke to the Ghost, Hamlet had a conversation with Horatio and Marcellus. He instructed his friends not to divulge any details about him, no matter how irrational his actions would be. He also suggested that he might decide to act mad in the future for a reason. Shakespeare (1992) wrote: 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) (1. 5. 189-192). Hamlet’s advice to his friends is proof that the madness was feigned. He already announced to his friends the possibility that he will act crazy in the future. This announcement meant that it was a conscious decision to become a madman. In another instance, Hamlet confessed to Guildenstein the temporary nature of his madness. Hamlet said to his friend, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the/ wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2. 2. 402-403).
Therefore, the madness was forced. What was Hamlet’s reason to feign madness? His sole objective in acting like a madman was to conceal his plan for revenge against his uncle King Claudius. Hamlet determined that madness was the best means through which he could carry out his plan without exposing himself. As a madman, Hamlet was able to point out what was wrong without being wronged himself. His so-called madness protected him from his enemies because they considered his ramblings irrational instead of truthful (Hawkes, 2005). Thus, insanity served as a front to protect his plan.
Hamlet proved to be successful in his attempt to keep his plan against King Claudius a secret (Rosenberg, 1992). His act of madness convinced many people that he was really insane; no one suspected that he had planned to murder his uncle. Ophelia was most convinced of his madness that she uttered, “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” (3. 1. 163). Characters such as Ophelia were too distracted with Hamlet’s show of madness that they did not have an idea of his plan for revenge. Hamlet’s usage of madness to hide his plan was most effective with King Claudius.
Since King Claudius was the target of the evil plot, it was important that he would not become suspicious of Hamlet’s actions. Another proof from the play was that instance when Hamlet was having a conversation with Horatio when he found out that King Claudius was coming. Hamlet, who was his normal sane self while talking to Horatio, changed into his madman persona. By the time the King asked Hamlet a question, the latter was ready to give the former an irrational answer. Hamlet responded, “Excellent, i’ faith, of the chameleon’s dish.
I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so” (3. 2. 99-101). That reply convinced King Claudius that Hamlet was genuinely crazy and he remained oblivious of the plot against him. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, also found her son’s portrayal as a madman as realistic. Shakespeare confirmed that both “uncle-father and aunt-mother are/ deceived” (2. 2. 399-400). Though Hamlet proved to be an effective actor, the inauthentic nature of his madness was still evident. Another proof that Hamlet was not really mad was the observation of Polonius.
A madman should have lost all his reason. In this case, Hamlet is not really a madman because his rationality is still evident. Polonius noted, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t” (2. 2. 223-224). If Polonius had observed a method in what appeared as the irrational thinking of Hamlet, it would only mean that Hamlet’s madness was feigned. Upon the careful analysis of the tragedy Hamlet by William Shakespeare, one can conclude that the madness of the title character is indeed feigned. In the play, madness is utilized as merely a means for a specific end.
Hamlet learned early on in the play that his uncle had killed his father, and his father’s Ghost had wanted revenge. Hamlet decided that he would use madness to hide his evil plot against his father’s killer. Madness proved to be effective in his plans for revenge, as he was initially not suspected of anything. Except for his friends, the people around Hamlet became convinced that his madness was real. For Hamlet, madness was like a mask he could use to cover his real intentions. He can act mad to those who he chose to deceive, while he was his normal self to his friends.
The tragedy of Hamlet dealt with uncertainty, as the line between real insanity and feigned madness became blurred. In the end, Hamlet was not a genuinely mad character; he was a rational man who chose madness to further his goal.
References Hawkes, T. (2005). Shakespeare and the Reason: A Study of the Tragedies and the Problem Plays. New York: Routledge. Rosenberg, M. (1992). The Masks of Hamlet. Delaware: University of Delaware Press. Shakespeare, W. (1992). Hamlet. (B. Mowat & P. Werstine, Eds). New York: Washington Square Press.