Essay, Research Paper: Hamlet And Insanity

Shakespeare: Hamlet

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“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from
a handsaw” (2.2.338-9). This is a classic example of the “wild and whirling
words” (1.5.133) with which Hamlet hopes to persuade people to believe that he
is mad. These words, however, prove that beneath his “antic disposition,”
Hamlet is very sane indeed. Hamlet is saying that he knows a hunting hawk from a
hunted “handsaw” or heron in other words, that, very far form being mad, he
is perfectly capable of recognizing his enemies. Beneath his strange choice of
imagery involving points of the compass, the weather, and hunting birds, he is
announcing that he is calculatedly choosing the times when to appear mad. The
dictionary defines sanity as “soundness of mind” and I will prove that
Hamlet is sane through many examples that show of his soundness of the mind.
Hamlet warned his friends he intended to fake madness, but Gertrude as well as
Claudius saw through it, and even the slightly dull-witted Polonius was
suspicious. His public face is one of insanity however, in his private moments
of soliloquy, through his confidences to Horatio, and in his careful plans of
action, we see that his madness is assumed. Samuel Johnson, a well respected
author , has “no doubt that the hero’s ‘madness’…was merely ‘pretended’”(Neill,
309). After the Ghost’s first appearance to Hamlet, Hamlet decides that when
he finds it suitable or advantageous to him, he will put on a mask of madness so
to speak. He confides to Horatio that when he finds the occasion appropriate, he
will “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.172). Mark Van Doren poins out in
his book “Shakespeare,” that Hamlet’s “antic disposition” is used
“as a device for seeming mad” (162). This strategy gives Hamlet a chance to
find proof of Claudius’ guilt and to contemplate his revenge tactic. Although
he has sworn to avenge his father’s murder, he is not sure of the Ghost’s
origins: “The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil” (2.2.541-2). He
uses his apparent madness as a delaying tactic to buy time in which to discover
whether the Ghost’s tale of murder is true and to decide how to handle the
situation. At the same time, he wants to appear unthreatening and harmless so
that people will divulge information to him, much in the same way that an adult
will talk about an important secret in the presence of a young child. To
convince everyone of his madness, Hamlet spends many hours walking back and
forth alone in the lobby, speaking those “wild and whirling words” which
make little sense on the surface but in fact carry a meaningful subtext. When
asked if he recognizes Polonius, Hamlet promptly replies, “Excellent well; you
are a fishmonger” (2.2.173). Although the response seems crazy since a
fish-seller would look completely unlike the expensively dressed lord Polonius,
Hamlet is actually criticizing Polonius for his management of Ophelia, since
“fishmonger” is Elizabethan slang for “pimp.” He plays mind-games with
Polonius, getting him in crazy talk to agree first that a cloud looks like a
camel, then a weasel and finally a whale, and in a very sane aside, he then
comments that “They fool me to the top of my bent” (3.2.337-8). Although he
appears to have lost touch with reality, he keeps reminding us that he is not at
all “far gone, far gone” (2.2.186) as Polonius claims, but is in fact very
much in command of himself and the situation. With his rantings and ravings and
his seemingly useless pacing of the lobby, Hamlet manages to appear quite mad.
The naïve and trusting Ophelia believes in and is devastated by what she sees
as his downfall: O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
…………………………… Th; expectancy and rose of the fair state
…………………………… Th’ observ’d of all observers, quite,
quite down!” (3.1.142-6). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also fully
convinced. They are Hamlet’s equals in age but are far inferior in intellect
and therefore do not understand that he is faking. However, although Hamlet
manages to convince these simple friends and Ophelia of his insanity, other
characters in the play such as Claudius, Gertrude, and even Polonius eventually
see through his behavior. Claudius is constantly on his guard because of his
guilty conscience and he therefore recognizes that Hamlet is faking. The king is
suspicious of Hamlet from the very beginning. He denies Hamlet permission to
return to university so that he can keep an eye on him close by. When Hamlet
starts acting strangely, Claudius gets all the more suspicious and sends
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Their instructions are to discover
why Hamlet is pretending to be mad: And can you, by no drift of conference, Get
from him why he puts on this confusion, Grating so harshly all his days of quiet
With turbulent and dangerous lunacy? (3.1.1-4) The reason Claudius is so
reluctant to believe that Ophelia’s rejection has caused Hamlet’s lunacy is
that he does not believe in his madness at all. When Claudius realizes through
the play-within-the-play that Hamlet knows the truth about his father’s death,
he immediately sends him away to England. The prevailing piece of evidence
demonstrating Claudius’ knowledge of Hamlet’s sanity is the fact that he
feels threatened enough by Hamlet to order him killed by the king of England:
For like the hectic in my blood he rages, And thou must cure me: till I know
‘tis done, Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er begun. (4.3.62-4) In the
scene in his mother’s bedroom, Hamlet tells Gertrude that his insanity is
assumed: It is not madness That I have utter’d: bring me to the test, And I
the matter will re-word, which madness Would gambol from. (3.4.142-5), Even
without his confirmation, the queen has seen through his act. While Hamlet is
reprimanding her, she is so upset that she describes his words as “daggers”
(3.4.96) and claims, “Thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (3.4.157). The
words of a madman could not have penetrated her soul to such an extent. The
queen takes every word Hamlet says seriously, proving she respects him and
believes his mind to be sound. Furthermore, she believes Hamlet’s confession
of sanity immediately. She does not question him at all but instead promises to
keep it her secret: Be thou assur’d, if words be made of breath, And breath of
life, I have no life to breathe What thou hast said to me. D.A. Traversi in his
“An Approach to Shakespeare,” points out that “Hamlet’s concern with
action, upon which his dilemma is finally concentrated, is most fully developed,
immediately after his confrontation with his mother” (358). If hamlet was
truly insane, this is the scene where he would show it the most, however, he
proves to be very sane. Even Polonius can see that Hamlet has not completely
lost touch with the world. Although he frequently misses the meanings of
Hamlet’s remarks and insults, he does recognize that they make some sense.
After a confusing conversation with Hamlet he remarks, “ Though this be
madness, yet there is method in’t” (2.2.199). When his theory of rejected
love proves wrong, he becomes very suspicious of Hamlet’s behavior and offers
to test it by hiding behind the “arras” in Gatorade’s bedroom so that he
can listen in on Hamlet’s private conversation with his mother. Polonius’s
suspicions about the legitimacy of Hamlet’s madness lead to his death when
Hamlet stabs the “arras” in the mistaken belief that the eavesdropper is
Claudius. Hamlet’s soliloquies, his confidences to Horatio, and his elaborate
plans are by far the most convincing proof of his sanity. Throughout the play,
Hamlet’s soliloquies reveal his inner thoughts, which are completely rational.
In one such speech, Hamlet criticizes himself for not having yet taken action to
avenge his father’s murder: O what a rogue and peasant slave am I
…………………………. That I, the son of the dear murder’d, Prompted
to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words
(2. 2. 490-528). Hamlet calls himself a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal”
(2.2.508), a villain and a coward, but when he realizes that his anger does not
achieve anything practical other than the unpacking of his heart, he stops.
These are not the thoughts of a madman; his emotions are real and his thoughts
are those of a rational man. Even when he contemplates suicide in the “to be
or not to be” soliloquy, his reasons himself out of it through a very sane
consideration of the dangers of an unknown afterlife: “And thus the native hue
of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (3.1. 84-5).
Orson Welles states in the book “The Friendly Shakespeare,” “I don’t
think any madman ever said, ‘Why, what an ass am I,’ I think that is a
devinely sane remark.”(350) A further important proof of his sanity is how
patiently he devises plans to prepare for his revenge. As he explains to
Horatio, his “antic disposition” is a device to test his enemies. His
mounting of the play-within-the-play is another well-laid plan to trap Claudius
into admitting guilt: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the
conscience of the king” (2.2.547-8). Even when the play brings him concrete
proof, he is careful not to rush to take his revenge at the wrong moment. He
could easily kill Claudius while he is praying, but restrains himself insuring
that there is no chance of Claudius entering heaven. Although Hamlet’s
patience can be seen as an example of his procrastination, I think that it is
rather a sign of rationality. Hamlet shows himself perfectly capable of action,
as well as of rational thought, in escaping the king’s armed guard,
dispatching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England, dealing
with the pirates and making it back to Denmark. The last conviction of
Hamlet’s sanity is the normality in his reactions to the people around him. He
is perfectly sane, friendly, and courteous with the players, giving them good
acting tips, which they appreciate and respect. When Polonius and Claudius test
the theory of rejected love by “loosing” Ophelia to him, Hamlet acts
completely rationally. He greets Ophelia sweetly, gets a little cold when he
remembers that he has not seen her “for this many a day,” is very hurt when
she returns his remembrances, and becomes completely furious, insulting
womankind in general, when she lies to him about her father’s whereabouts and
he realizes he is being spied on. He reacts in a way that any hurt young
rejected lover would. In the end, it is surprising that he is able to keep up
the charade of feigning madness for so long, and part of his tragedy is that it
doesn’t help him anyway; in the end, he avenges his father by killing Claudius
not through an act of madness, but as a result of Claudius’ own treachery.

BibliographyEpstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Group, 1993.
Neill, Michael. Hamlet: A Modern Perspective. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of
Denmark. Ed. Barbra A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square
Press, 1992. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Compact Bedford Introduction to
Literature. 4ht ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford, 1997. 958-1052. Traversi,
D.A. An Approach To Shakespeare. 3rd ed. New York: Doubleday & Company,
1969. Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1939. New
Webster’s Dictionary. 1992 ed.
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