Essay, Research Paper: Hamlet Madness

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" (II.ii.376-7). This is a classic example of the "wild
and whirling words" (I.v.134) 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. 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. 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. Hamlet's madness was faked for a purpose. He 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 but, 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. 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" (I.v.173). This
strategy gives Hamlet a chance to find proof of Claudius's 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" (II.ii.596-7). 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" (II.ii.172). 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 "[t]hey fool me to the top of my bent"
(III.ii.375). Although he appears to have lost touch with reality, he keeps
reminding us that he is not at all "far gone, far gone" (II.ii.187) 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! / . . . The expectancy and rose of the fair state
/ . . . quite, quite down!" (III.i.152,4,6). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are also fully convinced. They are Hamlet's equals in age but are far inferior
in intellect and therefore don't 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
circumstance, / Get from him why he puts on this confusion, [my italics] /
Grating so harshly all his days of quiet / With turbulent and dangerous
lunacy" (III.i.1-4). The reason Claudius is so reluctant to believe that
Ophelia's rejection has caused Hamlet's lunacy is that he doesn't 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's 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" (IV.iii.67-9). In the scene in his mother's bedroom,
Hamlet tells Gertrude that his insanity is assumed: "[I]t is not madness /
I have utter'd: bring me to the test, / And I the matter will reword, which
madness / Would gambol from" (III.iv.143-6), but 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"
(III.iv.98) and claims, " Thou hast cleft my heart in twain"
(III.iv.158). 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. "I have no life to breathe / What
though hast said to me" (III.iv.200-1). 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" (II.ii.205). 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 Gertrude'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 / . . . the son of the dear murder'd, / Prompted to my
revenge by heaven and hell, / Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with
words" (II. ii. 545, 581-3). Hamlet calls himself a "dull and muddy-mettled
rascal" (II.ii.563), a villain and a coward, but when he realizes that his
anger doesn't 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" (III.i. 85-6). 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" (II.ii.602-3) and 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
so that there is no chance of Claudius's 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. In addition, the letter Horatio from him
through the ambassador bound for England is clear and precise and shows no signs
of a befuddled mind. Finally, I am convinced of Hamlet's sanity by his very
normal 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 the way 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's own treachery.
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