Shakespearean scholars have debated Hamlet’s sanity for centuries. Many of them argue that Hamlet was truly insane, while others insist that he was only feigning his insanity to hide his motives and avenge the death of his father, King Hamlet, who was murdered by Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius. As the play moves on, we witness Hamlet’s personality change from being utterly sane to being depressed and expressing acts of madness. Hamlet is only pretending to be insane because he is perfectly sane around those he trusts, such as Horatio and the players, and acts insane only around those he mistrusts, Claudius, Ophelia, and Polonius.
Hamlet’s representation of his character shows that he is only pretending to be insane to subtly investigate the accusations made by his father’s ghost without raising any suspicions. His own control of his presumed insanity proves that Hamlet was not genuinely insane, but feigning. Although Hamlet may seem to be insane at times during the play, he is not.
He is a man dealing with heartbreak, the loss of his father and mentor. His sadness and supposed depression is entirely comprehensible and would have severe long-term effects for him. According to D.
J. Snider, “Hamlet is never so mad as not to be responsible.” (Snider 73) Hamlet is, in fact, completely sane, and just simulating his insanity to get revenge for his father. After King Hamlet’s ghost appears to Hamlet, he begins to plan his process of revenge. By pretending insanity, he will not be viewed as a threat to Claudius and his men, which gives him time to plan his attack. He explains that he is going to put on an “antic disposition,” which translates that he is going to pretend to be a madman. He cannot possibly be mad because he just explained to Horatio that his insanity is all an act. He begins this by acting silly in front of him and acting differently than he may have in the past.
He even makes Horatio swear his loyalty to him, and that he will keep silent about his so-called “madness.” It is such a huge ordeal that they swear not once, but three times on their silence. Although Hamlet’s actions may seem uncalled for and reckless at times, they are all extremely well thought out and planned ahead of time. Horatio O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!Hamlet And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
But come;Here, as before, never, so help you mercy.How strange or odd some’er I bear myselfAs I perchance hereafter shall think meetTo put an antic disposition on…(1.5.
164-172) Hamlet also admits to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are said to be spies of Hamlet, that he may be mad. As the men begin to question Hamlet, he turns the tables on them and begins to question them instead. Hamlet asks why they have come to see him, and after some hesitation, they surrender and explain they have been asked to come and note his behavior. Hamlet describes his recent family situation and tells them that he is just unhappy with himself and has no more faith. He admits his madness as he says, Guildenstern In what, my dear lord?Hamlet I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” Enter POLONIUSPolonius Well be with you, gentlemen! Hamlet Hark you, Guildenstern; and you too; at each ear a hearer: that great baby you see there isnot yet out of his swaddling-clouts.
(2.2.380-386)His open confession to his craziness is a good indicator that he isn’t crazy, as most people who are insane believe they are perfectly normal.
To be insane, you must completely lack any consciousness of behavior and surroundings. Hamlet is very well aware of his behavior that may be viewed as strange, and is mindful of what is normal. His conscious awareness that his behavior is sometimes perceived as crazy shows that he is fully known of what is socially acceptable, and what is unacceptable. “Hamlet does protect himself by simulating insanity, being on guard with both Claudius and Polonius.” (Keener 150-163) Ophelia is another mistrusted individual for Hamlet during the play. She describes one of her meetings with Hamlet quite harsh and is put in distress. He is more than likely suspicious of where Ophelia’s loyalties truly lie, so he may act this way to her assuming that he is being watched or that Ophelia will be interrogated later on about Hamlet’s behavior towards her.
He acts crazy around her because she would tell Polonius what Hamlet’s behavior would have been like, and although Hamlet may love Ophelia, he cannot risk getting caught in his own fake madness, because he suspects Claudius could be on to him. Since there is no trust with Ophelia, he breaks off all potential feeling by beginning to act mad. Ophelia describes her unsettling run-in with Hamlet to Polonius,Ophelia O! My lord, my lord, I have been so affrightened!Polonius With what, in the name of God?Ophelia My lord, as I was sewing in my closet, Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac’d; No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d,Ungarter’d, and down gyved to his ankle;Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other; And with a look so piteous in purportAs if he had been loosed out of hellTo speak of horrors, he comes before me.Polonius Mad for thy love?Ophelia My lord, I do not know;But truly I do fear it.Polonius What said he?Ophelia He took me by the wrist and held me hard,Then goes he ti the length of all his arm,And with his other hand thus o’er his brow,He falls to such perusal of my faceAs he would draw it. Long stay’d he so;At last, a little shaking of mine arm,And thrice his head thus waving up and down,He rais’d a sigh so piteous and profoundThat it did seem to shatter all his bulkThat it did seem to shatter all his bulkAnd end his being. That done, he lets me go,And with his head over his shoulder turn’d,He seem’s to find his way without his eyes;For out o’ doors he went without their help,And to the last bended their light on me Polonius Come, go with me; I will go seek the King…(2.1.
75-101) Polonius delivers this news directly to the King. As Hamlet runs in with his clothes torn and seems to be heartbroken, Polonius thinks it is because of her that has driven Hamlet mad. Another time we can see Hamlet’s feigning madness is in Act 2, Scene 2 with Polonius. As Hamlet is reading a book, Polonius enters the room, Hamlet’s goal is to make Polonius question him and his insanity, while still maintaining his fake insanity act.
Hamlet insults Polonius by calling him a “fishmonger,” which Polonius does not understand. As the King’s trusted advisor, it does not make sense to reference him as a commoner, which supports Hamlet’s act of feigning insanity. Saying such nonsense makes Polonius believes Hamlet’s insanity even more, which is just what he wants. “As if being referred to as a man who sells fish isn’t insulting enough for a man in Polonius’s position, in Shakespeare’s time the term also meant pimp.” (Motegrano 95) Hamlet says,Polonius … How does my good Lord Hamlet?Hamlet Well, God a-mercyPolonius Do you know me, my lord?Hamlet Excellent well; you are a fishmonger. Polonius Not I, my lord. Hamlet Then I would you were so honest a man.Polonius Honest, my lord!Hamlet Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.
Polonius That’s very true, my lord.Hamlet For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog,Being a good kissing carrion, — Have you a daughter?Polonius I have, my lord.Hamlet Let her not walk i’ the sun: conception is a blessing; but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to ‘t….(2.2 172-186)Polonius sees the madness in Hamlet’s words, but also well thought outwit.
Although there are many times Hamlet acts insane around those he mistrusts, he also tends to act completely sane around the ones he does trust. Horatio, for example, is Hamlet’s best friend and scholar. Hamlet can trust Horatio because he knows that Horatio will keep quiet about his plans of action towards Claudius. Horatio Here, sweet lord, at your service.Hamlet Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man As e’er my conversation cop’d withalHoratio O! My dear lord, —-Hamlet Nay, do not think I flatter;For what advancement may I hope from thee,That no revenue hast but thy good spiritsTo feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?No; let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,And crook the pregnant hinges of the kneeWhere thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?Since my dear soul was mistress of her choiceAnd could of men distinguish, her electionHath seal’d thee for herself; for thou hast beenAs one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing, A man that fortune’s buffets and rewardsHast ta’en with equal thanks; and bless’d are thoseWhose blood and judgment are so well co-mingledThat they are not a pipe for fortune’s fingerTo sound what stop she please.
Give me that manThat is not passion’s slave, and I will wear himIn my hearts core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee. Something too much of this.There is a play to-night before the king;One scene of it comes near the circumstanceWhich I have told thee of my father’s death:I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,Even with the very comment of thy soulObserve mine uncle; if his occulted guiltDo not itself unkennel in one speech,It is a damned ghost that we have seenAnd my imaginations are as foulAs Vulcan’s stithy. Give him heedful note;For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,And after we will both our judgments joinIn censure of his seeming.Horatio Well, my lord:If he steal aught whilst this play is playing,And ‘scape detecting, I will play the theft.
Hamlet They are coming to the play; I must be idle; Get you a place (3.2.54-92)Hamlet demonstrates that he is not mad by being able to speak civilly with Horatio. He explains his final plans for Claudius, and Horatio helps Hamlet in his well thought out plan of revenge.
“Being simply a thinking man, he took to logic chopping-and set up about himself a barricade of rigorous thinking in which he was free to pursue his own reflections.” (Davis 629) In a way, Hamlet trusts Horatio even more than he trusts himself. Hamlets strong trust allows him to speak freely of his ideas and feelings and lets us know that he is completely capable of retaining his sanity.
Besides Hamlet’s soliloquies, his conversations with Horatio are the only way we know what he is feeling.However, when Claudius returns to Hamlet, Hamlet begins to act crazy again. Claudius still thinks he has a chance of getting rid of Hamlet and maintaining the throne, and Hamlet also believes he has his plan ready for Claudius’s defeat.
Neither trust each other, and neither will admit to their plans, other than to whom they trust. Hamlet’s attitude towards Claudius shows us that he is completely faking his insanity around those who are not loyal to him. Hamlet speaks absurdly whenever Claudius is near. As Claudius asks how Hamlet is doing, he responds by saying, King How fares our cousin Hamlet?Hamlet “Excellent, i’faith, of the chameleon’s dish:I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feedcapons so,” King I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet; these words are not mine.
(3.2.93-99)Meaning that he is just putting up with fake concern in how he is doing. He refers to it as the air because it lacks material and sincerity. “Hamlet may have referred himself to a chameleon because he has completely camouflaged himself and his ideas to avenge his father’s death.” (Elmore) His words to others are nonsense and keep everyone believing he is mad, but they mean something to Hamlet and are extremely well thought out.
His swift change in personality shows that Hamlet’s madness is only an act and just part of his plan to receive revenge on his father. “Hamlet did not lose his mind, but found it, in the shock of catastrophic revelation-and excitement, almost exhilaration-of that discovery, he forgot a crime and ignored a duty.” (Firkins 394) If Hamlet was actually insane, his behaviour and words would not change just because of who he was talking to. Since he is able to retain himself to those he trusts such as Horatio, we can clearly see that this is all part of Hamlet’s “antic disposition.” Lastly, Hamlet shows that he is still sane because he takes note of Claudius’s shame before he takes full action of his revenge against his Uncle. Hamlet demonstrates full sanity because he realizes, and notes to himself that he should not believe every little thing that he hears. Hamlet says, Hamlet- “..
.I’ll have these playersPlay something like the murder of my fatherBefore mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;I’ll tent him to the quick. If ‘a do blench,I know my course.
The spirit that I have seen May be the devil, and the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape…”(2.2.599-605)Instead of Hamlet automatically thinking the Ghost who appeared before him was just the ghost of his father, he rationalizes with himself and sees that the devil may have taken the form of his father so it can take advantage of Hamlet. However, Hamlet does not want to be manipulated and uses the players to watch Claudius’s reaction. This is called “the mousetrap.” Hamlet’s play “The Murder of Gonzalo,” is put on for an audience, Hamlet is going to spy on Claudius for his reaction, and if he does react, he is indeed guilty of murdering his father. “If the King does not betray himself under this test, then Hamlet’s convictions regarding the murder are morbid and erroneous.
” (Lawrence 6) Only the ideas of a sane and brilliant man would have been able to come through with such a plan to catch the guilty King right in his tracks. To conclude, Hamlet’s madness is all feigned to keep suspicion away from him so that he has time to plan and avenge his father’s death. He keeps secrecy to himself and those he trusts about his plans of mischief towards Claudius. When Prince Hamlet is alone, or with Horatio, he does not hold himself back and speaks as if he is perfectly normal and nothing is wrong with him. However, when Polonius, Claudius, and other mistrusted individuals are near, Hamlet’s personality switches gears, and he begins to speak uncivilly, and in plain nonsense.
If Hamlet were genuinely insane, his behavior and speech would not change just because of the people who were surrounding him. Insane people have no control over their actions in what they do or say. They are unpredictable. That’s the thing about madness; it is unpredictable. The prince was only unforeseeable to those he wanted to seem crazy in front of.
Hamlet’s insanity was all an act and was completely sane throughout the entire play.