In Act I, Scene V, after hearing the ghost’s demand for revenge, Hamlet says in advance that he will consciously feign madness while seeking the opportune moment to kill Claudius. Therefore, it is hard to conclude that he coincidentally became insane after making such a vow. Hamlet’s supposed madness becomes his primary way of interacting with the other characters during most of the play, in addition to being a major device that Shakespeare uses to develop his character. Still, the question remains: Is Hamlet really crazy or just pretending?
The major conflict which seems obscures the possibility of obtaining clarity on the answer to this question is Hamlet’s inability to find any certain moral truths as he works his way toward revenge. Even in his first encounter with the ghost, Hamlet questions the appearances of things around him and worries whether he can trust his perceptions, doubting the authenticity of his father’s ghost and its tragic claim. Since, he is contemplative to the point of obsession, Hamlet’s decision to feign madness will occasionally lead him perilously close to actual madness. Indeed, one might argue that because of this conflict, it is impossible to say for certain whether or not Hamlet actually does go mad, and, if so, when his feigning becomes reality.
Conversely, Hamlet’s sharp and targeted observations lend significant credence to his feigning madness. Most notably, he declares, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.361–362). That is to say, he is only “mad” when he is oriented in a certain way, but that he is lucid the rest of the time. Nevertheless, Hamlet confusion translates into an extremely intense state of mind that is highly suggestive of madness.
In Act II, Scene II, signs of Hamlet’s feigned madness first appear when he speaks to Polonius. During their conversation, Hamlet calls the old man a “fishmonger” and irrationally responds to his questions. Still, many of Hamlet’s seemingly lunatic statements disguise pointed observations about Polonius’s conceit and old age. In fact, Polonius himself comments that while Hamlet is not of right mind, his words are often “pregnant” with meaning (II.ii.206).
Then, in Act III, Scene I, Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop on Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia so as to establish whether Hamlet’s madness stems from his lovesickness over Ophelia. However, before we, the audience, see this encounter, we already think we know more than Claudius does in that we know that Hamlet is only acting crazy, and that he’s doing it to hide the fact that he is studying and plotting against his...