Hamlet and Insanity
William Shakespeare’s creation of the character of Hamlet within the tragedy of that name left open the question of whether the madness of the protagonist is entirely feigned or not. This essay will treat this aspect of the drama.
George Lyman Kittredge in the Introduction to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, explains the lack of success with Hamlet’s pretended insanity, and in so doing he implies that the madness is entirely feigned and not real:
The necessity for some device like the play within the play is due to the failure of Hamlet’s assumed madness to achieve its purpose. [. . .] In Shakespeare’s drama, however, Hamlet’s motive for acting the madman is obvious. We speak unguardedly in the presence of children and madmen, for we take it for granted that they will not listen or will not understand; and so the King or the Queen (for Hamlet does not know that his mother is ignorant of her husband’s crime) may say something that will afford the evidence needed to confirm the testimony of the Ghost. The device is adopted on the spur of the moment (i.5, 169ff.), and, once adopted, it must be maintained. But it is unsuccessful. The King is always on his guard, and the Queen is not an accomplice. (xii)
The question arises: Is it truly possible to have a noble tragic hero who is indeed bereft of the proper use of his mental faculties? Doesn’t this “lack” compromise the very essence of a “noble” protagonist who is worthy of the tragic ending? A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy staunchly adheres to the belief that Hamlet would cease to be a tragic character if he were really mad at any time in the play (30). On the other hand, W. Thomas MacCary in Hamlet: A Guide to the Play maintains that the prince not only feigns insanity but also shows signs of true insanity:
Madness and sexuality are then brought into conjunction in a way that gives meaning to Polonius’s interpretation of Hamlet’s madness: “Still harping on my daughter” (II.ii.187). Hamlet feigns madness but also shows signs of true madness) after his father’s death and his mother’s overhasty remarriage; Ophelia actually does go mad after her father’s death at the hands of Hamlet. For both, madness is a kind of freedom – a license to speak truth. Those who hear them listen carefully, expecting to find something of substance in their speech. Is it they, the audience, who make something out of nothing, or is it the mad who make something out of the nothing of ordinary experience? (90)
Hamlet’s first words in the play say that Claudius is "A little more than kin and less than kind," indicating a dissimilarity in values between the new king and himself – introducing into the story a psychological problem, a refusal to conform, which lays the groundwork for, or previews, the upcoming pretended madness. As the future king of Denmark, the hero is expected to maintain a good working relationship with the present...