Madness And Insanity In Shakespeare's Hamlet

1537 words - 6 pages

A popular topic of discussion for Shakespearian critics is whether or not Hamlet is sane at various points in the play. Usually, this digresses into a question of at what point Hamlet crosses the fine line which marks the bounds of sanity into the realm of insanity. This is a confusing matter to sort out, due to the fact that it is hard to tell when the prince is acting, and when he is really and truly out of his mind. The matter of determining the time of crossing over is further complicated by the fact that everyone around him is constantly speaking of madness. At the end we must either conclude that Hamlet is an extremely talented actor capable of staying in character under the most trying circumstances, or that he is human and as a result his sanity gives way to the many external emotional barrages coming his way. The more likely conclusion is that Hamlet is at some point insane. What is left to discover is at what point does this crossover occur, and second, what are the main contributing factors in his mental collapse. I will ignore the issue of the point of crossover, and let another paper consider that point. Rather, I propose that Hamlet's religious beliefs, acquired at the University of Wittenberg, heavily contributed to the loss of his sanity.
According to the commentary at the beginning of the Folger's Library edition of Hamlet, the prince studied at the University of Wittenberg. The commentary also states that the play was most likely first performed around 1600. Coincidentally (or not), this is near to the time at which Martin Luther held the position of Professor of Theology at Wittenberg. It was while teaching at Wittenberg that Luther had what is referred to as the “Tower Experience,” or when he came to the realization that salvation is reached not through good works, but through faith. This “experience” was the launching point for what would become the reformation – the center of which was the University.
Although Martin Luther died in 1546, and therefore he would not have been present at the time of Hamlet's attendance, the effects of his work at the University were permanent. It is therefore extremely likely that Hamlet became a protestant in the midst of the reformation. This conjecture is textually supported in III.iii.76-90:

Hamlet:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge!
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him; and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul, When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
No.

Hamlet makes his belief in god known at multiple points in...

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