Hamlet and Insanity
William Shakespeare’s supreme tragic drama Hamlet does not answer fully for many in the audience the pivotal question concerning the sanity of Hamlet – whether it is totally feigned or not. Let us treat this topic in detail, along with critical comment.
George Lyman Kittredge in the Introduction to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, explains the prince’s rationale behind the entirely pretended insanity:
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. (xii)
Critical opinion is divided on this question. 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:
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, in the eyes of the court, for the upcoming pretended madness. Hamlet’s first soliloquy deepens the psychological rift between the prince and the world at large, but especially women; it emphasizes the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage to her husband’s brother:
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman! (1.2)
The Ghost reveals to the protagonist that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder; the ghost requests revenge by Hamlet: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” Hamlet swears to carry out vengeance on King Claudius.
The hero resolves to put on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions...