Insanity within Hamlet
Let us explore in this essay the real or feigned madness of the hero in William Shakespeare’s dramatic tragedy Hamlet.
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 conversation with Claudius is insane language to the latter. Lawrence Danson in “Tragic Alphabet” describes how Hamlet’s use of the syllogism is pure madness to the king:
From Claudius’s point of view, however, the syllogism is simply mad: its logic is part of Hamlet’s “antic disposition.” Sane men know, after all, that “man and wife is one flesh” only in a metaphoric or symbolic sense; they know that only a madman would look for literal truth in linguistic conventions. And Claudius is right that such “madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (III.i.end). (70)
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, or previews, 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)
Soon Horatio, the hero’s closest friend (“Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation coped withal.”), and Marcellus make contact with Hamlet and escort him to the ramparts of Elsinore. At one a.m. 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...