Selective Perception in Shakespeare's Hamlet
From the end of Act I, the point at which Hamlet judges it may be prudent to feign madness - to "put an antic disposition on" (I.v.181) - much of the first half of the play concerns characters trying to determine why the prince's melancholy has evolved into seeming insanity. Each of the major players in Elsinore has a subjective impression of the reason for Hamlet's madness; indeed, in each of these misconceptions there is an element of the truth. At the same time, however, the nature of these selective perceptions provides insight into the characters who form them. And finally, these varied perspectives are notable in their effect upon the dynamic of the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, and upon the king's increasing paranoia.
Long before the encounter with the Ghost turns Hamlet's vague suspicions into something approaching certainty (I.v.1-113), Claudius views Hamlet not as a madman, but as a threat to the security of his rule and possibly his life. This is evident from their first scene, in which Claudius publicly denounces Hamlet's "unmanly grief" (I.ii.94) as "a fault to heaven" (l.101); Claudius seems to be undermining Hamlet's popular support by painting him as unworthy to rule. Even in the face of his court's attempts to dissect the "very cause of Hamlet's lunacy" (II.ii.49), Claudius' initial convictions are never shaken. Like the other characters, Claudius has his own motives for believing as he does; like the other characters, his beliefs are subject to manipulative reinforcement by the play's events. Moreover, the speculation regarding Hamlet's madness serves only to convince the king that Hamlet is not mad, and therefore poses a deadly threat.
No character in Elsinore, not even Hamlet himself, is afforded the omniscience of the audience. This omniscience allows the reader or playgoer to examine each of the proffered explanations for Hamlet's mental state. In the end, though, for the tragedy to function, the audience must accept none of these explanations, for Hamlet cannot be mad. A tenet of the tragic convention states that the eventual cataclysm must be brought about by the protagonist's own actions, direct and expressive results of a tragic flaw of character. While insanity and derangement are commonplace in Shakespearean tragedy, such "abnormal conditions are never introduced as the origin of deeds of any dramatic moment" (Bradley 13). Lady Macbeth is defined by her actions in furtherance of her husband's political goals, not by her hallucinatory somnambulism; the sleepwalking scene is a horrifying moment, to be sure, but Macbeth could end no differently even were the scene omitted. So it is with Hamlet. Just as insanity is an affirmative defense against criminal culpability, so too does it act as protection from tragedy: "if Hamlet were really mad at any time in the story, [he] would cease ...