The Real and Feigned Madness of Hamlet and Ophelia

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In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, a kind of madness ultimately infects everyone, leading to an ending in which almost every major character is dead. Two of these maddened characters are Hamlet and Ophelia, who also share a love for each other. But though their irrational behavior is often similar and their fates alike, one is truly mad while the other is not.

Both Hamlet and Ophelia act very strangely. Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, insults everyone around him. He tells Ophelia he never loved her, calls her father a fishmonger, and in subtle ways calls his mother a whore and her new husband a murderer. And Hamlet himself is driven to acts of murder, from the unintentional stabbing of Polonius to the plotting that kills Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the avenging murder of his uncle the king. Ophelia appear at the castle singing and giving out imaginary flowers. She seems not to even know her own brother.

The behavior of both Hamlet and Ophelia is a direct result of their fathers' murders. Both love their fathers dearly and readily obey, even when their fathers' orders go against their own wishes or better judgement. Hamlet is shocked when his father's ghost urges him to murder the new king, but Hamlet consents "that I with wings as swift / As meditation or the thought of love, / May sweep to my revenge" (I.5.29-31). When Polonius tells Ophelia to repel Hamlet's advances, she promises to obey. And it is only after their fathers are killed that Hamlet and Ophelia begin to act...

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