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Is Hamlet truly mad, or feigning madness? A discussion.The question is crucial to the...

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jagtig | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:38 PM via web

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or feigning madness? A discussion.

The question is crucial to the play. I would like to say that he appears to suffer from intermittent, sporadic, spates of delusion and possibly hysteria.

I would hang my weight on this line:

I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is

southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. - II,ii,278 et seq


Elsewhere he confesses to madness, but warns his friends and mother not to trust appearances. - He appears able to comport himself in a sane fashion, though according to Claudius he "lacked form a little." - III,i,164 et seq


Of course, there's the most ambiguous sentiment of all expressed in this line:

How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

To put an antic disposition on,

That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,

With arms encumber'd thus, or this headshake, - I,iv,173 et seq


Is he implying that he realizes he must succumb to ecstasy, delerium, madness or the like to achieve his goal and stay in the good graces of his father's spirit, and he asks only of his friends that they not join with those disloyal to his better side, his good days, and betray him as a lunatic?

Such an interpretation would be critical, since the only other place he professes sanity is before his mother, and then to sway her to his side.

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sfwriter | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted August 14, 2009 at 10:46 AM (Answer #1)

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This is just my opinion, and I'm loath to call it an answer -- I honestly believe that Hamlet was never actually without his reason.  That is to say, he never went "mad" in the sense that he is insane.

I base this on the fact that the times that he seems most insane is when he is talking to Polonius, to whom he has every reason to be obfuscatory and difficult with (the "you are a fishmonger" exchange, Act II Scene ii).  He doesn't know that this will make things even more difficult for him, but he is recently returned from Wittenberg and he thinks that Polonius is completely under Claudius' sway.  He feels he cannot trust anyone except Horatio, so it seems best to him (erroneously) to seem mad to everyone connected with Claudius.

If my father had appeared to me as a ghost I'd probably start acting a bit strangely, too.  But Hamlet seems to have a plan, and the ability of foresight and reason during the entire play.  When he tells Ophelia to get to a nunnery, for example, there is no doubt that he wants to get her away from the pernicious influence, he believes, of her father and Claudius.  He is also planning a murder, or at the very least the public humiliation of his uncle, so I can understand him wanting to get Ophelia out of harm's way.  This does not seem "mad" to me.

We must remember that Hamlet has a theatrical bent; he knows the players from long before, and spent much time with Yorick the jester.  He loves to play-act, and to deceive people, and be other than he is.  Add to this the psychological pressure of his father's murder, his mother's ill-advised marriage, and the withdrawal of his former love's affections, and we might get a person acting strangely, and, perhaps, making some whopping bad choices (as Hamlet does).  Near the end, too, he has the guilt of Polonius' death on him; all these things make psychological sense when we consider his actions; it makes sense that he is upset and has a bad temper, perhaps, but not that he is mad.

For example, right before  he fights with Laertes in Act V Scene ii, Hamlet is with Horatio and is completely sane.  He is depressed, doubtless, and sad he lost his temper with the grieving Laertes, but he is in complete command of his faculties:

It will be short; the interim is mine,
And a man's life's is no more than to say 'One.'
But I am very sorry, good Horatio,(80)
That to Laertes I forgot myself,
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his. I'll court his favours.
But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me
Into a towering passion. (V, ii)

Perhaps I have been influenced by the theatrical productions and movies I have seen of Hamlet, but my reading of it is that while Hamlet was grieving, passionate, and very, very angry, he never completely lost his reason.  He was doubtless depressed ("Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt" soliloquy, Act I, Scene ii) he never was without his reason, his judgment (though it was sometimes wrong) or his faculties.  I thought he only ever feigned madness, but was probably clinically depressed, which made him do unreasonable things.  Of course this all hinges on what you mean by "mad" -- clinically depressed could be considered mad, I suppose, but "mad" usually means psychotic or without reason, I think.  But the wonder of this play is that you could easily argue the other way -- and I think it's great that it could be seen from either direction.  I'd love to see this topic on the Discussion board.

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