After his interview with his father's ghost, Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus swear that they will never tell anyone about the ghost or give any indication that they know anything about Hamlet's apparent madness. Hamlet says:
How strange or odd some'er I bear myself --
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on ...
I am only asking why he apparently decides "to put an antic disposition on," and not whether he is really mad or not. Since he has decided to do this on the spur of the moment, he must have a single specific purpose in mind.
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Hamlet is trying to decide how to handle the problem that King Claudius poses. He detests Claudius and the fact that he has taken his place not only on the throne, but also in his mother's bed. He figures that by appearing to be nuts he might keep suspicion away while he decides what to do. It works, Claudius and the Queen are convinced that he is mentally off. It does not protect him though, as Claudius still plans to kill him.
Poor Hamlet has been placed in an untenable situation. He is young, and has the great responsibility of trying to avenge his father’s death and save his kingdom. Hamlet knows that talking to ghosts would seem crazy, so he figures he might as well milk it for all its worth and sneak up on Claudius.
A melancholic who is not given to immediate action, Hamlet deliberates long on what actions to take in order to expose his father's murderer. Regicide is not to be taken lightly, anyway, as it upsets the natural order and is a serious offense if there is not justification. So, in his thorough examinations of the Danish court, Hamlet feigns madness, hoping that by acting in such a way others will become bolder around him and reveal something in their actions and speech that he can employ as justification for avenging King Hamlet's death.
When, for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visit him, Hamlet's feigned madness causes them to lose their guard against him and reveal information about Claudius.
The complexity of the relationships that Halmet must navigate might explain his choice to fake madness. Strategically, by faking madness Hamlet will be able to distance himself from everyone so as to give himself space to think about what the proper course of action may be.
"From that dilemma of wrong feelings and right actions, he ultimately emerges, solving the problem by attaining a proper state of mind.”
Madness is a social construct, and it always has been. Deciding to be crazy, or pretending to be, is both an excuse and a rationalization. If people think that Hamlet is "mad", then they will either leave him alone or treat him differently. As a prince, he is already entitled to some measure of independence and respect, but to add in madness allows Hamlet to act as he wishes almost entirely. People will simply say of him it's eccentricity. So Hamlet's social status allows him to wallow in sadness and partial dememtia, because he can't be locked away like some commoner. Declaring himself mad also allows him to rationalize his reclusiveness and inability to get over his father's death. Hamlet doesn't want to just move past his father's death; he want to mourn.
There is a certain anonymity that goes with pretending to be mad. Hamlet can go where he wants, say what he wants, and acts as he wants under this guise of being mad. Yes, he's a prince and could do this to some degree before, but now that he's clearly insane, he can watch his stepfather (uncle) even more closely. While Claudius may worry about Hamlet's state of mind, he makes the mistake of dismissing him as crazy. It's easy for people to dismiss and discount the crazy person, but that’s what makes his acting all the more brilliant.
I've always understood his choice to play at being mad--intentionally as he is not mad--as being related to his desire, one might more correctly say need, to find out Claudius's guilt. On the one hand, Hamlet is a Protestant who had been studying at Wittenberg, the University Martin Luther is famously attached to. As such, Hamlet has certain strictures upon him that he wouldn't have otherwise, such as not to look for signs and portents and not to commit revenge murder. From his dilemma, it might be deduced that Hamlet's father was not a Protestant. On the other hand, Hamlet has a filial duty to his father, a fealty duty to his deceased King, and an ancestral duty to his father's ghost. These combined duties require Hamlet to honor the Ghost's wishes.
Hamlet's Protestantism forbids him to honor the Ghost's wishes. Thus his torment and dilemma. The only way Hamlet can bring himself to break the deadlock of ideologies is to have incontrovertible evidence of Claudius's guilt--or at least evidence he can put his trust in. Thus, feigning madness assures Hamlet, he believes, peace from which to keenly and closely observe Claudius without, he believes, drawing suspicion upon himself thus exposing his scrutiny of Claudius and his true intent. He has to closely watch, yet not be closely watched, rather be cast off as ... as though mad.
If Hamlet pretended that he was mentally insane,, he would be able to kill Claudius without drawing too much suspision.
Hamlet pretends to be mad to keep others from knowing what he is really planning. He is trying to find a way to kill his Uncle Claudius. As mentioned above, regicide is not to be taken lightly. Hamlet has to have a good reason for killing his Uncle Claudius. He cannot confide in anyone about what his father's ghost demanded of him. Who would believe him? Hamlet is in a difficult situation. He has to find proof that Claudius has indeed killed his father. While pretending to be mad, Hamlet is buying time. He is awaiting the right moment to avenge his father's death.
If Hamlet pretends to be mad he is only going to attract more attention to himself. Everybody will be watching him and gossiping about him. How is this going to help him plot against Claudius? Doesn't Hamlet have enough on his mind without having to keep thinking about playing the part of a madman? And doesn't his statement that he intends to play mad confuse the audience by making it harder to understand him? Isn't it hard enough to understand his motives and behavior without having to factor in the possibility that he is only pretending sometimes and not pretending at other times? He seems to enjoy playing mind games with people? Isn't this a little frivolous for a man who has serious problems and a serious mission?
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