Did Hamlet really go mad or was it pretense? Provide support from the play to explain why.

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The concept of Hamlet's descent into madness is a major theme throughout the play, but there is no definitive answer as to whether he was actually mad or simply giving a convincing performance. Prince Hamlet actively attempts to convince others that he is insane for his own purposes, which makes the matter more difficult to assess as a reader. It is possible that Hamlet believes his madness to be a pretense when it is, in fact, a reality. In this sense, madness is both a theme and a plot device.

Hamlet's Perspective

Throughout the story, Hamlet's ability to distinguish reality from imagination is called into question by himself as well as others. The first significant evidence that Hamlet is mad could also be taken as a supernatural encounter, depending on your perspective. Towards the beginning of the story, Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who asks Hamlet to avenge his murder at the hands of his brother, King Claudius. As events in the play unfold, even Hamlet finds himself questioning whether the appearance of his father's ghost could actually have been a hallucination. Hamlet's perspective is also characterized by emotional distress, as exemplified in the following lines of Act I, Scene II:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

In this portion of the text, we learn that Hamlet's psychological distress has led him to contemplate suicide, even though his religious beliefs forbid both suicide and murder. The conflict between Hamlet's feelings and his beliefs could be seen as the force that pushes him deeper into madness. Visceral longings for his flesh to "melt" and "resolve itself into a dew" also suggest some level of instability.

Madness as Illusion

Hamlet uses the concept of illusion to discuss the idea of madness in a unique way. In this context, madness occurs when a character grasps onto illusion rather than accepting reality for what it is. In many cases, both Hamlet and the reader wonder whether he is capable of discerning the difference at all. An in-text example of the contrast between reality and illusion can be found in Act III, Scene IV. In this scene, a contrast is made between the "real" and "seeming" kings of Denmark. Hamlet is surrounded by illusions created by himself as well as his enemies.

Madness as Pretense

Prince Hamlet is so skilled at pretending to be mad that the reader is left to wonder if it is an act, after all. After seeing his father's apparition, the Prince warns his friends that he will display an "antic disposition," which can also be interpreted as a grotesque act or a convincing impersonation of madness. There is some critical debate as to whether Hamlet's act itself was so convincing that he began to live it or whether he was truly mad all along. There is no definitive answer among scholars, and the open-ended nature of the question is likely an intended theme of the play. Hamlet's sanity, like many other elements of the story, is meant to be ambiguous.

Elizabethan Concepts of Madness

When considering whether Hamlet was or wasn't mad, it is important to understand that Elizabethan concepts of madness were different from the modern day understanding of mental health issues. Many of the traits Hamlet exhibits that are intended to convey madness must be seen through the lens of the play's era. For example, Polonius believes Hamlet has gone mad as a result of what he perceives as Ophelia's rejection. This assumption hinges on the Elizabethan belief that lovesickness was a common condition that could result in severe physical and mental illness.

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