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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Looking at the text, it is clear beginning from Act I that Hamlet makes a conscious decision to feign madness, which is to act as though he has lost all reason and rationality. What is unspoken in the text, though a large part of cultural Renaissance life, is the conflict between the cultural view and the Protestant view of revenge killing.

Hamlet is clearly a dedicated Protestant because he has been away at university in Witenberg. Wittenberg houses the university at which Protestant reformer Martin Luther was educated and at which he later taught as a professor. The late King Hamlet was clearly not a Protestant--or at least not to the extent to which Hamlet is--since his dying mission is to coerce his son into playing his culturally required (but religiously denied) role of committing revenge killing to avenge the assassination by Claudius.

Fortinbras illustrates perfectly the culturally required reaction of a son whose father has been murdered. This reaction is even more profoundly required of a Prince whose King/Father has been assassinated. Hamlet is placed in a harrowing position: It's not a mere act he has to choose to perform or not; it is a spiritual action that has the potential, in his mind, to damn him to hell everlasting.

For this reason, Hamlet must be sure to an irreproachable degree that he understands the Ghost's identity correctly and the guilt of Claudius correctly [add to this the personal and spiritual horror Hamlet feels in seeing his mother marry in opposition to Catholic and Protestant religious precepts that disallow marriage between a man and woman formerly related by marriage (in other words, the brother- or sister-in-law)]. Even then he must have the courage to abandon his spiritual beliefs to honor his cultural duty as imposed upon him by the Ghost, who, in Hamlet's eyes, is a harbinger of evil and horror, for no matter which way Hamlet turns, he is doomed: He is doomed to dishonor King, Father, and country or he is doomed to dishonor and disobey the precepts and commands of his religion and God.

If there is any true madness, the madness comes form this: Hamlet is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. His life is dammed and doomed no matter what he does. He eventually quits trying to choose and simply acts according to the cultural example Fortinbras sets before him. All die as a result of Hamlet's reaction to Fortinbras' example. This seems to condemn the cultural requirement for revenge even though Fortinbras carries it off with such aplomb and with such honor.

Even though cultural requirements--represented in Fortinbras (thus the significant similarities and striking differences between Fortinbras and Hamlet)--win out in the end and seem to reign supreme as correct norms of action, there remains an underlying question: While all appearances indicate that revenge killing is the correct path to take, needing no contemplation prior to action, is this really true? Is it really true that revenge killing is right whereas religious beliefs, which give God the power of revenge and humans the duty of mercy, are wrong?

If there is true madness in Hamlet, then surely it stems from trying to know and understand the answer to this question, especially since it is no less than God and King/Father who are pressing against him from two opposing sides; who are creating the rock and the hard place that he is caught between.

alexb2 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think he is crazy. It may be a temporary madness, but it is madness nonetheless. Remember that crazy people never think they're crazy, it's everyone else who is insane, never them.

Isn't it possible that Hamlet is both really insane, and pretending to be insane?

Consider: Hamlet drives away his only love, he's unable to take the action best for himself and his country and depose the King-killing Claudius, he murders an innocent man by lunging at unknown persons behind tapestries, he scares everyone witless, even those who don't need to be scared... all the while telling himself that his madness is just an act.

He may think he's not crazy, but his actions speak otherwise. Just because we have access to his seemingly-lucid thoughts does not mean those thoughts make any sense outside of Hamlet's own mind.

daveb eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think he's both crazy and not. Better put, I think that while he might be unbelievably upset from his father's death, I think his actions afterwards all stem from that. He's not crazy, but "he ain't right, neither."

Regarding actors with problems, if you want to include Kenneth Brannaugh as someone with a blindingly massive ego and who played Hamlet, you might add him to your list.

zumba96 | Student

He is crazy. Hamlet was sane and acted crazy at first to uncover the murderer of his father, but then became crazy. With his inward conflict of himself and the conflict of trying to conform to societal norms, he later becomes crazy since he cannot handle it. He becomes his own downfall and leads to his end. 

wildandfree | Student

I believe Hamlet is definitely just putting on an act, although there is the feeling that his obsession with his father's revenge has driven him crazy, I think Hamlet is way too smart for that. I think there is little that Hamlet doesn't know, especially durring moments when he is being watched. I think Hamlet knows he's being watched and therefore acts even crazier, like when he's with Ophelia, he knows Polonius will be listening to every word he says, hence the way he treats her.

corkey885 | Student

I personally thing that in his act of pretending to be crazy he actually becomes crazy.

ggcr07 | Student

Exactly! If he didnt pretend that he was mad do you think that he could have gotten away with so many things? The Prince of Denmark has certain protocol rules and by pretending to be mad he could get away with these things! Besides, in act 3 he begs his mother to keep his secret quiet and not tell Claudius that he  is not mad at all. Although this is debatable because he has been through so much (death of his father, hasty marriage of his mother) he is too analytical and as tal said "self-aware" to be considered crazy.

tal | Student

I fall on the side of "not crazy", because he expresses so much self-doubt and self awareness. These are not qualities I think a crazy person has. Although he delays and is not good at revenge, that doesn't make him crazy. His craziness is an act designed to drive people away, because he is getting into some bad business. 

ggcr07 | Student

It is all an act. Remember in act I, scene V when he says:

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on-

This is in fact the announcement of his madness and his intention to fake it.

arjun | Student

Hamlet is not crazy.  If he had been crazy, he must have killed Claudius in prayer.  He wishes to kill him in order to save himself from remorse and degradation beside he is brave or brave on, so it lies on him as foremost he is not crazy and tries to save himself from cowardice.

nedsneebly | Student

Personally no I don't think he's crazy. I think it is all just an act for Claudius, because if you remember in act 3 scene 4 when he confronts his mother, he tells her that he's "only mad in craft."

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