"Hamlet's madness, whether genuine or not, adds to the fascination of his character for the audience." How can I discuss this statement, supporting my answer with suitable references to the play? 

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The question of whether Hamlet is actually mad is one of the most compelling subplot lines in all of English literature. Shakespeare deliberately cultivates the ambiguity in this question throughout. Hamlet says very early in the play that he will "put an antic disposition on," meaning that he will feign...

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The question of whether Hamlet is actually mad is one of the most compelling subplot lines in all of English literature. Shakespeare deliberately cultivates the ambiguity in this question throughout. Hamlet says very early in the play that he will "put an antic disposition on," meaning that he will feign madness as part of his attempt to avenge his father's death. Throughout the play, though, there seem to be instances when he loses control and is legitimately mad. He speaks in the kinds of riddles, double meanings, and downright nonsense that strike many of his fellow characters as madness, and he kills Polonius in what seems to be a bout of madness and an utter loss of control. Hamlet more than once reveals in his soliloquies that he has suicidal thoughts, claiming that he only fears death because of the possibility that he might experience bad dreams beyond the grave in his famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy. It can be convincingly argued that Hamlet is a naturally melancholy young man, and that, in his plotting for revenge, he actually goes mad, even if he wasn't before.

At the same time, Hamlet repeatedly assures people—and the audience—that he is not mad. He says that he knows a "hawk from a handsaw," and he tells his mother that he is "mad in craft." It is important to understand that people in Shakespeare's day did not understand mental illness in the same way that modern audiences do, and the portrayal of "madness" in the play is somewhere between moral defect and spiritual death. However, Hamlet's "madness" is one of the most compelling aspects of the play and one of the reasons it has remained a staple in Western literature. In Hamlet, Shakespeare's themes are timeless, but they are highly ambiguous.

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Many people find Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia to be especially fascinating: it seems as though he treats her quite cruelly in his "madness," but some readers suggest that he treats her meanly in order to protect her by distancing himself and any consequences he might encounter as a result of the revenge he plans to exact on his uncle. Sadly, if it is his intention to protect Ophelia from harm, it does not work; she does eventually die, drowning in the stream after Hamlet murders her father. He tells her at one point, for example, to go to a "nunnery" so that she will never get married and engage in all of the degrading behaviors of a wife; however, "nunnery" was also used as a slang term for a brothel, a place where sex workers would have intercourse with clients for money. In saying this to Ophelia, we cannot really be sure what is going on with Hamlet. Is he simply pretending to be mad? Is he actually expressing anger with her as a result of their break up? Is he trying to protect her? Is he actually going a little mad? We cannot know, and this certainly makes his character more interesting.

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Two things that really hook an audience and make them interested in a character are complexity and ambiguity. Complexity, because we always like finding yet another interesting layer to a character, and ambiguity because it keeps us guessing—the character never feels "figured out." Hamlet and his madness fulfill both of those things for us—his madness, real or feigned, makes his behavior complex and unpredictable, and the question of just how mad he truly is lends ambiguity—just what is really going on with him, anyway? Could anyone who keeps insisting on his own sanity really be as sane as he claims? Could someone truly insane behave with such calculated care to appear "mad"? In fact, the question of Hamlet's madness or sanity is one of his most compelling attributes: if Shakespeare gave us, with absolute certainty, an answer to whether Hamlet was mad or not, the play would lose a great deal of the strangeness that has kept people fascinated by it for centuries.

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