How do you explain Hamlet's behavior toward Ophelia in act 2, scene 1 of Hamlet?

Hamlet's behavior in act 2, scene 1 is based on his decision "To put an antic disposition on," or to feign madness, after he meets with his father's ghost in act 1, scene 5. Hamlet explains to his mother, Gertrude, in act 3, Scene 4 that he's behaving "not in madness,/ But mad in craft," and that he's simply acting as if he's mad to protect himself from his uncle, Claudius, who killed Hamlet's father.

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After Hamlet meets with the ghost of his father in act 1, scene 5 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet confides to Horatio and Marcellus, "I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on" (1.5.191-192). In other words, Hamlet thinks that based on what the ghost told...

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After Hamlet meets with the ghost of his father in act 1, scene 5 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet confides to Horatio and Marcellus, "I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on" (1.5.191-192). In other words, Hamlet thinks that based on what the ghost told him, it might be a good idea to act as if he's mad.

Hamlet doesn't explain to Horatio and Marcellus why he thinks it might be a good idea to feign madness. However, Hamlet tells his mother in act 3, scene 4 that he's acting "not in madness,/ But mad in craft" (3.4.203-204), in order to protect himself from Claudius, who Hamlet believes killed his father.

To Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience, an "antic disposition" didn't mean that the person only performs crazy antics, as is commonly believed today, but that the person exhibits symptoms of "melancholia," such as deep sadness, depression, dejection, and hopelessness.

Interestingly, in act 1, scene 2, Claudius and Gertrude complain about Hamlet exhibiting this very kind of behavior, even before the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to him. This leads to the question of whether Hamlet was simply acting mad, or if he really was mad—a question which has been discussed probably from the time Hamlet was first performed in 1600 or 1601.

Nevertheless, after Hamlet decides in act 1, scene 5 to put on an "antic disposition," it appears that the first person on whom he practices his new "mad act" is Ophelia, and she immediately runs to her father, Polonius, to tell him about it.

Hamlet's performance for Ophelia contains elements of crazy, disturbing behavior, as well as what the Elizabethans considered "antic," melancholic behavior.

OPHELIA. [to Polonius] My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors, he comes before me.. ...

And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. (2.1.87-94, 105-108)

Polonius immediately jumps to the wrong conclusion, which is exactly what Hamlet hoped would happen.

POLONIUS. Mad for thy love? (2.1.95)

Ophelia is confused by Hamlet's behavior, and she doesn't really know what to think about it, so she simply agrees with Polonius.

OPHELIA. My lord, I do not know,
But truly I do fear it. (2.1.95-97)

In time, Claudius and even Polonius start to wonder if Hamlet's madness is just an act, but Hamlet's "antic disposition" serves its purpose to keep Claudius guessing about what Hamlet actually knows about his father's murder.

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Hamlet made it clear at the end of act 1 that he was intending to pretend to be mad, so this is the first stage in his plan.

Hamlet approaches Ophelia, the one person who would be most shocked by his behavior, being innocent and a bit shy. He comes into her room in a state of disheveled dress and he grabs her "hard" (2.1.88). He then stares at her before making a departure.

To Ophelia, this behavior would be unnerving. She reports it to her father right away, and her father reports it to the king and queen. His state of undress also plays into the image of the "melancholy youth." Melancholy was often associated with lovesickness, which is why Polonius assumes (or rather, hopes) that his love of Ophelia is what has driven Hamlet to his current state of mind.

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We don't actually see Hamlet's behavior in the scene, we have to imagine his actions based on Ophelia's telling of his actions to her father, Polonius.  From Ophelia's description, it seems that Hamlet has started his "crazy act" as he explained it at the end of Act 1.  The normal Hamlet would probably have come to talk to Ophelia wearing clothes that fit properly; speaking in clear language about whatever topics these young lovers say to each other.  But Ophelia reports that when Hamlet comes into her room he looks like a disaster:  his shirt is undone, his socks aren't pulled up, and he isn't wearing a hat.  These are clearly not in keeping with how he usually presented himself.  She then reports that he didn't actually say a word to her, he only gave up long drawn out sighs and stared at her, never breaking eye contact as he backed out the room and out of her sight.  Ophelia, and now her father, are convinced that Hamlet has a case of madness, so Hamlet's plan to act crazy has worked.  Polonius is convinced that the madness has sprung from Ophelia's rejection of him, and he relishes being able to report this to the King.  Hamlet' plan to working!

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