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First of all, it is highly debatable as to whether Hamlet actually goes mad or if he is pretending. That said, Shakespeare does some interesting manipulations of language and form to show Hamlet's "antic disposition." Whenever Hamlet is pretending madness (or descending into madness), he speaks in prose rather than in iambic pentameter. Examples of this switch abound, but you will see them especially in Act 2, scene 2 when Hamlet calls Polonius a fishmonger and when Hamlet is visited by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are spying on him. Later in Act 3, scene 1, Hamlet's speaks in prose to Ophelia, in the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene. We see this pattern continuing for the rest of Act 3 and 4: Hamlet's speech is in prose when Hamlet is trying to deceive others into thinking he is mad. He uses prose primarily with Ophelia, Polonius, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But to Horatio and Gertrude, Hamlet speaks in iambic pentameter.
If I were looking for evidence, though, to show that Hamlet is becoming what he pretends to be, I would look more carefully at the language in the soliloquies. Hamlet's soliloquy in Act 3, scene 2 "Tis now the very witching time of night" shows a darker side of Hamlet's character as he allies himself with the evil that comes out a night:
Tis now the very witching time of night,
When chruchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quiake to look on.
Later in Act 3, scene 3, Hamlet spies Claudius attempting to pray and is contemplating killing him. Because Hamlet is somewhat playing god here in trying to manipulate the final destination of Claudius' soul, it could be argued that Hamlet is becoming more and more unstable. The meter of the soliloquy is more irregular as Hamlet seems to become more ruthless in his revenge, setting up Hamlet's rash and unfortunate murder of Polonius in the next scene.
First, if you believe Hamlet in Act I, scene v, when he speaks with Horatio and Marcellus after his meeting with the Ghost, then he is only pretending to be mad, he is not actually mad. He says:
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some'er I bear myself --
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on --
That you, at such time seeing me, never shall. . .note
That you know aught of me. . .
So, given that the feigned madness is a ruse set up by Hamlet in the opening Act, we must consider how Shakespeare uses language to convey this fact.
The major and most recognizable way that Shakespeare does this through the language is by his choices of when to use verse or prose for Hamlet's text. The traditional uses of verse would suggest that, being a high born, noble character (and the protagonist of the play), Hamlet should speak in verse the majority of the time. And this is true in Act I, prior to his seeing the Ghost. However, beginning with Act II, he speaks, when he is onstage with other characters, most often in prose. Prose would have signaled one of a few things to the actor speaking it and the audience hearing it :
- the character speaking is crass and low born;
- the character is a clown and the text is meant to be humorous;
- the character is noble, but in a private, secret conversation;
- the character is mad.
So, it is definitely plausible to assume that Shakespeare has Hamlet speak in his wacky prose (often saying inscrutible and off-the-cuff things, especially to Polonius) to indicate his feigned madness. This is true in Acts II and III up to the closet scene with Gertrude. His use of verse in this scene reveals that he is exposing his most heartfelt emotions to his mother. He returns to his "mad" prose when he confronts Claudius about the body of Polonius.
When Hamlet is alone onstage delivering soliloquies to the audience, he speaks in lucid, breathtakingly beautiful verse, reminding the audience of his "true" state of mind -- noble, sane and completely conscious of his choices. He also speaks verse with Horatio, the one character who is in on his scheme and with whom he can "be himself."
He uses verse with other characters (except the comic characters, the Gravedigger and Osric) once he returns from England in Act V, which signals a change in his tactic. He no longer is acting "mad," but is resigned to his fate, accepting the duel with Laertes even though he smells a rat. He resumes his rightful position as Prince Hamlet once again in this final Act of the play, returnsing to his high-born conversation style (using verse) with other characters.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare helps the audience understand whether Hamlet is "playacting" or honestly presentation of his true feelings through his uses of verse and prose. For more on verse and prose and Hamlet's "madness," please follow the links below.
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