Is Hamlet's insanity real or pretend?

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The extent to which Hamlet's insanity is feigned or real is a question of the play and part of the theme of deception. The actor and director of each production might explore this and play up Hamlet's madness to varying degrees.

We do know for sure that Hamlet's...

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The extent to which Hamlet's insanity is feigned or real is a question of the play and part of the theme of deception. The actor and director of each production might explore this and play up Hamlet's madness to varying degrees.

We do know for sure that Hamlet's behavior begins as an intentional deception. After conversing with his father's ghost at the end of act 1, Hamlet tells his friends Horatio and Marcellus about the encounter and makes them swear they will not tell anyone what has happened that night.

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on),
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumb'red thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know,' or 'We could, an if we would,'
Or 'If we list to speak,' or 'There be, an if they might,'
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me—this is not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you,
Swear.

Hamlet tells them (and us) that he will put on "an antic disposition," meaning he will pretend to be out of his mind. Therefore, his "madness" begins as intentionally pretending.

From then on, Hamlet acts erratically with most of the characters. We can see that this is a change from his melancholy when we first saw him, so we're inclined to believe that it is all pretend. In act 3, scene 2, Hamlet tells Horatio to carefully watch Claudius during the Players' performance. Hamlet's dialogue is different with his friend Horatio (who knows about the ghost) and with Ophelia, which is further evidence that Hamlet is just pretending. But in scene 4, he quickly kills Polonius behind the curtain. We might question the rashness of this, and whether it truly aligns with the rest of his plans. Additionally, he sees his father's ghost again, but the spirit does not appear to his mother, Gertrude, who is also in the room. Again, Shakespeare raises the question: is this because the ghost has a special relationship with Hamlet and purposely only appears to him, or is this part of Hamlet's descent into true madness? He does reassure his mother it is all pretend, saying, "I essentially am not in madness / But mad in craft." Hamlet's insanity definitely starts as pretend, but there are moments the audience might wonder if it is starting to become real.

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