The themes of madness in Hamlet by Shakespeare?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Madness, both real and imagined, is never far from the surface in Hamlet. The lead character feigns madness as part of a plan to unnerve his wicked stepfather, Claudius, and make him feel insecure on his usurped throne. So long as Claudius is preoccupied with the seeming insanity of his stepson, he can never feel secure as king. Hamlet has turned madness into a kind of political weapon, one of the few he has in his armory. At the same time, it's much more subtle than the usual methods of gaining revenge. Hamlet's more of a thinker than a doer, and putting on an "antic disposition" and playing cat-and-mouse with Claudius is entirely in keeping with his more cerebral character.

Ophelia's madness, however, is all too tragically real. She has been driven to this sad state by her inability to reconcile the two most important roles in her life: dutiful daughter and sister, to Polonius and Laertes respectively; and Hamlet's paramour. Her cruel rejection at the hands of Hamlet ("Get thee to a nunnery!") unravels a desperate plot hatched by Polonius to figure out what's been bugging the student prince. Ophelia has been cynically used by her father as an unwitting pawn in a game of high court intrigue. Hamlet's brusque disavowal of any feelings for her leaves her with nowhere to go. Ophelia is much too delicate, too gentle for this cruel and bloody world, and her frail personality simply cannot handle the sudden strain placed upon it by all the men in her life. And so she begins a slow, but steady descent into outright madness.

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gbeatty eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Madness is an ongoing theme throughout Hamlet. It emerges primarily in two characters, Hamlet and Ophelia, but other characters comment on it, speculate about it, etc. This makes it seem like madness is a common possibility, and something that happens to people, like a storm.

In Hamlet's case, the main suggestions for why he might be mad are love for Ophelia and the loss of his father/remarriage of his mother. However, he is but pretending to be mad, so he can investigate Claudius.

In Ophelia's case, she actually loses it. She ends up dying as a result, unbalanced by the loss of Hamlet's love, his actions towards her, and, of course, his killing of her father.

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