What do we learn from Hamlet's feigned madness and Ophelia's true insanity?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

After he meets the ghost, Hamlet tells Horatio he will be pretending madness, so we as an audience know what he is doing. However, the members of the Danish court, including Claudius, do not understand what is going on. When the audience knows what characters in a play do not, this is called dramatic irony.

Hamlet's feigned madness works to his own advantage, as it keeps the courtiers Claudius has assigned to spy on him guessing about what is wrong with him. He does not want Claudius to guess that he suspects that he killed King Hamlet. In fact, Hamlet creates enough confusion with his erratic, "mad," behavior that Claudius is relieved when Hamlet wants to put on a play. Claudius encourages this activity (which he should be very worried about) because Hamlet's feigned madness has successfully deceived him.

Ophelia, however, is confused and distressed by Hamlet's behavior. She doesn't know that Hamlet is only pretending to be mad and doesn't know how to interpret his behavior toward her. What we learn about her real madness is that true insanity can have dire consequences: Ophelia, unlike Hamlet, is driven to suicide by the madness around her.

Feigned madness is a useful ploy in this play; real madness is tragic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet's feigned madness is a device that he uses to stall and give him time to figure out what to do about his Uncle having killed his father and married his mother. Hamlet's madness is contrived while Ophelia's is real because Hamlet has a strong mind and Ophelia does not. Ophelia is torn between father and boyfriend when both manipulate her in order to get to the other one. Ophelia is not one of independency or strong will. She follows the dictates of society which tell her to obey her father without question, but also to to trust everything that she sees. Had she used a bit of woman's intuition and investigated on her own without daddy looking over her shoulder, she probably would have put two and two together before losing her mind. This is part of the answer to the second question, too. Both Hamlet and Ophelia knew that daddy was spying the whole time, so neither one could be themselves and have an honest conversation.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial