Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Why did Hamlet pretend to be insane?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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After speaking with his father's ghost, Hamlet learns that his uncle, Claudius, assassinated his father by pouring poison into his ear while he was sleeping in an orchard. Upon discovering his uncle's treachery, Hamlet promises to avenge his father's death by murdering King Claudius. Hamlet also understands that Claudius will be wary of him and does not want him to suspect that he is plotting against him. Hamlet is also aware that Claudius will begin spying on him and threatens to interrupt his bloody plans. Therefore, Hamlet decides to feign madness as a way to confuse Claudius and distract him from becoming suspicious. Hamlet essentially desires to conceal his malevolent intentions and suppress Claudius's suspicions. Initially, Claudius entertains the idea that Hamlet may be acting strange because he is lovesick. However, Hamlet's madness influences Claudius to send him away to England, where Claudius plans on having him murdered. Unfortunately, Hamlet’s madness influences Claudius to act more suspicious of him and draws attention to himself. While Claudius may not suspect that Hamlet is plotting his murder, he does eye him with suspicion and wants him as far away from Denmark as possible.

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JOHN THORBURN eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, the title character learns from the ghost of his father that his father was murdered by his brother, Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Hamlet wants Claudius to be revealed as his father's murderer, but doing this Claudius will be difficult. Also, Hamlet needs to prevent Claudius from feeling like he is a threat to him. After all, Claudius might suspect that Hamlet would want to avenge his father's death. Accordingly, to prevent himself from appearing to be a threat and to gain access to Claudius at the same time, Hamlet decides that he will pretend to be insane ("How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself"; "To put an antic disposition on").

In his feigned madness, Hamlet convinces Ophelia and her father Polonius that his madness is caused by his love for Ophelia. Unfortunately, Hamlet's plan does not work out the way he hoped because he accidentally kills Ophelia's father, whom he mistook for an eavesdropping Claudius.

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sophiacrisafulli16 | Student

In William Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Hamlet pretends to be insane in order to accomplish his goal of avenging his father's death. Early in the play, Hamlet's deceased father appears to him as a ghost, and informs him that Claudius, the King's brother and Hamlet's uncle, was the one responsible for his murder. Hamlet vows to seek revenge and wipe all else from his mind: “From the table of my memory/ I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records…/And thy commandment all alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain”. However, Hamlet wants to be sure of Claudius's guilt before taking action, and he decides that feigning madness will be a way to buy himself time.

Hamlet believes that by pretending to be insane, he can bide his time and form a plan without Claudius, who is now romantically involved with Hamlet's mother Gertrude, becoming suspicious of his intentions. Hamlet informs his dearest friend, Horatio, of his plan in Act 1, Scene 5. Hamlet will "put an antic disposition on", but Horatio is never to let on that he knows it's fake. Hamlet insists: "So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear."

Hamlet's insanity is perceived differently by the many characters of the play. Claudius believes Hamlet's madness is caused by grief, Gertrude thinks Hamlet is upset about her new marriage. Others believe Hamlet is sick with love for Ophelia. The characters are distracted enough by these concerns that Hamlet is able to move freely and without drawing suspicion. Part of Hamlet's plan involves putting on a play involving murder, to see how Claudius reacts. But throughout this complex scheme, Hamlet struggles: he's paralyzed by indecision, becomes callous even when committing his own crimes, and ultimately does draw Polonius's suspicion.