Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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What purpose is served when Hamlet decides to feign madness?

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Immediately after his first meeting with the Ghost, Hamlet swears Marcellus and Horatio to secrecy and indicates that he is thinking of pretending to be mad. Throughout the play his mental condition is a matter of increasing concern, mystery, speculation, discussion, and debate.

Hamlet knows that the King is a murderer and a usurper. He intends to assassinate the King. He knows his father’s ghost is haunting the castle. His mother may have been involved in her husband’s murder. Any of these secrets could cost him his life. His facial expressions, body language, and possible slips of the tongue might give him away. Claudius will continue to pry into his mind and his very soul. His encounter with the Ghost has changed him into a different person, and this is sure to be noticed by the King.

Hamlet’s foresight proves correct. Claudius uses his cunning mind to try to understand his stepson. Like many villains, today as well as in yesteryears, he is parasitical: he specializes in analyzing...

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paigequill | Student

When Hamlet learns from the Ghost in Act 1 Scene V that Claudius killed old Hamlet, he's left in a position where he must now avenge his father's death. However, Hamlet knows that Claudius is smart and intelligent, and, therefore, Hamlet must devise a plot to kill Claudius without being found out. With his father's death, his mother's quick marriage, and, later on, Ophelia's refusal of his love, he's given multiple excuses to not be in his right mind. This allows Hamlet to feign madness.

Feigning madness will give Hamlet multiple opportunities throughout the play to expose Claudius as the murderer of old Hamlet and to disguise his true feelings and responses under a layer of puns and cunning. Hamlet's madness acts both as a disguise and as a way to get the other characters to underestimate his wit.

However, feigning madness also helps Hamlet mask a true madness lurking within him as hinted throughout the play. We see shows of Hamlet's real madness during Scene IV of the first Act where Hamlet says, "Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, be thy intents wicked or charitable, though con's in such a questionable shape That I will speak to thee. I'll call thee 'Hamlet,' 'King,' 'Father,' 'Royal Dane.'" Hamlet is willing to believe the Ghost is his father even if he's really a demon or some other wicked spirit. We see hints of Hamlet's insanity also in Act III Scene IV when he kills Polonius without even checking that it was the King and later in Act V scene II, when Hamlet apologizes to Laertes, saying: "What I have done ... I here proclaim was madness." Also in Act III Scene IV, the Ghost appears before Hamlet and the Queen, but only Hamlet sees the Ghost. Whether there's a moral barrier between the Queen and the Ghost where she is not, by some spiritual means, allowed to see the Ghost or whether Hamlet's gone mad and the ghost is a figment of his imagination, it is not clear. Nonetheless, true acts of madness aren't far fetched to have appeared under Hamlet's act of madness.

rienzi | Student

The play leaves open the question of whether Hamlet truly is mad or whether he just puts on an antic disposition. Dover Wilson in his book "What Happens In Hamlet" (it is a bit expensive for a paperback written in the mid 30s but it is available in Google books) claims no less than 6 times Hamlet swerves into actual madness. He also claims that the swearing scene at the end of 1.5 where Hamlet claims to put on an antic disposition was a ruse to cover his true madness. I think Wilson is excessive in pushing what is deliberately ambiguous. In the text, Shakespeare is careful to balance the text both for and against feigning madness.

Having said that, the purposes are varied. In the original Amleth legend the title character acts simple minded. This serves the purpose of eliminating Amleth as a threat to the uncle king. Here, I think the intent is the same, but the irony is that Hamlet's antics draw suspicion rather than allay them.

From a thematic perspective the madness issue provides a dichotomy between image and reality. And from a theatrical perspective it gives the actor playing Hamlet a much wider range of acting. Madness provides an additional dimension to the character that can be played as the actor and director see fit.

epollock | Student

Hamlet pretending to be mad is part of his plan to get revenge for the murder of his father. Whether or not it was his best option for his revenge is really hard to say due to the circumstances in which Shakespeare wrote it. Looking back upon it now, with a contemporary viewpoint, since it did work, it was successful.