The Last of Hamlet’s Four Possible Tragic Flaws: Insanity

William Shakespeare

The Last of Hamlet’s Four Possible Tragic Flaws: Insanity

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had something very interesting to say about the tragic hero. In fact, Aristotle is responsible for the first idea that the tragic hero does, indeed, have a flaw. It is this flaw that condemns the hero of any true tragedy. As has been previously indicated, there are four possible flaws attributed to Shakespeare’s character of Hamlet: inaction, melancholy, trust in the ghost, or madness. It surprises students to hear that all of them can, in fact, be proven using quotes from the text. Further, it’s also possible to assert that Hamlet doesn’t even have a tragic flaw. (The scholar Bradley, for example, thinks this.) Regardless, we have been delving deep into these possible tragic flaws in these eNotes insights; therefore, it’s time to explore the very last possibility: that Hamlet is actually insane.

Hamlet himself does commit to the idea of putting an “antic disposition on.” Even so, could Hamlet be so good at doing so that he actually goes crazy in the process? This theory can, in fact, be proven with evidence from the text. Before we explore examples, also realize the reasoning behind Hamlet’s actions. Hamlet is supposed to be trying to figure out if Claudius really did kill Hamlet’s father. When examining whether Hamlet is truly crazy, that reasoning needs to be considered for each example from the text.

For the first instance, look at the words that Hamlet screams at Ophelia in act three. Specifically, let’s look at the word “love.” Hamlet’s words are explosive, using love as a weapon against Ophelia. Quite simply, in line 115 Hamlet screams, "I did love you once" and only a few lines later Hamlet yells, "I loved you not."  These two lines are the exact antithesis of each other. Is Hamlet doing a wonderful job with his “antic disposition” or has he gone insane? Considering the actual reason why Hamlet decided to act crazy, does this conversation help his cause? (It doesn’t.) Is it enough that Hamlet suspects Ophelia is spying for Claudius? Does this conversation actually bring Hamlet any closer to avenging his father?

Now let’s look at something else Hamlet admits during this conversation: “Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.” Is Hamlet admitting his anger here, or is he admitting his own tragic flaw that, in the act of acting crazy, he has actually gone insane? Could the spurned love of a woman (for whatever reason) make a man go insane? Did this happen to Hamlet? That line could be evidence of that.

Further, there is no doubt that Hamlet sees the ghost, but Gertrude can’t. How do we know this? The ghost enters (according to the stage directions) and Hamlet says “What would your gracious figure?” Gertrude immediately exclaims, “Alas, he’s mad.” Futher, Hamlet becomes even more distraught, asking if Gertrude sees the ghost. Gertrude is confused and says, “Wheron do you look?” And Hamlet replies, “On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!” Gertrude doesn’t see the ghost and says, “To whom do you speak this?” If one person sees a ghost or a demon while another person does not see it, does that make the former person crazy? How about this: what if someone sees something that isn’t there in reality? Could that be the definition of insanity?

Let’s look at some more evidence. How about when Hamlet says outright, “the king is a thing.” Annotators are notorious for talking about what Hamlet “probably” meant here (most of the time they think it refers to Hamlet’s father not inhabiting his body any longer). What if Hamlet has really gone crazy and is now thinking of Claudius (or as Hamlet’s own father) as an immobile object? That could certainly be interpreted as insanity.

Finally, in addition to the conversation with Ophelia where Hamlet declares himself “mad,” Hamlet names his own tragic flaw again in Act V: “Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it, then? His madness.” There are two pieces of evidence here. The lesser bit of evidence is that Hamlet refers to himself in the third person not once, but three times. The larger bit of evidence is that Hamlet actually blames “his madness” as the reason for his inaction.

Although Hamlet’s intelligence throughout the play can be used as opposition, the former pieces of evidence could also be used to prove Hamlet insane.