How does Shakespeare's portrayal differ between Hamlet's feigned madness and Ophelia's real madness?

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The question of mental illness as William Shakespeare presents it in Hamlet has been widely debated. “Mad,” a term that was once in common use, can apply to a wide range of emotional and mental problems from which both Hamlet and Ophelia probably suffer. Hamlet is definitely grieving for his...

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father’s death and concerned over his mother’s lack of loyalty to her late husband’s memory. His drastic mood swings may also indicate bipolar disorder. It is also clear, however, that he is feigning “madness” because he tells several characters of his plan—not only before he begins, but at several key points.

After the Ghost speaks with him and he swears vengeance, Hamlet tells Horatio of his plan to dissemble in order to trick Claudius. He tells his friend to ignore anything “strange or odd” as his plan is to "put an antic disposition on" (Act I, Scene V). Later he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is only partly mad, “north north-west,” and that he can distinguish between reality and fantasy, or “I know a hawk from a handsaw”—the latter being a variant of “hernsaw,” or a different kind of bird.

Ophelia’s distress is of a different order. When her brother leaves, she has only her father to guide her, and Polonius has sided with Claudius and Gertrude and against Hamlet. After telling her to break off with Hamlet and not see him anymore, her father reverses himself and sets her to spy on her former boyfriend. In her conversations with Hamlet, it is clear he suspects her motives. His harsh words, including telling her that if married, she would breed monsters and that he does not love her, seem to bring on a bout of depression. She describes herself as “most dejected and wretched” in part over losing his love but also because she believes “his noble mind is… overthrown.”

The songs she later sings (Act IV, Scene 5) have a heavy sexual content, leading many critics to believe that she and Hamlet previously had a sexual relationship. She may be pregnant, as she mentions to him gifts that she wishes she could return: "remembrances of yours/That I have longed long to re-deliver" (Act II, Scene 1). Part of her distress is knowing that because he will not marry her as he had promised, she can never marry because she is no longer a "maid," that is, a virgin:

Let in the maid, that out a maid/

Never departed more….

Quoth she, “Before you tumbled me,

You promis'd me to wed.”

Ultimately, it seems that the combination of grief for her father and depression brought on by Hamlet’s betrayal and her future hopeless situation becomes too much. The balance seems to be on mourning, however, as her last song is for her father, who is “dead” and “will never come again.” Ultimately, because only Gertrude reports on her death and alleges it suicide, we cannot know for certain how she died.

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First of all, Shakespeare has Hamlet announce the fact that he is going to be acting strange and putting on an "antic disposition".  So, he "announces" his madness before he starts acting mad.  That is one major difference here; Ophelia doesn't announce to the audience that she's just had enough so she is going to go insane.  Her insanity is real, and Hamlet's isn't.

As for presentation, Ophelia is rambling nursery songs, snippets of logical commentary, talk of flowers, and nonsense, all mixed up into a huge jumble of confusing dialogue.  She drifts from person to person, her stream of thought is not coherent, there is no point to it, and it isn't directed at one particular thing or person.  The closest that Hamlet gets to acting like this is when he is speaking to Polonius; however, Hamlet is more cohesive.  His point is that old men are fools; he wants Polonius to feel his foolishness.  Later, another time Hamlet comes close to talking similar nonsense as Ophelia is when they are questioning him about where he has put the body of Polonius.  He does say bizarre things, but they make perfect sense, and the entire point is to throw them off guard, to act like he is mad so as to not receive the blame for the murder, and to point out how great men (even men like the murderous king) someday only end up in the guts of worms.  It is deliberate, planned, and purposeful.  Ophelia's rambling is not.  At most, it reflects her confusion and despair.  Hamlet's is to mock others and serve his own purposes.  Then, we have the added clarity that his soliloquys provide; in his speeches to himself, he is obviously lucid, he is rational, he is in the present, worrying about issues and planning his next step.  We see no such lucidity from Ophelia; if Shakespeare wanted her madness to be feigned, like Hamlet's he probably would have thrown her a soliloquy to prove her sound mind.

So, in motive, purpose and strategy, their ramblings are very different, and, Hamlet shows his clear mind in moments alone.  Those are the key differences in the presentations of madness in Hamlet and Ophelia.  It's an interesting question; I hope that helped!

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