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In the 16th century, mental health issues were understood very differently than they are in the 21st century. The term “madness” could be interpreted as indicating several types of illness from which Hamlet probably suffers, including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. There is no doubt that Hamlet decides to feign illness in order to distract Claudius from his activities in uncovering his father’s murderer, whom he believes is Claudius. It is still likely, however, that some of the mental health problems Hamlet is likely experiencing manifest themselves regardless of his intentions.

The evidence that Hamlet is feigning illness includes the fact that when he is alone, he generally speaks clearly and coherently. The soliloquy that begins “To be or not to be . . .” is an excellent example (act III, scene 1). Hamlet rationally considers the reasons for and against taking his own life. In addition, in the company of others, he often tells them that he will be faking illness or speaks convincingly of his coherent state. After viewing the Ghost and swearing to avenge his father’s death (act I, scene 5), Hamlet tells Horatio and the others not to remark that they know he is faking, no matter

How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

To put an antic disposition on.

At times when he uses phrasing inconsistent with being afflicted, his message still makes sense. An example is when he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Claudius and Gertrude are “deceived,” for he is “mad” depending on which way the wind is blowing (act II, scene 2).

At times when he uses phrasing inconsistent with being afflicted, his message still makes sense. An example is when he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Claudius and Gertrude are “deceived,” for he is “mad” depending on which way the wind is blowing (act II, scene 2).

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is

southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Extreme mood swings are typical of Hamlet in the play; he is at turns impulsive and indecisive or inactive. At one point he lashes out at the “rat” with his sword, accidentally killing Polonius instead of Claudius (act III, scene 4). When he ponders mortality and “resolution,” he worries that he will be indecisive, or “lose the name of action” (act III, scene 1). As the audience did not know him before his father’s death, and as many people remark on how he has changed, viewers cannot determine if such fluctuations were previously the norm; they may indicate bipolar disorder. In addition, the grief he suffers over his father’s death compounded by his mother’s hasty marriage could be causes of post-traumatic stress.

It is also interesting that when Hamlet does speak of his “madness,” he personifies it and distances himself. In talking with Laertes about his responsibility for Polonius’s death, they are in the company of Claudius and Gertrude (act V, scene 2). Hamlet says “what I have done [. . .] was Hamlet’s madness”; continuing to speak in the third person, “his madness” does it, and “his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.” Apparently saying he was temporarily mad, he is also arguing in a rather lawyerly fashion, using rational logic to convince Laertes that they are on the same side, both having been “wrong’d” by the madness. In speaking of his “enemy,” he may mean both Claudius and Gertrude, who are the primary promoters of the madness theory, and thus he is trying to alert Laertes to their conspiracy.

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Hamlet's pretended madness is due to several things that occur all at once to the tragic character.  First, when he returns to Denmark because of the death of his father, he is confronted with the hasty marriage of his mother to his uncle. Consequently, he is shocked by both grief and disgust. These life changing events push Hamlet into both a cycle of grief over his father's death and a deep sense of anger at his mother for her disrespect of her husband, Hamlet's father, dead for just one month before she marries her husband's brother. The level of his anger rises as he internally contemplates how this makes him feel.  

If you are assessing Hamlet's "madness," it is likely that he has every reason to feel like the world itself has gone mad. The reality or truth that he knew is gone, altered, changed permanently and he cannot accept it while everyone else seems fine with it.

The fact that the Ghost of his father beings haunting him, pleading with him to avenge his death, informing him that he was in fact murdered by a man Hamlet detests, his uncle, only adds to Hamlet's sense of urgency; his reaction to this heightens his anger, his emotions. He appears consumed with a smoldering hatred; he can't get past it. To others, he appears insane, but the reader knows what is bothering him.

Shakespeare gives Hamlet a chance to internally process everything that happens to him; he is not hasty in his actions to either take revenge against his uncle or announce that he knows that the King was murdered by his uncle. Instead, Hamlet chooses to be discreet, trying to trick the new King into reacting to a play that will prove or disprove the Ghost's assertion that he was murdered.

Considering what Hamlet is dealing with, his circumstances suggest that he is in a state of emotional upheaval, not actually insane or mad, but feeling like he is going crazy because he is troubled by so many life changing events all at once.

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Is Hamlet's insanity real or pretend?

The extent to which Hamlet's insanity is feigned or real is a question of the play and part of the theme of deception. The actor and director of each production might explore this and play up Hamlet's madness to varying degrees.

We do know for sure that Hamlet's behavior begins as an intentional deception. After conversing with his father's ghost at the end of act 1, Hamlet tells his friends Horatio and Marcellus about the encounter and makes them swear they will not tell anyone what has happened that night.

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on),
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumb'red thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know,' or 'We could, an if we would,'
Or 'If we list to speak,' or 'There be, an if they might,'
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me—this is not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you,
Swear.

Hamlet tells them (and us) that he will put on "an antic disposition," meaning he will pretend to be out of his mind. Therefore, his "madness" begins as intentionally pretending.

From then on, Hamlet acts erratically with most of the characters. We can see that this is a change from his melancholy when we first saw him, so we're inclined to believe that it is all pretend. In act 3, scene 2, Hamlet tells Horatio to carefully watch Claudius during the Players' performance. Hamlet's dialogue is different with his friend Horatio (who knows about the ghost) and with Ophelia, which is further evidence that Hamlet is just pretending. But in scene 4, he quickly kills Polonius behind the curtain. We might question the rashness of this, and whether it truly aligns with the rest of his plans. Additionally, he sees his father's ghost again, but the spirit does not appear to his mother, Gertrude, who is also in the room. Again, Shakespeare raises the question: is this because the ghost has a special relationship with Hamlet and purposely only appears to him, or is this part of Hamlet's descent into true madness? He does reassure his mother it is all pretend, saying, "I essentially am not in madness / But mad in craft." Hamlet's insanity definitely starts as pretend, but there are moments the audience might wonder if it is starting to become real.

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