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In which act and scene does Hamlet decide to act insane?

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Hamlet first says that he will begin to act like he has gone mad in act 1, scene 5, just after he has spoken with his father’s ghost on the castle ramparts. He claims that he will “put an antic disposition on,” meaning that he will act crazy, and he forces Horatio and Marcellus to swear that they will tell no one about the ghost or Hamlet’s plan.

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After Hamlet sees the ghost of his father in act 1, scene 5 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus that he intends "To put an antic disposition on" (1.5.192). The common interpretations of that line is that Hamlet is going to feign madness, although Hamlet gives no reason at the time for doing so, and how he subsequently behaves, as Claudius says, "Was not like madness" (3.1.173).

It's possible that Horatio plants the "antic disposition" idea in Hamlet's mind a scene earlier, in act 1, scene 4, when the ghost of Hamlet's father first appears to Hamlet, and motions for Hamlet to follow him away from Horatio and Marcellus.

Horatio warns Hamlet against following the ghost.

HORATIO. What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? (1.4.75–80)

Nevertheless, Hamlet's decision to "put an antic disposition on" seems like an afterthought which occurs to him after he's made Horatio and Marcellus swear, five times—three of those times with the help of the ghost crying out "Swear!" from under the earth—not to reveal that they've seen the ghost of Hamlet's father.

HAMLET. But come!
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,
...to note
That you know aught of me; this is not to do (1.5.188–199)

Elsewhere in his plays, Shakespeare uses the word "antic" to mean "foolish," not "mad." Hamlet never uses the word "antic" again after act 1, scene 5, and he also makes no mention of madness until later in the play, in act 2, scene 2, in his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

HAMLET. I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw (2.2.376–377).

Hamlet's first attempt to put on an "antic disposition," as described in detail by Ophelia to Polonius in act 2, scene 1, certainly appears more foolish than mad.

OPHELIA. My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell (2.1.87–93)

Amleth, Prince of Denmark, from the twelfth-century book of Danish history, Gesta Danorum, by Saxo Grammaticus—one of Shakespeare's sources for Hamlet—provides a historical frame of reference for Hamlet's "antic disposition."

Amleth beheld all this [his uncle, Feng, murdered his father to become King, and married Amleth's mother, Gurutha], but feared lest too shrewd a behavior might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured his safety (Gesta Danorum, book 3).

Amleth doesn't trust that Feng won't murder him for knowing or suspecting what Feng has done, so Amleth pretends to be a fool in order to lead his uncle to believe that Amleth is no threat to him.

Grammaticus writes that nobody really believes that Amleth is truly a foolish imbecile, which is paralleled in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Claudius doesn't truly believe that Hamlet is mad, even though Polonius insists that he knows the reason for Hamlet's madness—"This is the very ecstasy of love" (2.1.114)—which is quite simply the wrong reason, even if Hamlet is mad.

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After they have seen the ghost, Hamlet makes his good friend, Horatio, and the guard, Marcellus, swear that they will tell no one about what they have seen and heard. They are to keep the ghost’s appearance an absolute secret. Hamlet tells them that he believes the best course of action is for him to “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.192). This means that he is going to begin to behave as though he has gone mad, though his behavior will be purposeful. This happens in act 1, scene 5, on line 192. He entreats them to swear that they will tell no one that he is only acting mad. This is the first instance of Hamlet acknowledging his plan to seem mad.

In act 2, scene 1, the audience seems to get confirmation that Hamlet’s pretending is working. His act is fooling other people, and they begin to think that he has truly been driven mad. When Ophelia tells her father, Polonius, about her strange and upsetting visit from Hamlet, Polonius decides that Hamlet must be mad for her love (as Polonius had told Ophelia to break things off with the prince, who Polonius believed could not possibly intend to marry her). Polonius calls Hamlet’s behavior “the very ecstasy of love” (2.1.114). The old man believes that Ophelia’s apparent rejection of Hamlet is to blame for the prince’s sad alteration.

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There is little doubt that Hamlet's madness is indeed feigned. He explicitly mentions this in act 1, scene 5 when he refers to putting "an antic disposition on." But there are further instances where Hamlet makes it clear what he's up to. In act 2, scene 2, Hamlet is conversing with his old school chum, Guildenstern:

"I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

In other words, Hamlet is only mad when it suits him. Otherwise, he's as sane as anyone else. But there's really no need for Hamlet to keep confessing to his sly trickery. Just about everyone in the play comes to realize, sooner or later, that his alleged madness is all just an act:

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

That's Polonius, earlier on in act 2, scene 2. Claudius isn't wholly convinced, either, even though it's in his interests to think that Hamlet really has taken leave of his senses:

"What he spake, though it lack'd form a little. 
Was not like madness." (act 3 scene 1)

Hamlet's feigned madness admirably serves his purposes. But it also serves the internal dynamic of the play by conveying real meaning to an audience. If Hamlet really were insane, then it would be difficult, both for us and the play's sane characters, to have any idea of what's going on. And with that, the play would lose psychological complexity and dramatic depth.

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In Act 1, Scene 4, Hamlet, accompanied by Horatio and Marcellus, encounter the ghost of Hamlet's father, the previous king of Denmark. This is the same ghost that Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo saw in the first scene of the play.

In Act 1, Scene 4, the ghost beckons Hamlet to follow him and Hamlet agrees, despite the warnings of his friends.

Act 1, Scene 5 begins with a conversation between the ghost and Hamlet. The spirit of Hamlet's father tells him how he was killed and urges Hamlet to take revenge against Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Hamlet agrees to his father's wishes and the ghost disappears.

After this, Marcellus and Horatio appear and talk to Hamlet. During the course of their conversation, he tells them of his plan to pretend to be insane, a tactic that will help him to carry his revenge.

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 encumber'd thus, or this headshake,
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 not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear.

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