Discussion Topic

The ambiguity of Hamlet's madness: feigned or real?

Summary:

The ambiguity of Hamlet's madness lies in whether it is feigned or real. Throughout Hamlet, his erratic behavior and cryptic speech suggest both genuine madness and a calculated act to avenge his father's murder. Shakespeare intentionally blurs the lines, leaving audiences to ponder Hamlet's true mental state.

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How does Shakespeare characterize Hamlet? Is he truly mad, or just pretending?

Hamlet is in mourning for his father (also named Hamlet) and suffering from an ailment called melancholia, which is similar to the modern illness of clinical depression. Some scholars believe that he also suffers from schizophrenia, which often manifests in late adolescence or young adulthood; that diagnosis assumes that the ghostly visions are hallucinations.

The most typical modern interpretation emphasizes the depressive aspects. Hamlet is rational but often unable to summon the energy or conviction to act on his beliefs. At other times, he shows rapid mood swings and is even violent. An example of the latter is his rash lunging at the "rat" behind the curtain, mistakenly killing Polonius.

Hamlet tries to stay on an active course to establish definitively that Claudius is guilty. Part of the complication is his fear that by doing so, he will also implicate his mother. Another modern, Freudian interpretation is that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex.

A definite sign of his sanity is his behavior with his former schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It is totally obvious to him that they are there to spy on him. Fearing for his life, he swaps out the instructions and escapes, so that they are killed instead of him.

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Do you believe Hamlet is pretending to be mad or has he truly gone mad?

All of the evidence would seem to suggest that Hamlet is indeed pretending to be mad. But, as Polonius shrewdly acknowledges, there is method to his "madness." Hamlet conveys the impression of insanity the better to hide his true intentions regarding Claudius. If people think he's mad, then they'll be more likely to underestimate him. Hamlet's constant vacillation in killing Claudius merely adds to the sense that this is not a particularly formidable character.

At the same time, we must remember that Hamlet is a complex soul. Although he may not be mad, there seems little doubt that he's psychologically damaged to some extent. After all, his uncle murdered his beloved father and is now married to his mother. Hamlet's whole world has been turned upside-down by Claudius's wicked actions. There's often a fine line between the trauma that Hamlet has suffered and the madness which he so successfully feigns. Indeed, one could say that it's only because Hamlet has been so psychologically damaged by what Claudius has done that he's able to make his "antic disposition" look so incredibly convincing.

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Is Hamlet truly insane, or just pretending? He sees a ghost others don't, but acts mad only when being watched. What are your thoughts?

As the above answer says, there is no wrong answer. People have been debating this question for four hundred years. You have gotten off to a good start by writing that there are reasons for thinking Hamlet is mad and reasons for thinking he is sane but faking madness. This is an acceptable thesis. All you have to do is give your reasons for each possibility. (One of the main reasons for thinking  he is faking madness is that he says that is what he intends to do (1.5.170-3).

You say Hamlet might be crazy because he sees the Ghost in his mother's room but she can't see it. I have read many similar statements. But we should always keep in mind that the entire audience sees the Ghost and knows it is a real ghost. The audience from the beginning believes this is actually the ghost of Hamlet's father. The Dramatis Personae even lists: Ghost (Hamlet's father, the former King). Part of the interest of the play is that we know the ghost is telling the truth. Some people believe the Ghost was actually played by Shakespeare himself.

Hamlet takes great pains to swear the others to strict secrecy in Act 1, Scene 5. He doesn't want Claudius to know anything about the appearance of the Ghost or about his lengthy conversation with him. When Hamlet talks to the Ghost in his mother's room, the audience can see him quite clearly even if Gertrude can't.

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Do you think Hamlet, claiming to feign madness, actually slips into insanity?

This is a good one for the DB.

I don't think that Hamlet ever actually slipped into insanity, but he was very intelligent in his design for his plot to avenge his father's death at his uncle's hand. I think that the feigning madness was the only vehicle through which Hamlet could accomplish what he set out to do. I don't think it ever manifested itself in insanity because he had motive and knew exactly what he was doing, he was aware of his state of mind. It might have been jealousy and rage that drove him toward the final act of the play in which everyone dies, but I don't believe it was insanity.

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Does Hamlet truly slip into insanity at times, or is he merely pretending?

The only evidence one might have for whether or not Hamlet is "truly" insane in any given moment in the play is what he says or what others say about him.  The problem with relying on what characters say about themselves or others is that they are not always telling the truth.  How to know?

Well, you can't know for sure, actually.  That's why they call it a play, and it's one of the reasons that Hamlet, in particular, has fascinated audiences for centuries.  There are as many choices to make about whether Hamlet is insane or not (and at which moment he might or might not reveal actual insanity or that he is merely "play-acting") as there are actors willing to attempt the role.

I can give you evidence of what Hamlet says both to Horatio and Marcellus in Act I and, again, in Act III to Gertrude about his "play-acting," but this is not some sort of conclusive evidence of what is really going on with Hamlet.  It is pretty widely considered to be true that a person who is insane is usually the last one to know.  Most insane people don't recognize themselves as such.  Here are the scenes and text from Acts I and III in which Hamlet reveals that his insanity will be and is a ruse:

Here as before, never, so help you mercy,

How strange or odd some-er I bear myself --

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

To put an antic disposition on --

(I,v, 177-79)

and, in III, iv, in attempting to convince Gertrude not to allow Claudius back into her bed:

Queen

What shall I do?

Hamlet

Not this, by no means, that I bid you do;

Let the boat King tempt you again to bed,

. . .And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,

. . .Make you to ravel all this matter out

That I essentially am not in madness,

But mad in craft. (lines 182- 190)

There are numerous moments in the play in which the other characters (in fact, nearly all the characters except Horatio) discuss Hamlet's "madness" as if this state of mind is a given fact.  Polonius and Claudius go farther, attempting to discover the reason for his "madness."  However, other characters' opinions of his behaviour don't solve the question of whether he is play-acting or not.  These characters are only witnessing his actions, which is not any sort of evidence for what is going on internally with Hamlet.

Perhaps the largest body of evidence that can be put forward for Hamlet's sanity are his lucid and eloquent soliloquies -- his conversations with the audience, during which he reveals his inmost thoughts.  These do not seem to be the ravings of a mad man, but rather the tormented thoughts of a lucid, highly intelligent, grief-stricken man.

All of this being said, this is a question that has been debated through the centuries.  For more on Hamlet and madness versus play-acting, please follow the links below.

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Was Hamlet truly mad or was he simply pretending the whole time?

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the first mention of madness is made by Horatio, who warns Hamlet about going off alone with the ghost of Hamlet's father.

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)

Hamlet rejects Horatio's advice and goes off with the ghost.

When Hamlet returns from speaking with the ghost, he ask Horatio and Marcellus to swear not to mention a word to anyone about what they've seen.

HAMLET. (to Horatio and Marcellus) And now, good friends,
As you are friends, scholars, and soldiers,
Give me one poor request.

HORATIO. What is't, my lord? we will.

HAMLET. Never make known what you have seen to-night.

HORATIO/MARCELLUS. My lord, we will not.

Hamlet then tells Horatio and Marcellus that he's going to put on an "antic disposition," and he asks them to swear not to tell anyone or imply to anyone that it's only an act.

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,
With arms encumber'd 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... (1.5.188-198)

Putting on an "antic disposition" is generally interpreted to mean that Hamlet is going to feign madness. He's going to pretend to be insane. Does the ghost, as Horatio feared, actually cause Hamlet to go insane, or is Hamlet simply intending to act like he is insane?

To Elizabethans, "madness" includes symptoms of "melancholia"—feelings of deep sadness, depression, and hopelessness —and it's clear that Hamlet is suffering from melancholy as a result of his father's death.

In act 1, scene 2, Claudius and Gertrude tell Hamlet that his show of grief for his father's death is excessive. Claudius remarks that Hamlet's grief shows "a mind impatient" and that it's a "fault to nature, / To reason most absurd" (1.2.99, 105-106). In other words, Hamlet's behavior denotes a kind of madness, and according to Claudius, Hamlet is acting insane.

Gertrude actually accuses Hamlet of acting like he's grieving, but Hamlet assures her that his grief is sincere.

GERTRUDE. Why seems it so particular with thee?

HAMLET. Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems. (1.2.78-79)

Hamlet seems certain about the difference between real grief and feigned emotional behavior. He knows what acting is.

There's a precedent for Hamlet feigning madness. One of Shakespeare's sources for Hamlet is Amleth, Prince of Denmark from Gesta Danorum, a retelling of ancient Danish legends written by Saxo Grammaticus around 1185. In the story, Amleth pretends to be insane in order to take revenge on his uncle, Feng, who killed Amleth's father and married Amleth's mother, Gurutha.

In Shakespeare's time, "antic" also meant clownish, playful, or madcap behavior. Ophelia is the first person who appears to be a victim of Hamlet's "antic disposition." A frightened Ophelia goes to Polonius to tell him about Hamlet's strange attire and behavior.

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
To speak of horrors, he comes before me. (2.1.87-94)

If not for Hamlet's subsequent behavior, his appearance, as Ophelia describes it, would be "antic," or comical.

Polonius has recently been talking with Ophelia about Hamlet's professed love towards Ophelia, and that's what he has on his mind when Ophelia tells him about Hamlet's strange and frightening behavior.

POLONIUS. Mad for thy love? (2.1.95)

Polonius gets it wrong.

A little later in the play, though, Polonius might actually get it right. In act 2, scene 2, Polonius has an odd conversation with Hamlet, in which Hamlet calls Polonius a "fishmonger," asks Polonius if he has a daughter, and talks about the physical and mental deficiencies of old men.

Polonius thinks that this is somehow related to Hamlet's love for Ophelia—"Still harping on my daughter" (2.2.199). He is wrong again, but he offers clear insight into Hamlet's behavior.

POLONIUS. Though this be madness, yet there is a method in't... (2.2.216-217)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also seem to see through Hamlet's madness act.

ROSENCRANTZ. He does confess he feels himself distracted,
But from what cause he will by no means speak.

GUILDENSTERN. Nor do we find him forward to be sounded,
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state. (3.1.5-10)

Claudius, too, harbors doubts that Hamlet is truly mad.

CLAUDIUS. Love? His affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger... (3.1.171-176)

Nevertheless, Claudius is a cautious man, and intends to keep an eye on Hamlet's behavior.

CLAUDIUS. Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go. (3.1.198)

If there is any doubt about Hamlet's madness being real, however—at least to Gertrude and Claudius—those doubts are dispelled when Hamlet speaks with his mother, Gertrude, after the performance of the play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago.

First, Hamlet kills Polonius, who was eavesdropping on Hamlet's conversation with Gertrude, which is, according to Gertrude, a "rash and bloody" thing to do. (3.4.30).

Then, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to Hamlet, which firmly convinces Gertrude that Hamlet is mad, and she says so.

GERTRUDE. Alas, he's mad! (3.4.116)

However, Hamlet insists he's not mad, and he actually tells Gertrude that it's all an act.

HAMLET. ... I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. (3.4.203-204)

Gertrude convinces Claudius that Hamlet is mad, and, whether Hamlet is truly mad or not, Claudius acts cautiously to limit any negative effects of Hamlet's behavior. Claudius sends Hamlet to England to be killed, and when that fails, he conspires with Laertes to kill him in a fencing match.

Some measure of Hamlet's real or feigned madness might be implied from Hamlet's conversation with one of the gravediggers, during which Hamlet helps the gravedigger to make fun of Hamlet's own madness.

HAMLET. How long hast thou been a grave-maker?

GRAVEDIGGER. Of all the days i' the year, I came to't that day
that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.

HAMLET. How long is that since?

GRAVEDIGGER. Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that. It
was the very day that young Hamlet was born—he that is
mad, and sent into England.

HAMLET. Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?

GRAVEDIGGER. Why, because he was mad. A shall recover his wits there; or, if a do not, 'tis no great matter there.

HAMLET. Why?

GRAVEDIGGER. 'Twill not he seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.

HAMLET. How came he mad?

GRAVEDIGGER. Very strangely, they say.

HAMLET. How strangely?

GRAVEDIGGER. Faith, e'en with losing his wits. (5.1.137-154)

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Did Hamlet truly go mad or was it pretense?

The concept of Hamlet's descent into madness is a major theme throughout the play, but there is no definitive answer as to whether he was actually mad or simply giving a convincing performance. Prince Hamlet actively attempts to convince others that he is insane for his own purposes, which makes the matter more difficult to assess as a reader. It is possible that Hamlet believes his madness to be a pretense when it is, in fact, a reality. In this sense, madness is both a theme and a plot device.

Hamlet's Perspective

Throughout the story, Hamlet's ability to distinguish reality from imagination is called into question by himself as well as others. The first significant evidence that Hamlet is mad could also be taken as a supernatural encounter, depending on your perspective. Towards the beginning of the story, Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who asks Hamlet to avenge his murder at the hands of his brother, King Claudius. As events in the play unfold, even Hamlet finds himself questioning whether the appearance of his father's ghost could actually have been a hallucination. Hamlet's perspective is also characterized by emotional distress, as exemplified in the following lines of Act I, Scene II:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

In this portion of the text, we learn that Hamlet's psychological distress has led him to contemplate suicide, even though his religious beliefs forbid both suicide and murder. The conflict between Hamlet's feelings and his beliefs could be seen as the force that pushes him deeper into madness. Visceral longings for his flesh to "melt" and "resolve itself into a dew" also suggest some level of instability.

Madness as Illusion

Hamlet uses the concept of illusion to discuss the idea of madness in a unique way. In this context, madness occurs when a character grasps onto illusion rather than accepting reality for what it is. In many cases, both Hamlet and the reader wonder whether he is capable of discerning the difference at all. An in-text example of the contrast between reality and illusion can be found in Act III, Scene IV. In this scene, a contrast is made between the "real" and "seeming" kings of Denmark. Hamlet is surrounded by illusions created by himself as well as his enemies.

Madness as Pretense

Prince Hamlet is so skilled at pretending to be mad that the reader is left to wonder if it is an act, after all. After seeing his father's apparition, the Prince warns his friends that he will display an "antic disposition," which can also be interpreted as a grotesque act or a convincing impersonation of madness. There is some critical debate as to whether Hamlet's act itself was so convincing that he began to live it or whether he was truly mad all along. There is no definitive answer among scholars, and the open-ended nature of the question is likely an intended theme of the play. Hamlet's sanity, like many other elements of the story, is meant to be ambiguous.

Elizabethan Concepts of Madness

When considering whether Hamlet was or wasn't mad, it is important to understand that Elizabethan concepts of madness were different from the modern day understanding of mental health issues. Many of the traits Hamlet exhibits that are intended to convey madness must be seen through the lens of the play's era. For example, Polonius believes Hamlet has gone mad as a result of what he perceives as Ophelia's rejection. This assumption hinges on the Elizabethan belief that lovesickness was a common condition that could result in severe physical and mental illness.

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Is Hamlet truly mad?

Clearly, Hamlet is not mad. However, he is under a great deal of stress. No doubt, Hamlet is shaken by the visitation of his father's ghost. This is not a normal, everyday occurrence. Still, Hamlet has his reasoning abilities. The proof of this is in the fact that Hamlet is hesitant about avenging his father's death based only on the message from his father's ghost. Hamlet does not immediately act on his father's message. He weighs out the message. He seeks proof that his Uncle Claudius did in fact kill his father. 

Hamlet is very clever. He uses good sense. He does not make a rash decision. He utilizes the help of some traveling actors. He has the traveling actors reenact his father's murder. Then Hamlet carefully watches his Uncle Claudius' reaction. He is carefully checking for signs of guilt. As the actors reenact his father's death, Hamlet carefully observes his Uncle Claudius and learns that Claudius indeed  shows signs of guilt. Claudius is flustered and cannot remain seated during the reeenactment. He cries out for light and flees the room.  

Claudius' actions convince Hamlet that Claudius is indeed guilty. Still, Hamlet waits for the right time to avenge his father's death. When Claudius is praying, confessing his guilt, Hamlet decides not to avenge his father's death for fear that Claudius will die and find redemption from his sincere confession in prayer. 

Hamlet appears to be very sensible. He seems to be clearly evaluating the situation. He shows no signs of madness. He seems to know exactly what he is doing. 

The only thing Hamlet does wrong is that he waits too long to kill Claudius. Claudius plans to have Hamlet murdered before Hamlet can kill him. On Hamlet's death bed, he gets his revenge and forces Claudius to drink of the poison meant for Hamlet. Then Hamlet dies. 

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

Hamlet's "madness" is one of the central concerns of the play. Hamlet says in asides throughout the play that he is not, in fact insane, but sometimes his performance is so convincing that it is difficult to tell. Indeed, Hamlet himself wonders if he is not mad, most notably when he sees his father's apparition in his mother's bedroom. 

While he seems to have convinced Polonius and Claudius, in particular, that he is insane, both men seem to suspect that there may be something lurking behind his madness. Polonius remarks that "though this be madness, yet there is method in't" when confronted with Hamlet's nonsequitors, and Claudius worries that "[m]adness in great ones must not unwatch'd go." 

Hamlet himself tells the audience that he will assume an "antic disposition" to bring about his revenge, and he assures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is not actually mad, claiming "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." But at the same time he claims to be extremely depressed for reasons he does not know. So Hamlet's madness at times appears to be a ruse, which he says it is, and at times is very convincing. What seems certain, however, is that he is deeply unhappy and disillusioned with what has occurred within the royal family. 

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Is Hamlet really mad or is he pretending?

All of the evidence would seem to suggest that Hamlet is indeed pretending to be mad. But, as Polonius shrewdly acknowledges, there is method to his "madness." Hamlet conveys the impression of insanity the better to hide his true intentions regarding Claudius. If people think he's mad then they'll be more likely to underestimate him. Hamlet's constant vacillation in killing Claudius merely adds to the sense that this is not a particularly formidable character. 

At the same time, we must remember that Hamlet is a complex soul. Although he may not be mad, there seems little doubt that he's psychologically damaged to some extent. After all, his uncle murdered his beloved father and is now married to his mother. Hamlet's whole world has been turned upside-down by Claudius's wicked actions. There's often a fine line between the trauma that Hamlet has suffered and the madness which he so successfully feigns. Indeed, one could say that it's only because Hamlet has been so psychologically damaged by what Claudius has done that he's able to make his "antic disposition" look so incredibly convincing.

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Is Hamlet really mad or is he pretending?

The answer to this is a very mixed answer. The matter of the fact is that Hamlet does have a plan to "act mad" or crazy in front of everyone in order to hide his true intentions to avenge his father's death.

However, it can also be said that Hamlet is a little crazed by the notion that his uncle killed his father and his mother married his uncle, and also the fact that, despite what he has learned at Wittenberg university, the "warlike form" of his father (as Horatio calls the Ghost, I.i) has recently appeared to him and told him of how he died.

The realization of a ghost during the Elizabethan period was not a common aspect to life. Shakespeare wanted to show the distinction and confusion one goes through when they say they are going to act mad, then realize that they are a little mad to begin with.

So, to answer your question, he is a little of both: He is acting in order to get closer to Claudius, but he is crazed because of the circumstances surrounding the state of Denmark and what he needs to do. We can confirm this in V.ii when Hamlet excitedly tells Horatio of how he turned the tables on them and sent them to their deaths: he doesn't perceive the enormity of his murderous deed saying it was guided by a "divinity that shapes" the end results of our plans.

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will,--

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Is Hamlet really mad or is he pretending?

He's pretending. He is quite emotionally upset, and so that gives his act an edge that might make it feel real to those around him. After all, he has learned his father was killed and that his mother married the killer!

However, Hamlet stays too much in control to really be mad. (Look at Ophelia as a contrast.)

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

One could argue in favor of either position when answering this question. Certainly, Hamlet begins by pretending to be mad in order to obscure his suspicions about his uncle. He states his purpose to feign insanity when he says “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on” (1.5.191-92). This shows that Hamlet deliberately wants others to think he has gone mad.

However, in act 1, scene 2, Hamlet expresses suicidal ideation when he wishes his “flesh” would “melt.” Depending on one’s definition of madness, one could argue that Hamlet was verging on insane before deciding to masquerade as a crazy person. This interpretation of Hamlet’s madness contradicts his assertion that his public words and actions are nothing but artifice.

Continuing in this argument, one might suggest that Hamlet’s exaggerated, feigned madness exacerbated his underlying depression, thereby driving him deeper into actual madness.

However, since Hamlet is able to carry out his revenge—albeit in a tragic, roundabout way—one could also argue that his madness was nothing but a ruse that bought him time as he agonized over what to do.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

Why does Hamlet pretend he is mad? And is it really essential for his schemes?

After seeing the ghost of his father in Act I, scene v, Hamlet plans to revenge his father’s murder by Claudius. Hamlet asks Horatio not to let on he knows anything when, “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet/ To put an antic disposition on” (191-2). So regardless of any interpretation by the actor, Hamlet tells us he plans on acting crazy.

“Is it really essential for his schemes?” This is subjective, of course. There is arguable evidence that Hamlet truly descends into madness. Most point to his behavior during the staged play, “The Mousetrap,” and afterward in the closet scene where Hamlet confronts Gertrude. Any argument that Hamlet is truly mad can never be thoroughly proven, however, as Hamlet had already given the disclaimer for his “antics” in Act I. 

I am of the opinion that Hamlet’s antics were not really “essential” as, in the end, though he revealed Claudius’s guilt to everyone, he lost his mother and his own life. It was a Pyrrhic victory.  Hamlet had the opportunity, for example, to take Claudius’s life while he was seemingly praying in the chapel, but he hesitated and dragged his revenge through another two acts, resulting in the deaths of most of the cast. 

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Hamlet appears to be insane. Is he insane or is he pretending?

This is an age-old debate.  See the link below to get good answers.

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Is Hamlet really insane or is he pretending to have gone mad?

This is one of the key issues of the play.  After seeing the Ghost in Act I, Hamlet has resolved to seek revenge against Claudius.  He swears his friends, who know only that he has spoken with the Ghost, to secrecy and then asks them to stay silent, no matter "how strange or odd some'er I bear myself (as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on."  He warns them not to give away, by a knowing nod or a smile or a word, that he is implementing an unusual plan.

By Act II, Hamlet has been acting sufficiently "crazy" that others are questioning his sanity.  Hamlet reveals to his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is "but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." He's just told them he's not actually crazy, but they're too insensible to reason to recognize his revelation.

The next reference Hamlet makes to his feigned (or real) madness is is Act III when he has a confrontation with his mother.  He tells her he is "essentially...not in madness but mad in craft"--of course he has just had a murderous outburst in which he stabs the man behind the arras (Polonius),  Here, perhaps, we begin to wonder if he has somehow placed at least a toe across the line of sanity.

Immediately afterwards, in Act IV, Gertrude announces to Claudius that her son is "mad as the sea and the wind when both contend which is the mightier."  Is that because she believes he is insane or to keep the King guessing about Hamlet's mental state?  Probably the latter, as she immediately looks at the King with blame when she realizes she has been poisoned in Act V.  Possibly the former, as she does nothing to help Hamlet until she reasons that her husband is the crazier one for having plotted and schemed in such a way.

Act IV is where Hamlet may move from feigned insanity to the real thing in his grief for Ophelia.  He literally lashes out in his grief and even jumps into Ophelia's grave.  After that, his spirit seems to be resigned to his fate, as exhibited in his last major conversation with Horatio.  In any case, he is able to fight with Laertes and fulfill his promise to his father. 

A case can be made for both mad and mad in craft. though it's certain madness in craft was a plan from the beginning.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, the hero may have be depressed, melancholy, frustrated, and confused, but there is not much evidence that he might be really mad. It would be highly unusual for an author to invent a character who was both pretending to be mad and mad in fact. Hamlet himself should be his own best witness. In Act I, Scene 5 he makes Horatio and Marcellus swear:

Here, as before: never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some'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,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . .
[hint] That you know aught of me--this do swear,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you.

This not only shows that Hamlet intends to pretend to be mad but that he has a very clear and intelligent mind. He can foresee that his astonishing new supernatural knowledge is bound to affect his behavior towards the King, who is already extremely suspicious of his intentions and keeping him a virtual prisoner at Elsinore, where he spies on him and encourages others to do so as well. By acting mad, Hamlet hopes to disguise his real thoughts, feelings, and intentions from a cunning adversary and friendly enemies such as Polonius and his two schoolfellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Further evidence from Hamlet himself that he is not mad comes in Act 3, Scene 4 when the Ghost appears once again to his son but cannot be seen or heard by Gertrude, who believes this is proof her son is mad.

GERTRUDE
This is the very coinage of your brain,
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.

HAMLET
Ecstasy?
My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have uttered. Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word, which madness
Would gambol from.

And a bit later in that same pivotal scene, he warns his mother not to let her husband King Claudius

Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft.

Many of the characters in the play are led to believe that Hamlet is insane, but this proves nothing. Hamlet wants them to think he is insane. The "antic disposition" he assumes to play mind games with the King and his courtiers is sometimes so convincing that the audience is also deceived.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

Centuries of critical ink has been spilled trying to answer this question: Is Hamlet mad? Is he a sane man feigning madness? Or a lunatic who does a really good impression of a man with all his marbles?

He claims to be putting an "antic disposition" on, claims to be not truly mad but "mad in craft", and some think that settles the question: Hamlet's putting on an act.

That answer doesn't satisfy everyone though: isn't it common for people in the grip of madness to believe, and in fact swear to everyone around them, that they are actually not crazy? Might Hamlet's insistence on his own sanity in fact be proof that he is actually mad? After all, mad people don't realize their own madness - that's part of what makes them mad.

So which is it?

The answer is both frustrating and exciting: we simply don't know. Shakespeare leaves the question of what, exactly, Hamlet's mental state is unanswered. There is evidence in the text that he is sane. There is evidence that he is anything but. The play will not give you a satisfactory answer.

The only place where this question gets an answer is in the theater, when you see the play performed. Actors and directors have to make decisions about Hamlet's behavior, and need to act on certain possibilities in the text and therefore exclude others. Some Hamlets are calculating, throwing everyone off by pretending to be crazy while he plots revenge. Others are crazed, unstable, and dangerous. Both are possible, but the question remains unsettled until a performance makes clear choices. That choice only settles it for that performance though - if you go see "Hamlet" in a different production with different actors, they may reach completely different conclusions...

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Is/was Hamlet mad?

I agree with Jamie in saying that Hamlet is definitely NOT mad. And, yes, much scholarship has been spent on arguing the contrary. And certainly he has good reason to go mad. But he doesn't. He tells us early on that madness is the ruse he will use to get to his ends met and, though his patience and sanity is stretched in unimaginable ways, he maintains his persona even though it costs him the life of his former love, Ophelia.

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Is/was Hamlet mad?

Scholars have debated this question for hundreds of years, but the general consensus seems to be that Hamlet is not mad, but terribly conflicted. This confliction often looks like madness, as when he verbally abuses Ophelia, or has a meaningful conversation with Yorick's skull. And, of course, speaking to the Ghost of his father.

Hamlet's conflicts are understandable. His father has been murdered by his uncle, his mother betrays his father's memory by marrying the evil Claudius; Hamlet's friends turn out to be "sponges" for the false king, and he accidentally kills his girlfriend's father. Despite all this evidence, Hamlet has to bring himself to act out the revenge he knows is necessary, not an easy thing to do.

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Is Hamlet mad or sane?

Here, you will have to give in your own personal imput as this question can be argued and defended either way. Consider the following aspects, then formulate your opinon accordingly.

Yes, he is mad:

He broods or ruminates without coming to any constructive decision.

He behaves irrationally, acts impulsively, and has mood swings - all symptoms of a bipolar personality disorder.

He is also neurotic, dealing with unresolved guilt not only for himself but for his family members as well, expecially his mother. He displays an almost Oedipal rage upon Claudius' substitution in the role of his father (especially as the sexual companion of Gertrude.

He wonders if he is not a bit schizophrenic and cannot rely on his senses to be "telling" him the truth. Is he hallucinating or is his deceased father really appearing to him to get a message across?

No, he is rather quite sane:

He has a sense of fairness and justice: He does not want to avenge his father's death until his has absolute proof that Claudius really did kill him. He would show clemence to his mother, overcome in her weakness.

He distrusts his own subjectivity and seeks other reference points other than his own thoughts and feelings (related to the above).

He is methodical in procedure and if he does not act, at least he stays focused on his goal.

His visions of his father's ghost are shown to NOT be simple hallucinations but indeed is his spirit in unrest. (Supernatural elements and not his own imagination).

So, is Hamlet mad or not? Take your position and look for other supporting evidence to back up your statement. Better yet, divide your class into two groups and have your students engage in a lively debate.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or merely mad in fashion?

It seems much too complicated and puzzling to believe that Hamlet is sometimes sane, sometimes pretending to be mad, and sometimes actually mad. In Act 1, Scene 5, he tells Horatio and Marcellus that he may “put an antic disposition on.” No doubt he has decided to pretend to be mad but is only suggesting that he “might” do it. He has at least two good reasons for pretending to be insane. One is that Claudius is keeping a close watch on him, trying to guess what he is thinking, suspecting that he is plotting against him. As Claudius says to Polonius in one of Shakespeare’s most striking metaphors:

There’s something in his soul,
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger…     (Act 3, Scene 1)

Hamlet knows that it will be impossible to behave in the same way he did before he was traumatized by the meeting with his father’s ghost, by the revelation that his uncle was a murderer and usurper, and by the possibility that his own mother was an accomplice. Claudius is too clever, too watchful, too suspicious to be easily deceived. And he has others spying on Hamlet as well. By acting insane, Hamlet hopes to be able to hide his true thoughts and feelings from the prying of Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude, Ophelia, and others, who will come to include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

A second reason for pretending to be insane is that Hamlet is obviously terribly concerned about Claudius learning anything at all about a “ghost” haunting Elsinore, especially a ghost who resembles the former king and who may have been in contact with his son. What Hamlet has in mind is that if there is any hint of his seeing and talking to his father, Claudius will believe this to be nothing but an insane delusion. If Hamlet has really been in contact with his father’s ghost, then he would surely know everything about the murder Claudius committed, and Claudius might decide to kill Hamlet or have him killed. On the other hand, if Hamlet has only imagined conversing with his father’s ghost, then he could not have learned anything he didn’t already know.

Hamlet may have had a third reason for pretending to be mad. He knows he is going to have to kill Claudius, and the simplest course of action might be to pretend to be doing it in a fit of madness—as he pretended when he killed Polonius and when he was apprehended and brought before the King. The problem here is that it would be nearly impossible for Hamlet to succeed Claudius if everybody thought Hamlet was insane.

Throughout the remainder of the play Hamlet is either mad or mad in fashion, but there is no sufficient reason to believe he is ever temporarily mad.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

Clearly Hamlet is not.  He admits to putting on a "antic disposition" so it'll throw off Claudius.  It gives him time to plan, and as we watch throughout the play, sort out his feelings.  Taking a stand against Claudius at the outset would have gotten him killed instantly.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

I don't actually think so. There are of course parts of the text that critics who believe Hamlet is mad point towards, such as his behaviour in Ophelia's chamber. However, we need to remember that he reveals to Horatio and Marcellus that he intends to put on an "antic disposition" after talking with the Ghost and finding out the supposed truth of what happened to his father. Certainly he is under lots of pressure, but there is enough evidence to make me doubt that Hamlet is mad.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

I agree also that Hamlet is not crazy. He is disturbed. He is disturbed because he has to choose between his mother and his father. This is the crux of his dilemma.

If he honors his father by revenging his father's death, he will be killing his mother's husband and destroying her happiness. If he chooses to honor his mother's happiness, he will be letting his father's death go unpunished.

There is a great weight in his decision.

I don't think we can look at the ghost scenes as being evidence of Hamlet's madness. We have to look at them instead as narratively essential moments, without which Hamlet's decision would be much less clear and therefore less dramatic.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

Hamlet suffers from depression. He has reason to! Although it might seem like he is seeing things, like his father's ghost, you must understand that he was experiencing grief. Also, who's to say the ghost isn't real? It's fiction, after all. There are plenty of supernatural elements in Shakespeare.
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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

I'll agree.  I don't think he really is crazy (although it's pretty hard to define that term, right?).  I think that he is too aware of what he is doing and too able to make plans at pretty much every point in the play for him to truly be insane.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending?

There are places in the play where he shows extreme melancholy over all of the troubles of his life, but I would argue that he is not actually mad. The most obvious place to start with this question is the fact that he tells Horatio and the others that he is going to "put an antic disposition on." He directly says he is going to act mad and even goes on to demonstrate the kinds of things he is going to say and do in his pretend madness. In the subsequent scenes, he acts oddly and alarms everyone at court, but he is clearly in command of his senses. He makes pointed jokes; he plays off peoples expectations of him; and he continues to logically plot against Claudius.

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Is Hamlet feigning madness throughout the play, or is he actually insane?

Hamlet isn't really mad at all; he's simply putting on what Polonius describes as his "antic disposition." In other words, he's faking it. Though Hamlet is a most unusual young man, with more than a few psychological hang-ups, he's not actually insane. Nonetheless, his fraught psychological condition in the wake of his father's death does allow him to make his mad act convincing, so much so that Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius are all worried about what it might mean.

Hamlet's feigned madness comes about as a direct result of his notorious procrastination. Despite having vowed revenge for the murder of his father, Hamlet has actually done nothing about it, which pains him deeply. Lacking the necessary resolve to destroy Claudius, he settles for unsettling him instead. Rather than just run Claudius through with a sword, Hamlet's going to make his wicked uncle feel uneasy about the stability of the throne he so treacherously usurped from his brother, old King Hamlet. Hence the mad act.

And for a time Hamlet's pretend madness seems to work. Claudius is so concerned about his nephew's increasingly bizarre behavior that he invites Hamlet's old school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the Danish court and instructs them to spy on him. Claudius has correctly determined that as long as Hamlet is around and as long as he continues to behave in such a bizarre manner, then he represents a clear and present danger to the stability of his throne.

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Is Hamlet feigning madness throughout the play, or is he actually insane?

The ambiguity surrounding the title character's madness is one of the most compelling aspects of Hamlet. I would argue that Hamlet is not mad in the sense that people in Shakespeare's day understood the concept, but that he is certainly gripped with self-doubt, melancholy, and suicidal thoughts.

Shortly after learning of his father's murder, Hamlet admits to Horatio that he will, from time to time, put on an "antic disposition," (i.e., feign madness in an effort to carry out his plot). He urges Horatio not to read too much into this. Later, he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he knows a "hawk from a handsaw," or, in other words, that he is not mad. Later, in act 3, he says essentially the same thing to his mother, assuring her that he is "not in madness/But mad in craft." If we take Hamlet at his word, his madness is feigned, put on to advance his scheme for revenge.

At the same time, Hamlet exhibits self-loathing, especially for his tardiness in carrying out his revenge against Claudius. He is obsessed with death—see his famous soliloquy while holding Yorick's skull—and even hints at suicide. This, in fact, is the subject of the "to be or not to be" soliloquy. Hamlet is a complex figure, melancholy and brooding one minute, manic and jesting the next. We can see many signs of what we would today characterize as mental illness in the character, though probably not what Shakespeare meant by madness. Hamlet himself characterizes this as melancholy.

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Is Hamlet feigning madness throughout the play, or is he actually insane?

Hamlet is upset, but not insane.  

Hamlet’s behavior is erratic, but calculated. Although his speeches do seem strange at times, and the way he behaves can sometimes seem bizarre, he is not actually insane.  One way you can tell this is that he goes through a great deal of trouble to make everyone think he is crazy until Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show up.  He lets them, and us, in on the secret. 

HAMLET

…You are welcome: but my
uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.

GUILDENSTERN

In what, my dear lord?

HAMLET

I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. (Act 2, Scene 2) 

Hamlet wants his childhood friends to know that he is not actually crazy, but just pretending.  His crazy act is part of the plan to get revenge on Claudius for his father's murder, but he feels that they should know the truth.  He either feels embarrassed because they are seeing him like this or trusts them enough to let them in on the secret. 

Hamlet's intelligent and heartfelt pondering of the meaning of life and death, his famous “to be or not to be” speech, is not the babble of a crazy person.  It is the introspection of a young man full of grief and self-doubt.  It is a person who is hurting, but still able to look into the abyss and ponder the meaning of our existence.

Another way you can tell that Hamlet is not crazy is his reaction to Polonius’s death.  While he definitely intends to make his mother continue to doubt him, there is some sincerity in his words.

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune;
Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger. (Act 3, Scene 4)

Hamlet feels bad about killing Polonius, despite the terrible mind games he plays with everyone else over his body.  He uses the untimely death of the man as a pawn, but he did not mean for it to happen and he grieves for Polonius.

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Why does Hamlet tell his friends that he intends to appear to be insane? Is Hamlet pretending or is he actually going insane? Explain.

Hamlet tells Horatio, and incidentally Marcellus (because he is privy to knowledge that the ghost has appeared and spoken to Hamlet), that he will feign an "antic disposition" because, in a very human way (and Hamlet is nothing if not very human) he needs an ally. Realize, Horatio is the only character in the play who is totally honest. Even Hamlet presents a false visage to everyone else in the play, save Horatio.

Hamlet is not crazy. His antic disposition is all guile, a shield and delay tactic that affords him some time to plan and test his theories. Claudius knows this from observing Hamlet in the nunnery scene "... what he spake, though it lacked form a little,/ Was not like madness." And any reader or theatergoer would be wise to not mistake moments of desperate passion for madness. The “mad in craft” aspects of the play give Shakespeare a chance to work through one of his favorite motifs–the metatheatrical awareness that so many of his characters possess. Throughout the play Hamlet is actor, director and playwright–never more keenly aware of his own role on the stage than in Act V when mortally wounded he says to the court who have been watching their monarchy implode:

You that look pale, and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time, as this fell sergeant death
Is strict in his arrest, oh I could tell you –
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Why does Hamlet tell his friends that he intends to appear to be insane? Is Hamlet pretending or is he actually going insane? Explain.

In Shakespearean tragedy the protagonist (Hamlet) must suffer from a tragic flaw, which will inevitably lead to his own downfall.  In Hamlet, Hamlet suffers from the tragic flaw of inaction.  When he first encounters the ghost of his father who asks him to avenge his most foul murder, Hamlet agrees to take on this quest for avenging his father’s death.  He even tells his friends that he would act crazy a scheme to help him in his quest to murder King Claudius (it never helps him though).

However, later on in the play, after Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius (thinking that it was the King) and hides the body, one begins to think that Hamlet may no longer be pretending.  This great and stressful task of avenging his father’s death weighs on him heavily – and it may have gotten the best of him. 

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Explain whether Hamlet is actually insane, or whether he feigns madness.

Well, you've managed to ask a question that no one has a definitive answer to but one that is debated hotly by folks on both sides.

Some argue that Hamlet is in fact completely insane.  He cannot stop considering suicide, he is seeing ghosts, he has incredibly conflicted feelings about his mother, he stabs folks through curtains, etc., there are myriad reasons why you could point out that he is insane.  Polonius takes about fifty lines to say as much.

Of course, that is also a good reason to think that he may in fact be sane since Polonius is a complete dupe and serves mainly to demonstrate the fact that Hamlet is certainly more adept mentally than he.  Hamlet also shows moments of clarity, he speaks of feigning his mental illness in order to throw off Claudius...

Basically it is for you to read the play and come to your own conclusion.

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In Shakespeare's Hamlet, is Hamlet truly insane or just acting mad?

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet learns from the Ghost (the spirit of his dead father, Old Hamlet) that Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, is responsible for Old Hamlet's death.

In the play thus far, the audience has had no inkling that Old Hamlet was murdered. The audience can see that young Hamlet, already devastated by his father's untimely death, is not only completely surprised by the news of his father's murder, but also frantic and furious. Even without knowing the identity of the murderer, Hamlet's spontaneous response is to take immediate action:

HAMLET:

Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge. (I.v.33-35)

The audience can imagine Hamlet's desire for revenge, and the Ghost has asked for it. It is at this point that the Ghost shares information about his murder, describing to his son (and the audience) what was said to have happened to Old Hamlet, and what actually took place. Though the kingdom believes that the dead king was napping in the orchard and bitten by a poisonous snake, the Ghost reveals that the only snake in the orchard was Claudius with the intent to assassinate his brother and take his crown.

At this, Hamlet is stunned. However, he does not act at that moment, but stays to listen to the Ghost, perhaps growing calmer and angrier—so his need for immediate revenge is dampened somewhat.

The Ghost describes not only Claudius' theft of the crown of Denmark, but also his theft of Gertrude's (Hamlet's mother) love. The Ghost goes on to describe the poison Claudius used and how he administered it: visiting Hamlet's sleeping father at a time when everyone knew his customary practice of napping, when he was left unguarded.

By now, Hamlet is completely horrified. His father calls for Hamlet to avenge his murder, but not to harm his mother in the process. Then the Ghost departs with the rising of the sun.

At this point, Hamlet begins to rant and rave, furious not only by what Claudius has done, but by the ease with which his murderous uncle covers up the deed—hiding behind a smile:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word:
It is ‘Adieu, adieu! Remember me.’
I have sworn't. (111-117)

The young prince knows that his father was murdered. He understands that his uncle is not only responsible, but he is also married now to Gertrude, and by Elizabethan standards, a brother who married his sibling's wife was committing incest. Hamlet recognizes that while Claudius may smile and fool everyone else, beneath his mask rests a villain—the murderer of his brother and his king. Hamlet now knows the truth and notes that he has given his word to his dead father's ghost—he will not forget what the Ghost has told him, and he will exact revenge upon Claudius.

As Hamlet returns to his friends, he (and the Ghost) swears them all to secrecy about seeing the spirit walking the ramparts. Hamlet then shares the truth with them. Hamlet has a conversation with Horatio, and it appears that a plan begins to form in his mind. Hamlet will, he says, avenge his father's death. However, he prepares Horatio so he will not be surprised when Hamlet begins to act insane. In this, the first act of the play, Hamlet lets Horatio (and the audience) know that from now on, he will pretend to be insane.

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on... (191-192)

Hamlet's "antic disposition" (pretense of madness) will give him time to find proof of the Ghost's news. We should remember that while many critics find fault with Hamlet's failure to seek revenge immediately, Hamlet must be careful. First, the Elizabethan audience believed that killing a king was a mortal sin. Hamlet does not want to jeopardize his soul. The Ghost has already shared some description of his own suffering in the afterlife because he died without the benefit of confession—and so must pay for the sins he carried to his death. The Elizabethans were also extremely superstitious: they believed that the devil could trick people into doing things that would damn them for eternity: so Hamlet needs to be certain that the Ghost is "honest," and not sent by the forces of evil to cause Hamlet to act rashly or sinfully, and lose his immortal soul.

The other difficulty is that Hamlet is now aware that he cannot be certain who he can trust. He had not suspected his uncle before. Now he can only wonder if he can trust his mother (Gertrude) or even his sweetheart, Ophelia, as well as others at his uncle's court.

Hamlet knows he must move carefully and remain one step ahead of his uncle. By behaving strangely (blamed on his pretended madness), his actions can be attributed to insanity brought on by his grief over his father's death, and remove any suspicion Claudius might have.

Hamlet says from the moment he learns of his father's murder, that he will pretend to be mad. This is part of his plan. The audience would probably agree that he does a good job of it. However, if he were truly insane, I believe Hamlet would, at some point, have lost his focus on what he needed to do for his dead father. Hamlet never does, even though it costs him the life of nearly everyone he cares about, as well as his own.

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Why does Hamlet in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, decide to act mad?

One way to look at the question of Hamlet's madness is to rephrase your question to ask why it was that Shakespeare caused Hamlet to act mad. This is a crucial difference, because we are not actually talking about the motivations of a real person, but about a character in a play, whose actions may actually be motivated for reasons of dramatic effectiveness.

Mad scenes were a standard part of the genre of the revenge tragedy in this period and provided opportunities for actors to display a range of dramatic abilities. Audiences also enjoyed them. On a plot level, Hamlet's feigned madness leads, with a sort of tragic irony, to Ophelia's real madness.

Finally, by pretending to be mad, Hamlet appears harmless – a lovesick fool rather than a methodical plotter or assassin – although, as Polonius figures out, there is a "method to his madness."

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending to be mad in act 4?

There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that Hamlet is both grieving and laboring under extreme stress, but not "mad."  

In Act IV, Scene 2, Hamlet uses a pointed metaphor with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He recognizes their duplicity and how they are being used by Claudius and calls them sponges; when Rosencrantz objects, Hamlet answers:

"Ay, sir, that soaks up the king's countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the king best service in the end: he keeps them, like an ape, in the corner of his jaw; first mouthed, to be last swallowed: when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again."

He spells out for them very clearly how they will be discarded when Claudius gets what he wants from them.  

In Scene 3, Hamlet takes on Claudius with some very tricky wordplay.  When he is asked where Polonius is, he responds, "at supper", and further elaborates:

"Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end."

Hamlet speaks of man's existence in strictly biological terms, but later, in his soliloquy in Scene 4, he speaks compellingly of the gifts of "large discourse" and "god-like reason."  We understand that Hamlet does not see our lives as ultimately becoming simply food for worms. He is communicating his contempt for Claudius, implying that he is ultimately no different than any other man--even a lowly beggar.  Hamlet understands that we bring meaning and dignity to our lives and legacies by our actions--the kind of philosophical introspection of which a "madman" would not be capable.

Pretending to be mad gives Hamlet the cover, and time, that he needs to work through his doubts and fears.

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Is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just pretending to be mad in act 4?

I would argue that he is not mad, and in fact sees things rather clearly.  One great passage that helps to demonstrate his sanity is in his soliloquy while gazing out at Fortinbras' army.  He reflects on the very nature of man and man's ability to reason as a great thing, and one not to go unused:

What is a man,(35)
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason(40)
To fust in us unused.

I don't think that he would be discoursing at such length about the great capacity of man for reason were he really caught up in a madness himself.

One might also point to his ability to think clearly in the face of discovering the plot for his own murder and to arrange for the letter to find Horatio and to get himself back safely to Elsinore as good demonstrations of his sanity.

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