A Controversy Over Hamlet’s Madness In Shakespeare’s Play

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The difference between sanity and insanity varies extremely. In some situations, the line between being sane and insane could appear as being very blurred, and in some situations that same line could be plain to see. Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, is certainly not an exception to this. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The protagonist hamlet put on an antic disposition that makes it seem as if there is no difference between sanity and insanity. This raises the question; is Hamlet’s madness real or feigned? Hamlet’s madness is feigned because he uses the idea of insanity to hide his real emotions, to give himself time to analyze situations, to distract others from his real intentions and he proves his soundness of mind by switching between his real mental state and his feigned mental state many times throughout the play.

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Hamlet uses the premise of being mad to hide his true emotions. Throughout the play, Hamlet encounters many situations in which he cannot show how he really feels in the presence of other characters. For instance, take the quote “Frailty, thy name is woman!/A little month, or ere those shoes were old/With which she followed my poor father’s body”. The answer to why Hamlet says this lies in the literary lens of New-Historicism, a lens that seeks to reconnect a piece with the period of time during which it was created and establish it with the cultural and political movements of the time. During the time period in which Hamlet was created, men showing emotions of weakness were seen as weak and were looked at with disdain, as emotions of weakness were seen as womanlike. Even though Hamlet is going through a tough time with the passing of his father and his mother’s hasty, incestual marriage, Hamlet knows that he would be seen as weak and would be looked down upon by society if he were to show his true emotions regarding the current turn of events. Hamlet’s antic disposition allows him to express his emotions that concern the events he has to endure, while also not having his show of emotions being looked down upon. Characters would dismiss them as useless ramblings, a side effect of his perceived madness. This also eliminates the chance of his reputation as an honourable nobleman being ruined, which is integral to the play’s theme of royalty and social status. The New-Historicism lens functions as an answer to why Hamlet’s commits actions which would seem as bizarre and outlandish to someone in today’s era and connects his bizarre actions to the time period and the societal norms of that era. Hamlet’s antic disposition allows him to gain time to cope with his feelings without fear of prejudice by other characters.

Hamlet also uses his antic disposition to gain time to analyze situations he encounters while eliminating any possible suspicions from other characters. In the beginning of the play, Hamlet encounters a ghost that gives him shocking news. Hamlet uses an antic disposition as a distraction so that he can analyze what the ghost told him and also deduce whether what the ghost is saying is true or not, while also avoiding any suspicion from Claudius. The quote “How strange or odd so’er I bear myself/(As I perchance hearafter shall think meet/To put an antic disposition on)” not only shows Hamlet’s plan to analyze what the ghost had told him under the disguise of an antic disposition, but also that he is feigning his madness as he admits to putting on an antic disposition.

Over the course of the play, Hamlet does many things would that garner much attention and raise questions and controversy if they were done in a state of sanity. To prevent these scenarios from arising, Hamlet uses his antic disposition effectively as a distraction from his real plans. For instance, take Hamlet’s plan to force an admission of guilt out of Claudius by making him watch a heavily edited version of the play The Murder of Gonzago. While he is doing this, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius debate whether Ophelia is the cause of Hamlet’s madness of which they do not know is feigned. In this case, Hamlet’s antic disposition is used effectively as a tool to distract other characters from his real plans. In the quote “I will be brief: your noble son is mad./Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,/What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?” and the quote “Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds/More relative than this. The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” shows just how effective Hamlet’s antic disposition is at keeping characters distracted from investigating what his true intentions are. The reader can see that his madness is used as a distraction tool because he is able to competently edit a play by adding new lines whenever needed that imitate real life events to force a reaction out of Claudius. Such an action would be extremely difficult for an insane person to do, as it is already difficult and tedious for a sane person to do, meaning that Hamlet obviously switched from insanity to sanity, proving that Hamlet’s madness is feigned. Hamlet also uses his premise of madness to distract characters for another purpose; to investigate whether the ghost was telling the truth about the wrongdoings of Claudius. The accusations of the ghost are not to be taken lightly, and because of this, requires further investigation. Hamlet’s feigned madness proves to be highly effective in serving as a distraction from the fact that Hamlet is trying to investigate Claudius. The quote “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying,/And now I’ll do ‘t./And so he goes to heaven,/And so am I revenged”, said in one of his bouts of sanity show his real intentions, while his bouts of insanity show characters messages that are wildly outlandish when compared to his true intentions, such as “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;/No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,/Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle,/Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other”. Using feigned madness as a distraction allows Hamlet to formulate intricate plans without having to worry about his plans getting foiled getting caught by other characters. “The performance of madness allows Hamlet to express his own Weltanschauung, or, to say it better, the judgement and condemnation of the world he pronounces under the licence of folly, which exempts him from the social pact of non-aggression”. In other words, if Hamlet’s true intentions were brought to light somehow, they could be easily disregarded, as it is widely believed that he is truly mad and is “exempt from the social pact of non-aggression”. Hamlet’s antic disposition proves to be very effective in distracting characters and hiding his real, vengeful plans under a disguise of madness.

On many occasions, Hamlet devises highly complex, targeted plans that prove his sanity many times over. Complicated and specifically targeted plans such as the ones that Hamlet creates would be almost impossible for an insane person to formulate. On the contrary, Hamlet’s conversations with characters come off as meaningless and contradictory to his own self. Take the quote “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not” Hamlet clearly contradicts himself by saying he never had love for Ophelia despite him showering her with gifts and sending her letters professing his love towards her. These two aspects of Hamlet’s life, forming complicated targeted plans while in the same breath contradicting his own self lie on very opposing sides when relating to the issue of what is real versus what is fake, with one aspect being real and one aspect being fake. This proves that Hamlet can channel his madness whenever he feels like it is necessary, as his sayings constantly switch between a state of sanity and insanity. Many times throughout the play, Hamlet directly or indirectly says that he will put on an antic disposition. For instance, in the quote “No, believe me, ’tis very cold. The wind is northerly.”, Hamlet indirectly tells Horatio that he will put on an antic disposition by indicating the direction of the wind. This is known because after he says this, he says “But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.” which is an incoherent, contradictory response that does not make much sense. This exchange between Hamlet and Osric in which he channels his madness as if it was activated by the flip of a switch shows the audience that Hamlet is most definitely feigning his madness, as a truly insane person, such as Ophelia in Act 5, can not toggle their desired mental state whenever they think it is needed..

Hamlet’s attempt at feigning madness proves to be very effective in advancing Hamlet’s own goals and wishes while also effectively manipulating characters in the play to believe that his madness is real. Hamlet’s feigned madness works effectively in hiding his true emotions and functioning as a way for Hamlet to analyze events without speculation by other characters, in hiding what his real intentions are, and becomes widely known to the audience when he seamlessly changes his mental state on many occasions. The fact that Shakespeare is able to still cause controversy pertaining to the topic of Hamlet’s madness to this day shows that Shakespeare’s possesses a playwriting ability that still remains unmatched. Hamlet’s feigned madness also lets the audience reflect on their own relationships. Are the people around them being truthful, or are they trying to hide what their real intentions are under a disguise?  

16 December 2021

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