The Relation of Madness and Human Nature in Hamlet

Madness is a theme shown in many different literary works as it explores the limitations and expectations of human nature. In the play Hamlet written by William Shakespeare, real and feigned madness results in characters such as Hamlet and Ophelia to lose their rationality and stability. The instability of the characters results in their true nature and identity appearing. Hamlet’s feigned madness slowly causes him to become truly mad, emerging his unstable character. It also forces Polonius to show his true identity as a usurper. On the other hand, Ophelia’s madness exposes her weak identity which is dependent on and defined by Hamlet and Polonius. Madness, whether real or feigned, exposes the characters, revealing their true identity. 

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Hamlet’s feigned madness forces Polonius to show his true identity as a usurper. Hamlet feigns his madness and warns Horatio of his “antic disposition” to fool Claudius into admitting to the murder of his father. Hamlet’s use of his feigned madness, and actions such as showing the play “Mousetrap” eventually force Claudius to confess to the murder of his brother. Although Claudius feels severely guilty of his sins because “it hath the primal eldest curse upon’t / A brother’s murder” , he claims he cannot give up “[his] crown, [his] own ambition, and [his] queen”. Using his feigned madness as a tool, Hamlet is successful in exposing Claudius’ true identity as a usurper. Realizing Hamlet knows his secret, Claudius plans to murder him, as he is not yet prepared to give up what he gained from his sin. As Claudius desperately attempts to murder Hamlet near the end of the play, his identity as a usurper is clearly perceived. Hamlet’s feigned madness for his revenge slowly renders him truly mad, displaying his identity as an unstable character. Hamlet’s madness at the beginning of the play is truly feigned, but as the play carries on he descends into genuine madness. For instance, as he feigns his madness in front of Ophelia, he contemplates suicide and the significance of life and death. He proclaims in his soliloquy: 

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, 

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, 

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, 

The insolence of office, and the spurns 

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, 

When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?

Hamlet questions if he should take his own life as he reflects on the burdens on his shoulders as he feels that suicide will relieve him of his burdens and conflicting thoughts. Although his madness is feigned, a clear indication of instability is shown as he contemplates suicide. Hamlet is also later seen talking to a skull in the churchyard which is a behavior evident of madness. It is clear at this point of the play that his madness is real, as he asks the skull of Yorick, “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your / songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your / own grinning? Quite chapfallen ?”. His instability and madness become clearly perceivable as he holds a meaningful conversation with a skull. His emotions are also shown to be unstable as he goes from having a happy conversation with the skull to being suddenly disgusted. 

Although Hamlet’s unstable character is not shown near the start of the play, his feigned madness draws out certain aspects of instability, such as suicide, leading to his madness. Madness consumes Ophelia which exposes her weak character and the dependence on Hamlet and Polonius for her identity. Ophelia is a character who constantly has a hard time finding a voice of her own as she is constantly bombarded with Hamlet’s indeterminate love and Polonius’ orders and opinions. Ophelia’s fragile character is shown at the beginning of the play when Polonius asks her if she believes if Hamlet’s love is real, to which she responds, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”. The response from Ophelia shows her lack of judgment and identity, as she obeys her father without a doubt. Furthermore, Polonius manipulates her and tells her to “think yourself [as] a baby” implying Ophelia is just a tool he exploits to find the reason behind Hamlet’s madness. Hamlet, on the other hand, knows that Polonius and Claudius are using Ophelia to spy on him and treats her miserably. 

Ophelia, who genuinely believes that Hamlet is deeply in love with her, is confused by the mistreatment. Hamlet makes vulgar sexual jokes in public, denying his love for her, and murders Polonius which confuses and leads Ophelia to madness. Once she loses the love of her life and her father, she realizes she does not have an identity without Hamlet and Polonius and goes mad. During her madness Ophelia’s weak identity is inherent as she sings about the “baker’s daughter”, an allusion relating to a baker’s daughter who turned into an owl: Well, God’ield you! They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. This quote implies that by listening to her father, she would have not turned into an “owl”, a metaphor for her madness. Also, Ophelia states she does “know not what we may be”, which implies that she does not know what to do or what to be since Polonius is gone. The quote displays her weak identity and being unable to make decisions without her father Polonius. She also quotes about Hamlet, singing:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day 

All in the morning betime 

And I a maid at your window 

To be your Valentine  

She references her love for Hamlet and even says she is willing to give up her virgin status for him, which displays her powerlessness and lack of identity without Hamlet. The quotes and singing during her madness exhibit the dependency she has on these characters to give her a sense of identity. Without them, she is unable to recognize who she truly is and make personal decisions. In the end, she commits suicide as she is unable to adjust to the characters who gave her a sense of identity that left her life. 

Madness, whether real or feigned, allows the characters to display their true identity. The feigned madness from Hamlet leads to his own madness and reveals Claudius’ identity as a usurper. On the other hand, Ophelia’s madness exposes the dependency of her identity towards Polonius and Hamlet. Although madness is different within the characters, the significance of it is evident as it leads to the demise of the characters by exposing their true selves.   

07 April 2022

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