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The Madness of Hamlet: An Analysis

Shakespeare’s creation of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark has inspired a wide gamut of critical and controversial reactions among its audience, critics and scholars.

The psyche of Hamlet is revealed through various instances through the encounter with the ghost, the mask of madness donned by the protagonist, his ambivalent attitude towards Ophelia, his peculiarly cold insensitive response to the death of Polonius, his obsessive interest in suicide, dual elements of ambition and insecurity in his mental make-up—these elements create a bafflement in the complete understanding of Hamlet’s persona as well as Shakespeare’s purpose of presenting his tragic hero.

Shakespeare depicts a reversion of the natural order of things in the expository scene of the play itself—the heavy atmosphere of the state under a cloud of boding evil, perpetrated by the sudden assassination of the King of Denmark, the father of Hamlet. “This bodes some strange eruption to our state. ” (Hamlet I. i. 69) The entire state witnesses unnatural eruptions akin to the horrific sightings listed in the state of Rome before the fall of “the mightiest Julius” (Hamlet I. i. 114) The aberrations of nature is reflected in the character of Hamlet, suffering the aftershock of his father’s sudden death.

The visitation of the Ghost and the majestic injunction to avenge the patricide compounds Hamlet’s mental agony and the madness which follows on his part is almost a garb behind which he can survey the twisted visages of the apparently sane people around him. Hamlet’s insanity has given rise to questions about Shakespeare’s purpose of using the element of insanity to shield his character’s inability to perform the duties burdened on his shoulders. His insanity may be regarded as a screen to shield his own guilt’s and faults.

As Marvin Rosenberg contemplates in The Masks of Hamlet, it could a psychological attempt to flee his duties and guilt by redirecting the aggression against himself as cruel barb at others around him. (Rosenberg, 393) If analyzed in this light, Hamlet’s cruelty against his beloved Ophelia could be comprehended. To interpret Hamlet’s strategy of donning the mask of madness, one needs to delve into the purpose and position of the character weighed down with the revenge duty of the Elizabethan son suffering patricide at the hands of his kin and kith.

There is an unmistakable sense of rationale in the words of Hamlet even in the delusion of madness he garbs himself with. In his conversation with the murderous agents of Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he makes statements apparently meaningless, bordering on the insane, but underlining the words there is the sense of a strategic observation of human nature and intention in his gibes at the other two. Hamlet says, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

” ( II. ii. 347-348) Claudius and Gertrude attempt to convince Hamlet that his attire of mourning black and his sorrowful countenance is a continuation of bereavement against the process of nature where each son who has lost his father must remember it is a natural order of life and death in Act I Scene ii. Ironically the very death of the former king is a reversion of the natural order of life and death as his life was cruelly terminated by a treacherous stroke of Claudius, a foul act later revealed to the prince.

Claudius who says that Hamlet’s intense grieving is “a fault to heaven, / a fault against the deed, a fault to nature… ” (I. ii. 101-102). The pressure of righting things wronged, against his father, himself and his state, makes him lament in distress: The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right. (I. v. 189-190) Hearing the injunction of the Ghost in the opening Act, the inspiration to wear a mask of madness to see the truth behind the smokescreen of appearances is expressed clearly to his dear friend Horatio:

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on— ( I. v. 171-172) Simon A. Blackmoore interprets the strategy assumed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet in feigning the aspect of insanity: As soon as he had recovered from the terrible and overpowering agitation of mind and feelings with which the ghostly revelation had afflicted him, he realized that the world had changed about him; that he himself had changed, and that he could no longer comport himself as before at the court of Claudius.

This change, he feels he cannot fully conceal, and, therefore, welcomes the thought of hiding his real self behind the mask of a madman. But he must play his role, not indifferently, but with such perfection of truthful reality as to deceive the whole court, and above all, if possible, his arch-enemy, the astute and cunning King. With this in view, the dramatist had of necessity to portray the hero’s madness with all the traits of a real affliction; for, if the court could discover Hamlet’s madness to be unreal, his design and purpose would be thereby defeated. ( Blackmore, The Real or Assumed Madness of Hamlet)

It can be argued that Hamlet’s assumption of insanity is a strategy to disarm the murderer Claudius by making him think his crime has gone unnoticed and the only rival to the coveted throne has become mad with grief at his father’s death. It is a psychological entrapment of the unaware prey whose conscience is heckled at the gnawing suspicion of the reality of Hamlet’s mad behavior. When Claudius is convinced of Hamlet’s pretence, he orders that skilful banishment of Hamlet and sends his crime-agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to kill the prince during his overseas travel.

The antic disposition receives prompt demonstration in Ophelia’s account of the visit to her closet. By the time the threat of Fortinbras is disposed of, Polonius is bursting with his theory of Hamlet’s madness. Hamlet’s words and encounters serve the purpose of baffling the King in his attempt to ferret out the secret behind Hamlet’s change of disposition. Hamlet’s words pave the way for the climax scene of the play-within-a-play to unmask the treacherous aspect of Claudius as well as realize the true involvement of the Queen in the cruel act of regicide.

Hamlet’s insanity serves a dual purpose in the light of this interpretation: firstly, it helps to make unwary the perpetrators of crime enough to reveal the true visage assuming Hamlet is raving mad; at the same time, it helps to allow the distressed prince emotionally release his anguish of hearing the shocking news of Claudius’ treachery and his mother’s incestuous involvement with the killer of her husband through the Ghost and perhaps rehabilitate his mental equilibrium for the major deed awaiting the avenging son.

Shakespeare takes us into the sinuous routes of Hamlet’s mind and psyche and imparts to him his intellectual curiosity, concerning not so much the nature of revenge as the nature of man itself. Delving into the reason and rationale of Shakespeare’s complex creation, Hamlet’s madness can be interpreted and explicated to a certain extent.

Works Cited Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Hamlet. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1992. Blackmore, Simon A. The Real or Assumed Madness of Hamlet. TheatreHistory. com < http://www. theatrehistory. com/british/hamlet002. html>

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