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Was Hamlet truly insane--A look into the mind of Hamlet that proves otherwise

Jan 3, 2012   #1
Hello. This essay's main point is that Hamlet was indeed sane, but feigned his madness as part of his lucrative plan to attain vengeance for his father's murder. I know it's long, but please read through it to see if everything is logically placed, and help me to make it flow better. I also think that I don't go against the opposite point of view as much as I should have. Thank you very much :)

Hamlet's Sanity

In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, many are forced to assume that the protagonist has indeed gone insane due to his incredibly convincing portrayal of a mad man at various points during the play. However, the manner in which Hamlet deals with one tragedy after another, the way he shows rationality and level headiness even in the face of immense ordeal and the fashion in which he legitimately feigns madness in order to attain vengeance for his father's murder over Claudius suggest otherwise.

It is important to point out that the reason why Hamlet acted this way is because of the tragic occurrence of his father's death. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one may be able to relate with the difficulty of dealing with all the circumstances that accompany such a tragic event. This becomes evident right away when Hamlet reflects upon the prospect of suicide in the first soliloquy of the play.

- Gertrude married Claudius
-death of Ophelia
Should I include these two topics that prove my point that after such tragic ocurrances where his mother marries his uncle and when Ophelia dies that anyone would be upset, and not be mad ? Does it connect with my main point well?

Hamlet gets the idea of feigning insanity from Horatio's warning when he meets his father's spirit. "What if it tempts 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?" (I.4.69-74) When he speaks to Horatio, he states: ""How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself, As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on..." (II.1.170-179) Even though the effectiveness of this strategy could be debated, one thing is for certain. The reason why he decided to put on this "antic disposition" had nothing to do with his mental state but everything to do with his rational personality. Only a sane man could devise such a thought-out, rational plan.

Hamlet plan of claiming madness allows him to express his feelings, formulate new plans, and to gain information, while keeping people from taking his actions seriously, in order to eventually kill Claudius. Hamlet's act of feigning madness allows him to speak his mind behind the guise of insanity, so that no one would be suspicious of him. During the play, hamlet does just this when he blatantly states sexual remarks towards Ophelia: "That's a fair thought toile between maids' legs (3.2.125)." By expressing his feelings, he can get reactions from Gertrude and Claudius, and this is just what he wants. In the case with Polonius in the fishmongeror scene he states: "You cannot, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal (2.2.233)." This allows Hamlet to vent some of his true feelings in relative safety without fear of suspicion or reprisal. Furthermore, Hamlet uses his madness as an excuse, a part of his apology, towards Laertes for murdering Polonius. An insane man would not be able to contrive such thoughts. In all of the above instances, Hamlet's pretended madness is to not only throw them off of his "scent" in the "hunt" between Claudius and Hamlet, but it also allows Hamlet to insult them all, making it seem like he has a "fevered brain."

On the other hand, Hamlet acts perfectly sane when acting insane is unnecessary. When he talks to Horatio about watching Claudius for signs of guilt during the play, he says "Give him heedful note, for I mine eyes will rivet his face, and, after, we will both our judgments join in censure of his seeming (3.2.87)." A madman would not have had the foresight, reason, or possibly even care, to think in this very organized fashion. Hamlet simply did not have reason to act insane with Horatio, since it was his close friend, who in fact was intelligent enough to distinguish between false/true madness. Also, when he is explaining to the players how to act, he is organized and natural sounding. For example, he asks "You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in 't, could you not (2.2.565)?" His question is direct and simple as all his instructions are, and it seems that the player not only understands completely, but also is comfortable with Hamlet and what he asks. It is much more plausible that a sane man could play an insane one, than an insane man could play a sane one, and so reason would deem Hamlet sensible.

Most importantly, not only does Hamlet display his intellectuality and quick wits in discussions, he also shows his ability to use his intelligence in practical terms. When his madness blurs reality and shrouds truth, Claudius decides to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what "unknown afflicts [Hamlet] thus (II.ii.17)." When he speaks to them, not only is Hamlet clever enough to realize their true purpose for visiting, he tells them he is not really mad - in a manner that would be considered insane! "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw. (2.2.401)." The expression regarding how he "know a hawk from a handsaw"(II, ii, 378) could be a reference to the saying "to know a hawk from a hernshaw"; to be able to make fine distinctions, or it could represent the difference between his friends, the hawks, which are valuable companions, and handsaws, which are merely tools. This is supported in that Hamlet acted quite normally when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first showed up, only beginning to act mad when he became suspicious that his former friends were present only to spy on him. Hamlet is able to toy with his two friends through his illusory madness and, thus, free from their questioning, able to maintain the secrecy of his thoughts and goals. Later, he is even able to have them killed in his place using his father's seal, through method cunning for even a sane man, let alone an insane one.

Throughout the play, many characters hint at Hamlet's sanity or at least doubt it to some extent, but for their own reasons, they play along with his insanity. When Ophelia quickly rushes to tell Polonius that Hamlet has intruded her private quarters, Polonius assumes that the root of Hamlet's madness is love: "This is the very ecstasy of love, whose violent property fordoes itself..." He then proclaims it the king: "Your noble son is mad. Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, What is't but to be nothing else but mad?" Yet in the fishmongeror scene, Polonius proclaims to himself: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't (II. ii.203-4.)." This shows that Hamlet was indeed not mad, but that Polonius simply wanted to be in the royal family's inner-circle, as a ticket to remain close to Claudius. The king also portrays Hamlet sane when he states: "Love? His affections do not that way tend/Nor what he spake, though it lacked 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 (III,i,176-180)." Yet for his own wicked purpose, he declares him a madman, as an excuse to send him to England since he knows that the people of Denmark love hamlet and that if he kills hamlet in a brief period of madness, he will be up for questioning and his country will turn on him.

After the "mouse trap" play mentioned above, Hamlet is summoned by Gertrude. Realizing fully well how strongly he feels about her getting involved with Claudius, he urges himself to remain as non-physical as possible and not let his emotions take over. "I will speak daggers to her, but use none; my tongue and soul will in this be hypocrites" (Act III, Scene II, 387-388). In the next scene, after killing Polonius who was hiding behind the curtains and encountering the ghost of his father, he does not see the need to act insane anymore and tells his mother everything. In order to prove his sanity, he tells his mother everything about Claudius's guilt in a manner truer to his own self ("...it is not madness that I have utter'd; bring me to the test, and I the matter will re-word, which madness would gambol from" Act III, Scene IV, 143-146) and also asks his mother for forgiveness if he had hurt her in any way ("Forgive me this my virtue, for in the fatness of these pursy times virtue itself of vice must pardon beg..." Act III, Scene IV, 154-156). This is a testament to his sanity since its shows that he is able to act like himself even in the heat of the moment. Although he tells her all of this, she does not profess his sanity, but I believe she sees what is really ailing her son: a broken heart, not a broken mind. This all points to the fact that Hamlet was indeed sane based on the observations of others, but they choose to hide the truth for their own personal reasons, or to simply get rid of him and send him off to England.

Furthermore, unlike an insane individual, Hamlet shows his ability to think rationally. When he is being eavesdropped upon by Claudius, he shows his ability to contemplate in more depth than most people can: ""To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether "tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles...With this regard, their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action (Act III, Scene I, 58-89)." The complexity and the amount of issues addressed within this now famous soliloquy gives one as good a glimpse within his psyche as any speech or dialogue in the play. Furthermore, when he realizes his father's ghost may have been a devil in disguise, he plans to watch the "conscious of the king" during the play to see if his madness was genuine. "I'll have these players play something like the murder of my father before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks; I'll tent him to the quick...The spirit that I have seen may be a devil... (2.2.623)." Hamlet is sane in his thinking. He measures the "pros and cons" of his situation, and although at this point he appears mad to most everyone, he is most definitely sane in thought.

Many scholars point to scenes which they think truly show signs of Hamlet's madness, but when looking at the textual evidence closely, it is unlikely so. For example, when Ophelia states: "Ungart'red, 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)," this most likely happened because he was sad and began to think Ophelia was not trustworthy, and not pure madness. When Hamlet was with Horatio, the gatekeeper, or the actors, he never showed any of these "odd dress, unordinary facial expressions" as Ophelia mentioned before, proving that he was sane. Another example that many see Hamlet as being insane is when Hamlet speaks of his father's ghost in front of Gertrude while she can't see it: "No, nothing but ourselves...this the very coinage of your brain./ This bodiless creation ecstasy/Is very cunning in..." (3.4, 134-139). Yet in the beginning of the play, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernado give credibility to the Ghost's existence. When Horatio states: "Before my god, I might not believe this without the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes," (I.1.56-58) this is evident. Also, the ghost makes a statement to see only Hamlet, and this is also why Gertrude may have not seen it. If the spirit were simply a fabrication of his imagination, than there would be no explanation for Hamlet's knowledge of his father's murder.

Finally, further evidence of Hamlet's insanity is shown when one compares him with someone who is truly deranged, such as Ophelia became after Hamlet spoke angrily to her and her father died. She began to sing and speak nonsensically, with only "half sense: her speech is nothing"(IV, v, 7), without any of the hidden meaning that characterized Hamlet's seeming-nonsensicality. Whereas Ophelia has become deranged, Hamlet carries on a rational progression throughout all of his actions and words.

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