The theme of madness has broadened many great works of playwrights, and Shakespeare is no different. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most widely read tragedies due to its notorious recurring theme of madness. In Hamlet, the idea of hysteria has become one of the most discussed topics in literature, with many people debating Hamlet’s sanity. Shakespeare uses Ophelia and Hamlet to introduce the theme of madness in his play. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are overcome by emotion and lack of sound thought, which will inevitably lead them to madness and later unfortunate deaths. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the theme to develop the plot and characterization of the whole play. Madness is an important theme to the plot of the play because it keeps it going, and the readers entertained. It is through this theme that main characters, Ophelia and Hamlet, are recognized
Hamlets madness is described as an on and off, which has raised several questions as to whether he was truly mad or he was just faking the insanity. According to Hall, Hamlet chose when to be mad and when to be sane and because it is something he willed on himself, as the play progresses to the end, he truly goes insane (9). In contrast, Ophelias insanity was not a feigned one; she indeed went insane after the death of her father and after Hamlets rejection. The two characters present the theme in different ways as Ophelias madness contrasts that of Hamlet. The most intriguing aspect of the theme in Shakespeares Hamlet is how he intertwines between the feigned and the real madness in the play. The two aspects of real and feigned madness is witness on different occasions. When he acts mad in the presence of Claudius his intentions are to conceal his plan of revenging his fathers death. By acting mad, Hamlet is aiming at gaining crucial information that will help him determine when to execute his planning of avenging his fathers death. The other side of Hamlets real madness occurs when he sees a ghost while in company of Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio, whereas his counterparts do not see the ghost. This shows he is actually getting insane.
According to Antony and Siddharth, in the beginning of the play, there is no doubt that Hamlet fakes his madness (5). After the death of his father, Hamlet appears to be in a state of madness that progresses throughout the play. The main characters behavior is questionable because there is a lot of evidence in the story to prove that the insanity was feigned. Hamlet was not insane, but he was using the madness to accomplish his plans of avenging his fathers death. Hamlet had stated that he was going to act strange or odd and put an act of disposition to confuse the king and his attendants for him to accomplish his revenge (Shakespeare). This is when he was speaking to the ghost assuring him that he was going to act crazy to be sure that King Claudius killed his father, and if that is the case, then he was going to avenge his death. Therefore, Hamlet uses insanity as a trick to achieve his goals in the story, which was to carry out a revenge on King Claudius for the death of his father.
Besides, it is evident that Hamlet feigned his madness when he says, I essentially am not in madness, but in craft. (Shakespeare 187). In this statement, as he was talking to Gertrude, Hamlet made it clear to his mother that he was not insane, but he was only using the madness to accomplish his revenge on his fathers death. He tried several times to follow through with his revenge, but most of his plans were delayed. He later decided to deceive King Claudius by putting on an act of madness just to avenge his fathers death. Inasmuch as Hamlet assures his mother that he is not insane, it occurs later that he seems to act insane because of the mother getting married to his uncle. Hamlet does not feel good on understanding that his mother has been married by Claudius. This is one of the contributory factors that make Hamlets insanity look real towards the end of the play. It happens that it is the same man marrying his mother that Hamlet is planning to kill, as revenge for his fathers death.
Moreover, another instance that proves that Hamlet was not crazy is when he failed to kill King Claudius when he got the opportunity. Hamlet had been planning to avenge the death of his father for long, and there was a chance to kill his fathers murderer when he alone and praying. Therefore, the fact that Hamlet did not kill Claudius while he was alone praying shows that he was actually sane and could think rationally. Claudius was vulnerable at that moment he was praying, but Hamlet decided not to kill him because he was in control of his mental state and not insane as he had made the king and his attendants believed. Hamlet never wanted to outsmart the king to avoid suffering as his father did at his death. Therefore, he came up with a plan to cause Claudius to confess murdering his father, Hamlet to the king and then kill him later on. This shows that Hamlet was purely rational in his thoughts. He does not kill the king right away because he wants Claudius to feel some pain before he kills him. Being able to reason out on the current situation, and the make a decision implies that Hamlet has all along been pretending to be mad when in the actual sense he is concealing his plan so that no one knows his intentions.
There is no doubt that at the opening of Shakespeares play, Hamlets madness was feigned because it was an act to confuse Claudius to carry through with his revenge. However, as the play progresses, Hamlet’s madness becomes real and a liability because he becomes distracted and irrational. Bali notes that, even though Hamlets madness was feigned at some point, his life events such as the demise of his father and that of his lover could be enough reasons to make him insane (81). Hamlet suffered a lot because of the death of his father; as a result, he spent his life trying to avenge his death, and this made him insane. Hamlet at first faked a madness that later made him mad altogether.
Apart from the death of the father, Hamlet was driven insane when his mother married his fathers murderer. He was devastated by the little time her mother took before remarrying and the thought of this drove him to madness. Hamlets real madness is also shown when he kills Polonius in his mothers bedroom and shows no remorse about the act. Hamlet murdered Polonius without thinking twice. He has just committed murder due to the rage he had against King Claudius, showing no guilt, which substantiates the fact that that he is truly insane.
Hamlets life was from one tragedy to another. When his father dies; he learns his uncle Claudius killed him. The death of his girlfriend Ophelia drove him completely insane. As a result, his life becomes worse as a result of the pain and suffering brought about by the incidences in his life. Hamlets tragic experiences made him lose touch with the real world and the people around him, and this brought episodes of madness throughout the play.
The melancholic state of Hamlet is depicted by the series of events that take place around him. He is saddened by the death of his father and the knowledge that her mother is getting married to the same killer of his father. This state of sadness makes Hamlet seem to be actually losing his mind as opposed to his initial feigned madness. The mixed reactions of his fathers death accompanied with his mothers move of getting married to Claudius make Hamlets sanity be questioned as to whether he is faking or it is reality that he is losing his mind.
Unlike Hamlet, Ophelias madness was real and it is not questionable. There is no doubt that she has completely lost her mind when she acts weird, for instance, making strange sounds, talking to her dead father, and speaking incoherently. Ophelia was just a young girl who was controlled on what she is supposed to do about different men. She had no mother figure to direct her and so, several men hurt her. Her father uses her as bait. Ophelia developed a permanent kind of madness after the suffering and tragic events that happened in her life. Her state was out of hate and love at the same time, mainly resulting from her father and Hamlet. First, Ophelia was isolated from the people she loved, for instance Hamlet. Her father forbade her from getting close to Hamlet and this was driving her insane. As a result, Hamlet rejected her, she felt all alone, and this drove her insane. Secondly, she was used to her father until her old lover murders him and this changes her life completely leading into a depression. Ophelia could not contain her stress because she could not imagine living her life alone without her father and this drives worsens her. She is seen talking to an unseen person and she insists that she is talking to her father and this reaffirms her insanity.
Ophelias madness is also depicted when she sings after her fathers death because no one in his/her right mind can sing after the death of a parent. Ophelia sings songs that have no relevance and this also affirms her insanity. Ophelia was acting irrationally due to her insanity. Unlike Hamlet, Ophelia was truly mad due to the rejection from Hamlet, the loss of his father, and his brothers absence. She felt alone and could not control her misery and sorrow over the losses; this drives her into madness and later on taking her own life.
The main difference between Hamlet and Ophelias insanity is that Hamlets madness is on and off while Ophelias is permanent. Ophelias madness was complete because other people witnessed it and she never went around confessing that she was mad. On the other hand, Hamlet planned his insanity and he only behaved insane before certain people. Even though at some point his madness seems real, it is still questioned throughout the play.
One notable similarity of Ophelia and Hamlets madness is that they both become insane after the deaths of the fathers. The two characters lost their parental figures through terrible murders. As a result, this harms their character and causes them grief, which leads to depression that later on turns into madness. As the play ends, both Ophelia and Hamlets madness drove them to their ultimate death. This is another similarity of their madness.
In conclusion, madness is a controversial topic in Shakespeares tragedy Hamlet. In the play, at some point, Hamlets madness can be justified. At times, it cannot, especially when he acts genuinely mad. Shakespeare presents the theme of insanity through two main characters, Ophelia and Hamlet. Hamlets madness has become a debatable topic with some people arguing that he faked it while others are claiming that he was indeed mad. However, as the play progresses, Hamlet lapses into real insanity. On the other hand, Ophelias madness is real.. As the play Hamlet ends, both characters are eventually destroyed by their insanity as they die tragically. Hamlet is a play that exploits the theme of madness through its principal characters, Ophelia and Hamlet.
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Corum Richard. Understanding Hamlet: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1998. Print.
Hall, J. Christopher. “A Narrative Case Study of Hamlet and the Cultural Construction of Western Individualism, Diagnosis, and Madness.” Journal of Systemic Therapies 35.2 (2016): 1-13. Print
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Penguin Classics, 2015. Print.