Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It tells the story of a young prince who’s father is murdered by his uncle, who then takes the throne. Hamlet is left feeling confused and betrayed, and he begins to act mad.
Some people believe that Hamlet’s madness was just an act, a way to get revenge on his uncle. Others say that Hamlet was truly mad, and that Shakespeare meant to show this through his character.
There are many different interpretations of Hamlet’s madness, but one thing is for sure- it’s a complex and fascinating topic that has been debated for centuries.
Shakespeare combines the theme of madness with two characters in Hamlet: one who is genuinely insane and one who only appears mad for a purpose. We can see this idea through Ophelia and Hamlet, two characters in the play. Hamlet’s madness is a point of contention. The breakdown of Ophelia and Hamlet’s style of insanity suggest that Hamlet has a method to his apparent lunacy. On each side, there is a character illustrating sanity.
Hamlet’s actions and words cannot be taken at face value. Ophelia, on the other hand, is not in control of her words or actions. Hamlet is able to dissemble and put on an “antic disposition.” (1.5.172) He can also return to being himself, as he does with Horatio.
Ophelia does not have this ability; she descends into madness and never returns to sanity. Hamlet is aware of his own madness, even if he cannot do anything about it, whereas Ophelia is not. Hamlet’s method to his madness becomes clear when we see his interactions with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two courtiers sent by the king to spy on Hamlet.
Hamlet is clearly aware of their true purpose, but he feigns madness in order to toy with them. He says things that could be interpreted as madness, but are actually quite accurate and clever observations. For example, when Rosencrantz asks Hamlet what he is reading, Hamlet says, “Words, words, words.” (2.2.192) This response could be taken as nonsense, but it is actually a very accurate statement about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves.
They are known for their wit and their ability to play word games, but they are also known for being shallow and not really understanding the deeper meaning of things. Hamlet is essentially saying that they are all talk and no substance. This is further reinforced when Hamlet says, “What do you read, my lord?” (2.2.196) and Rosencrantz replies, “Words, words, words.” (2.2.197) Hamlet is again pointing out their shallowness and their lack of understanding. He is also making a statement about the nature of language itself; words are empty and can mean anything or nothing at all.
This is something that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will never understand. Hamlet is also able to put on an act of madness when it suits his purpose, as he does with Ophelia. When she comes to him in his mother’s chamber, Hamlet is rude and dismissive, telling her to “get thee to a nunnery.” (3.1.141)
This could be interpreted as Hamlet being insane and not knowing what he is saying, but it is actually a very calculated move on Hamlet’s part. He knows that Ophelia is in love with him and he is using her love for him against her. By telling her to go to a nunnery, Hamlet is essentially telling her that she is better off without him and that she should forget about him. This breaks Ophelia’s heart and pushes her over the edge into madness. Hamlet is able to control his madness, whereas Ophelia is not.
This is what makes Hamlet a tragic figure; he is aware of his own madness and he is unable to do anything about it. Ophelia, on the other hand, is not aware of her own madness and she descends into it without any hope of return. Hamlet’s madness is a tool that he uses to achieve his goals, whereas Ophelia’s madness is something that consumes her. Hamlet may be mad, but he is in control of his madness. Ophelia is not.
Obviously, Hamlet’s character offers more proof, while Ophelia’s breakdown is quick yet more convincing. Shakespeare provides compelling evidence suggesting that Hamlet is sane from the play’s start with the help of guards. The first scene of the drama begins with guards whose primary role is to lend credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet saw his father’s ghost in secret, his mental illness would considerably strengthen. However, not one but three men see the ghost before even thinking about informing Hamlet.
Hamlet’s reaction to the ghost is also significant. Hamlet speaks to it calmly and rationally, even offering to go with it at its request. Hamlet’s madness cannot be genuine if he is able to hold a conversation, without any sort of frantic or excited mannerisms, with a figment of his imagination. Horatio, too, sees the ghost and does not question Hamlet’s sanity.
Furthermore, Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius when he has the chance shows that he is in control of his actions and not driven by impulse as a madman would be. Hamlet tells Horatio that he will put on an “antic disposition” (I.v.172) in order to catch Claudius, but there is no indication that he actually follows through with this plan until much later in the play. Hamlet’s “madness” is methodical and it becomes more convincing as the play goes on.
On the other hand, Ophelia’s madness is much more obvious from the start. Hamlet’s abuse towards her is a clear sign that something is wrong. He calls her a “whore” (III.i.121) and tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.122). Hamlet was never this cruel to her before, so his sudden change in behavior is significant. Additionally, Ophelia’s response to Hamlet’s abuse is telling. She does not fight back or try to rationalize his behavior, but instead withdraws into herself.
Ophelia becomes more and more isolated as the play goes on and eventually loses touch with reality altogether. This is most evident in her final scene when she hands out flowers and sing-song lyrics that have no meaning. Hamlet, on the other hand, remains in control of his words and actions throughout the play, even when he is pretending to be mad.
Hamlet’s encounter with Ophelia while his uncle and Polonious are hiding behind a curtain is another example of his behavior manipulation. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia has long been established, and his complete rejection of her and what has happened between them is clearly a lie.
Hamlet is convinced of the eavesdroppers’ presence even as he suspects that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are dispatched by the King and Queen to question him and look into his worsening condition. After seeing the ghost, Hamlet’s behavior leads everyone, except Horatio, to believe he is mad.
Hamlet’s “madness” is his method of Hamlet Madness. One could argue that Hamlet is not really mad, and that everything he does is part of a plan to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet is very intelligent, and his feigned madness allows him to act in ways that no one would suspect. He can say things and do things that he otherwise couldn’t if he were sane. Hamlet is able to get away with a lot because everyone believes he is crazy. Hamlet Madness is a genius way for Hamlet to take revenge.
In conclusion, while both Hamlet and Ophelia go through a period of madness, Hamlet’s is clearly fake and Ophelia’s is genuine. Hamlet’s “madness” is a tool that he uses to further his own goals, while Ophelia’s madness is a result of the trauma that she experiences.