Is Hamlet’s Madness Real or Feigned?
Hamlet’s madness, one of the complicated factors renders the understanding of Hamlet’s character exasperatingly difficult. At one point of the play, Hamlet assumes an “antique disposition”, he pretends to be mad. But besides this deliberate assumption of the mask of lunacy, there is a reality. Hamlet is not a fully sane man at least in the play, we never find him completely sane. On different occasions in the play, Hamlet behaves in a strange and abnormal manner which is not expected of a man of sound mind. On the other occasions, there is no obvious reason why he should assume the mask of madness.
Hamlet’s behavior strikes the audience as abnormal on several occasions. For example, Hamlet seems to be really mad when he appears before Ophelia in disordered clothes. He behaves as if he has been loosed out of hell to speak of horror. The manner in which Hamlet subsequently kills Polonius and the harsh language he used with Ophelia in the nunnery scene confirm the view that Hamlet had really gone mad. Later on, when Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave shouting about the amount of love—
“I love Ophelia
Forty thousand brothers could not with all their
Quality of love
Make up my sum.”
Hamlet’s frantic behavior puzzles many other characters in the play itself. Polonius is from the beginning sure that it is his daughter’s love that has turned the prince mad,
“This is the very ecstasy of love,” he says at the end of the nunnery scene. Ophelia expresses her Confrontation at the tempestuous madness of Hamlet by saying,
“O what a noble mind is here overthrown?
The countries, soldiers, scholars, eye, tongue, sword
The observed of all observers speech quite, quite town.”
But there is another side of the matter. There is overwhelming evidence to show that Hamlet is not really mad. In the beginning of the play, right after he has met and talked to his father’s ghost, Hamlet decides to assume the behavior of a madman. When Marcellus and Horatio come to meet him, Hamlet bursts out into a mad laughter. Thus hiding what actually has passed between him and the ghost. Hamlet tells Horatio that he would put on an antique disposition and requests him not to ask any question if he behaves oddly in front of others. This shows that madness is a part of Hamlet’s strategy to befool his enemy Claudius and mislead him as to the real cause of his trouble.
Hamlet, therefore, puts on the garb of a madman as a kind of defense mechanism. Under the mark of pretended madness, he would be able to observe his enemy without being detected. When Hamlet is talking to Polonius in the lobby, Hamlet deliberately talks incoherently, but all the time he is harping on a consistent subject. The situation, in which Polonius and Hamlet converse, is dubious. Hamlet suspects that Polonius is in league with the king. Hamlet therefore deliberately confuses the old man. Polonius also realizes that though this is madness, yet there is a method in it when Polonius leads Hamlet on this occasion, Hamlet says that with reference to Polonius, “These tedious old fools.”
Thus it is clear that Hamlet was talking to Polonius in a pretended manner of insanity. Later on, Hamlet confesses to his school friend Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “I am but mad-not-north west when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
But it would be a travesty of truth to say that Hamlet is completely sane. There are many occasions in the play when Hamlet’s madness is revealed unmistakably. If he were not mad, he would not spare the king at his prayer, or delay indefinitely in taking revenge or contemplate suicide in the first soliloquy. So, Hamlet is not completely mad, he is not completely sane either. His condition is somewhere between the two. One critic has aptly remarked that Hamlet’s condition is less than madness more than feigned.
Hamlet’s thought processes are contaminated in such a way that he has a diseased vision of the world and mankind. In his deranged mind, he thinks that the whole world is full of evil, and killing one Claudius could not solve the problem. Moreover, Hamlet suffers from the symptom of a disease which the modern psychotherapists call schizophrenia. His mind is split into two. The question of “To be or not to be” that troubles him is partly the result of his schizophrenic condition. Although on the conscious level he pretends to be a madman, deep down his psyche Hamlet is tainted with an incurable spiritual madness.