Hamlet And Insanity

Hamlet And Insanity “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.338-9). This is a classic example of the “wild and whirling words” (1.5.133) with which Hamlet hopes to persuade people to believe that he is mad. These words, however, prove that beneath his “antic disposition,” Hamlet is very sane indeed. Hamlet is saying that he knows a hunting hawk from a hunted “handsaw” or heron in other words, that, very far form being mad, he is perfectly capable of recognizing his enemies. Beneath his strange choice of imagery involving points of the compass, the weather, and hunting birds, he is announcing that he is calculatedly choosing the times when to appear mad.

The dictionary defines sanity as “soundness of mind” and I will prove that Hamlet is sane through many examples that show of his soundness of the mind. Hamlet warned his friends he intended to fake madness, but Gertrude as well as Claudius saw through it, and even the slightly dull-witted Polonius was suspicious. His public face is one of insanity however, in his private moments of soliloquy, through his confidences to Horatio, and in his careful plans of action, we see that his madness is assumed. Samuel Johnson, a well respected author , has “no doubt that the heros madness..was merely pretended”(Neill, 309). After the Ghosts first appearance to Hamlet, Hamlet decides that when he finds it suitable or advantageous to him, he will put on a mask of madness so to speak. He confides to Horatio that when he finds the occasion appropriate, he will “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.172).

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Mark Van Doren poins out in his book “Shakespeare,” that Hamlets “antic disposition” is used”as a device for seeming mad” (162). This strategy gives Hamlet a chance to find proof of Claudius guilt and to contemplate his revenge tactic. Although he has sworn to avenge his fathers murder, he is not sure of the Ghosts origins: “The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil” (2.2.541-2). He uses his apparent madness as a delaying tactic to buy time in which to discover whether the Ghosts tale of murder is true and to decide how to handle the situation. At the same time, he wants to appear unthreatening and harmless so that people will divulge information to him, much in the same way that an adult will talk about an important secret in the presence of a young child.

To convince everyone of his madness, Hamlet spends many hours walking back and forth alone in the lobby, speaking those “wild and whirling words” which make little sense on the surface but in fact carry a meaningful subtext. When asked if he recognizes Polonius, Hamlet promptly replies, “Excellent well; you are a fishmonger” (2.2.173). Although the response seems crazy since a fish-seller would look completely unlike the expensively dressed lord Polonius, Hamlet is actually criticizing Polonius for his management of Ophelia, since”fishmonger” is Elizabethan slang for “pimp.” He plays mind-games with Polonius, getting him in crazy talk to agree first that a cloud looks like a camel, then a weasel and finally a whale, and in a very sane aside, he then comments that “They fool me to the top of my bent” (3.2.337-8). Although he appears to have lost touch with reality, he keeps reminding us that he is not at all “far gone, far gone” (2.2.186) as Polonius claims, but is in fact very much in command of himself and the situation. With his rantings and ravings and his seemingly useless pacing of the lobby, Hamlet manages to appear quite mad. The nave and trusting Ophelia believes in and is devastated by what she sees as his downfall: O, what a noble mind is here oerthrown! ………………….

Th; expectancy and rose of the fair state …………………. Th observd of all observers, quite, quite down!” (3.1.142-6). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also fully convinced. They are Hamlets equals in age but are far inferior in intellect and therefore do not understand that he is faking. However, although Hamlet manages to convince these simple friends and Ophelia of his insanity, other characters in the play such as Claudius, Gertrude, and even Polonius eventually see through his behavior. Claudius is constantly on his guard because of his guilty conscience and he therefore recognizes that Hamlet is faking. The king is suspicious of Hamlet from the very beginning.

He denies Hamlet permission to return to university so that he can keep an eye on him close by. When Hamlet starts acting strangely, Claudius gets all the more suspicious and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Their instructions are to discover why Hamlet is pretending to be mad: And can you, by no drift of conference, Get from him why he puts on this confusion, Grating so harshly all his days of quiet With turbulent and dangerous lunacy? (3.1.1-4) The reason Claudius is so reluctant to believe that Ophelias rejection has caused Hamlets lunacy is that he does not believe in his madness at all. When Claudius realizes through the play-within-the-play that Hamlet knows the truth about his fathers death, he immediately sends him away to England. The prevailing piece of evidence demonstrating Claudius knowledge of Hamlets sanity is the fact that he feels threatened enough by Hamlet to order him killed by the king of England: For like the hectic in my blood he rages, And thou must cure me: till I know tis done, Howeer my haps, my joys were neer begun.

(4.3.62-4) In the scene in his mothers bedroom, Hamlet tells Gertrude that his insanity is assumed: It is not madness That I have utterd: bring me to the test, And I the matter will re-word, which madness Would gambol from. (3.4.142-5), Even without his confirmation, the queen has seen through his act. While Hamlet is reprimanding her, she is so upset that she describes his words as “daggers” (3.4.96) and claims, “Thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (3.4.157). The words of a madman could not have penetrated her soul to such an extent. The queen takes every word Hamlet says seriously, proving she respects him and believes his mind to be sound. Furthermore, she believes Hamlets confession of sanity immediately.

She does not question him at all but instead promises to keep it her secret: Be thou assurd, if words be made of breath, And breath of life, I have no life to breathe What thou hast said to me. D.A. Traversi in his “An Approach to Shakespeare,” points out that “Hamlets concern with action, upon which his dilemma is finally concentrated, is most fully developed, immediately after his confrontation with his mother” (358). If hamlet was truly insane, this is the scene where he would show it the most, however, he proves to be very sane. Even Polonius can see that Hamlet has not completely lost touch with the world.

Although he frequently misses the meanings of Hamlets remarks and insults, he does recognize that they make some sense. After a confusing conversation with Hamlet he remarks, ” Though this be madness, yet there is method int” (2.2.199). When his theory of rejected love proves wrong, he becomes very suspicious of Hamlets behavior and offers to test it by hiding behind the “arras” in Gatorades bedroom so that he can listen in on Hamlets private conversation with his mother. Poloniuss suspicions about the legitimacy of Hamlets madness lead to his death when Hamlet stabs the “arras” in the mistaken belief that the eavesdropper is Claudius. Hamlets soliloquies, his confidences to Horatio, and his elaborate plans are by far the most convincing proof of his sanity.

Throughout the play, Hamlets soliloquies reveal his inner thoughts, which are completely rational. In one such speech, Hamlet criticizes himself for not having yet taken action to avenge his fathers murder: O what a rogue and peasant slave am I ………………… That I, the son of the dear murderd, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words (2. 2. 490-528). Hamlet calls himself a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal” (2.2.508), a villain and a coward, but when he realizes that his anger does not achieve anything practical other than the unpacking of his heart, he stops.

These are not the thoughts of a madman; his emotions are real and his thoughts are those of a rational man. Even when he contemplates suicide in the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, his reasons himself out of it through a very sane consideration of the dangers of an unknown afterlife: “And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied oer with the pale cast of thought” (3.1. 84-5). Orson Welles states in the book “The Friendly Shakespeare,” “I dont think any madman ever said, Why, what an ass am I, I think that is a devinely sane remark.”(350) A further important proof of his sanity is how patiently he devises plans to prepare for his revenge. As he explains to Horatio, his “antic disposition” is a device to test his enemies.

His mounting of the play-within-the-play is another well-laid plan to trap Claudius into admitting guilt: “The plays the thing / Wherein Ill catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.547-8). Even when the play brings him concrete proof, he is careful not to rush to take his revenge at the wrong moment. He could easily kill Claudius while he is praying, but restrains himself insuring that there is no chance of Claudius entering heaven. Although Hamlets patience can be seen as an example of his procrastination, I think that it is rather a sign of rationality. Hamlet shows himself perfectly capable of action, as well as of rational thought, in escaping the kings armed guard, dispatching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England, dealing with the pirates and making it back to Denmark.

The last conviction of Hamlets sanity is the normality in his reactions to the people around him. He is perfectly sane, friendly, and courteous with the players, giving them good acting tips, which they appreciate and respect. When Polonius and Claudius test the theory of rejected love by “loosing” Ophelia to him, Hamlet acts completely rationally. He greets Ophelia sweetly, gets a little cold when he remembers that he has not seen her “for this many a day,” is very hurt when she returns his remembrances, and becomes completely furious, insulting womankind in general, when she lies to him about her fathers whereabouts and he realizes he is being spied on. He reacts in a way that any hurt young rejected lover would. In the end, it is surprising that he is able to keep up the charade of feigning madness for so long, and part of his tragedy is that it doesnt help him anyway; in the end, he avenges his father by killing Claudius not through an act of madness, but as a result of Claudius own treachery. Bibliography Epstein, Norrie.

The Friendly Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Group, 1993. Neill, Michael. Hamlet: A Modern Perspective. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Ed. Barbra A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature.

4ht ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford, 1997. 958-1052.

Traversi, D.A. An Approach To Shakespeare. 3rd ed. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1969. Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare.

New York: Doubleday & Company, 1939. New Websters Dictionary. 1992 ed.