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Hamlet: Genuine or Feigned Madness

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William Shakespeare is a renowned fiction author of all times. His works have been read widely across the world with most of his books being translated to many international languages and local dialects. His specialization was in plays and poems as the genres of literature at his time with the novel being a relatively recent arrival in the fiction world. His plays include The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, the famous Romeo and Juliet, Taming the shrew, Julio Ceaser and Hamlet among many others. Almost throughout his plays, Shakespeare relies on a common conflict of the maintenance of identity as it is clearly depicted in The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and in Hamlet. In the latter, he portrays two sides of the main character; young Hamlet .One side depicts his insanity towards his family while the other determines his moral stand to what he has seen. This paper attempts to shade light on Hamlet’s insane behavior. Is he is insane? Is it mere pretence or has he developed insanity in the course of the play?

The Tragical history of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark or  Hamlet as the play is popularly known is believed to have been written in the close of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century(1599-1601).It is set in  Kingdom of Denmark  and recounts Hamlet, the prince, plans and executes revenge on his uncle Claudius for the old King Hamlet. Claudius who is Prince Hamlet’s uncle murders King Hamlet and marries Gertrude, the mother of Prince Hamlet and widow to King Hamlet. The play is vivid portrayal of real and feigned insanity as shall be discussed below. It also explores the themes of revenge, treachery, moral corruption and incest to isolate but a few.  

It is worthy recounting the events that lead to Hamlet’s controversial madness in order to justify it. It all starts in the opening of the play the sentinels Bernado and Horatio reveal to Hamlet that they have actually seen the ghost that resembles his dead father. Hamlet not to believe their rumor but upon hearing of the same reencounter from his best friend Horatio who had accompanied the sentinel, he plots to go and meet the ghost personally. On the same night, the Ghost appears to him and on taking Hamlet to a secluded place affirms to him of its identity as the true spirit of King Hamlet. It further reveals to Prince Hamlet of the cause of his father’s death. According to it, his brother Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear. It also makes demands to Hamlet to avenge his father, a move that Hamlet readily welcomes owing to the ghost’s apparent credibility and reliability. To execute this endeavor, Hamlet attests to his colleagues keep the whole matter a secret as he plans to put on a disguise disposition to keep suspicion at bay (Thompson &Taylor 21).

Since the issue at hand pertains to Hamlet’s psychological disposition, it will do it justice by approaching the whole matter and criticism from a psychoanalysis angle to understand his intentions and motives. Freud in The Interpretation of dreams (19) posits, “The play is built on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reason for it”. He further adds that, “His (Hamlet)moral fate is bound up with his uncle's for good or ill. The call of duty to slay his uncle cannot be obeyed because it links itself with the call of his nature to slay his mother's husband, whether this is the first or the second; the latter call is strongly "repressed," and therefore necessarily the former also”.

Following a review of various literary, Freud pins down the cause of Hamlet’s delay as “an Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt [which] is preventing him from murdering the man [Claudius] who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do”. Hamlet discovers that he is ‘literally’ guilty as convicted in comparison to the real sinner he so much desires to reprove.

Freud (368) goes ahead to claim that Hamlet’s apparent “distaste for sexuality” as articulated in his “nunnery conversation” with  Ophelia his girlfriend as a root in his dilemma and melancholy. Ernest Jones a contributor to The American Journal of Psychology (42) also echoed Freud’s sentiments. Because of Jones’ book Hamlet and Oedipus (48), a number of productions have cropped up to justify Hamlet’s state of affairs. They depict Hamlet’s disgust in the ongoing incest affair of his uncle and his mother while at the same time contemplating on killing the former to find his way to his mother’s bed.

Britton (207-211) declares, “Hamlet unconsciously assumes the role of phallus which accounts for his inaction. He is detached from the reality by “mourning, fantasy, narcissism and psychosis” and the dispositions create loopholes in the real, imaginary and aspects of his psyche. This, in a way, may justify Hamlet’s insanity. The same case running concurrently is the death of Ophelia’s father who she loved and his abrupt death rummages her love life to one of unfulfilled desires. This situation drives her into oblivion of insanity. Since Hamlet’s case rests in this condition, it is easier to understand his disposition in the light of his lover, Ophelia.  

In a rather feminist’s approach to Hamlet’s madness, female critics of the 20th century approach the cases of Gertrude and Ophelia from a different perspective all the same. Emphasis is laid on gender system in the early modern England. Which was a trinity consisting of maid, wife and window but ha no room for whores. As a result, Hamlet is apparently justified in his new attitude towards all females; his mother and Ophelia being no exception. This directly affects his madness to his family and the society as a whole.

From a philosophical angle, Hamlet appears to be a philosophical character. He explains ideas that can only be termed as skeptical, relativist and existentialist. Incidentally, he tells Rosencrantz: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. (Hamlet F1 247-248). This utterance has its origin in the Greek Sophists. Hamlet also contemplates death by committing suicide but this motive is more religious than philosophical. Alluding to existentialism, Hamlet believes that one is inactive is as well as dead hence his inaction renders him literary dead. From this line of thinking, it is even better to think of him as mad but not dead and consequently justify his insanity.

Still on philosophical grounds, scholars argue that Hamlet exemplifies contemporary skepticism- a concept popular in Renaissance humanism. Before Shakespeare’s time, humanists believed that man, God’s greatest creation made in His image, possessed the ability to determine his nature. Though the view was challenged later, it may have influenced Hamlet’s condition and its genuine appearance. This skepticism is juxtaposed throughout the play with Horatio’s- his close friend. The latter’s is a traditional worldview of Christianity that Hamlet evidently mocks.

 As seen earlier in the case of this discussion, Hamlet’s peculiar state and reactions does not go unparalleled in the play and this may have been a justification of his otherwise outrageous actions. For instance in the play within a play, Gonzago, the king, is murdered by his nephew, Lucianus, in the garden. Though his brother, in the play within a play, kills Hamlet’s father The murder of Gonzago mockingly nicknamed by Prince Hamlet “The Mousetrap” the regicide is a nephew like him and this ambivalence parallelism might have triggered an ill desire in him thus rekindling the fire of revenge inside him

A different view of Hamlet’s madness caused by his delay to do away with the antagonist is by considering the influence the era of Reformation had on him. The idea of purgatory was a Catholic concept in which King Hamlet claimed belief. The belief postulates that if you kill someone while the victim is in the process of doing something good, the latter goes directly to heaven while the vice verse is also true. That is the reason why Hamlet hesitates in carrying out the exercise. This waits until an excellent opportunity avails itself when his uncle would be involved in a sinful act like drinking, gambling or in his incest affair with his mother. By so doing, he believes that his foe will go to hell unopposed. This religious belief may serve yet as another close link to the protagonist’s dilemma, melancholy and consequential madness.

Shakespeare is well versed with the idea of playing around the psychology of naming as once again evident here. The name Hamlet is filled with meaning and controversy .Its origin dates back as early as the tenth century as used in the lost play of Amlethus of Saxo. In this context, the name refers to an Icelandic reference to a fool or rather a raving mad when carefully analyzed into its constituent roots. Shakespeare might have been aware of all this connotations of the name and hence the character has little option but to confirm to the nature of his name in performance. This is what Hamlet literally does and such inevitability of his madness goes far in justifying his cause.

From earlier evidence, the obvious explanation to Hamlet’s peculiar behavior is spurned love. Ophelia narrates the story of how he came to her very distasteful and simply ran his hand down her arm staring at her before leaving. In the meantime, Polonius spontaneously reasons that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia has made him mad and even goes ahead to tell the king of the proposition. To prove this, Polonius places Ophelia in Hamlet’s path before speaking to him. In response, Hamlet answers madly though this state seems not to convince Polonius. To add to this doubt, Hamlet’s insane conversation is a warning to Ophelia to distant his daughter from the king. These cautions in disguise apparently suggest this madness to be a façade (Stanford 12).

As though to that prove his madness is feigned, Hamlet claims that it is seasonal and depends on the direction to which the wind is blowing to. He vividly remembers a big portion of a monologue that he heard in the past. Further, on, he portrays a complete lucidity in his soliloquizing that sees the plotting of his revenge mission alongside the guilt test to the king. He accomplishes this by inviting the king and queen and engages them in a play highlighting the murder of his father. In the process, he makes uncouth remarks to arouse the king’s conscience. His sentiments are mere insane grumblings but in the actual sense contain some elements of truth considering his preceding remarks to Horatio. His asides are also a true testimony to his feigned madness.

Another evidence to question the insanity of Hamlet is his reaction to his mother after the play within a play. He loses his temper and commences to make enraged remarks to her. However, this is short-lived as he is restored to sanity by the appearance of the ghost of his father. His mother does not see anything except that her son is only staring to nothing and yet claims to see the ghost (eCheat,  1). Hamlet realizes the doubt in his mother and reassures her that his conscience is clear on what he sees and should not be taken as lunacy. He even reveals to her the actions she should take from then on. This shift in psychological state   and the subsequent rejection of the eminent madness further add to the growing controversy on the authenticity of Hamlet’s insanity.

As the long play ends, his sanity again comes to the limelight. Hamlet’s actions first depict an burst of complete insanity followed by the vice versa. He mistakenly and unremorsefully kills Polonius for Claudius in a cold blood. He further drags the body and hides it. Such an act may be attributed to madness but what ensues challenges this disposition. He utters sentiments that in a way seem uncoordinated and strange yet logical. To avert unrest, the king exiles him to England with orders of his execution as conspired with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Fun enough, the self proclaimed mad Hamlet is aware of this plot and turns the tables for the two by reversing the death orders to their course. This treachery calls for sanity and precaution depicted also in his homecoming to Denmark. As things turn out then, one is definitely left doubting the insanity of Hamlet.

Another occasion that shades light to Hamlet’s feigned madness is his actions during the burial and mourning of Ophelia. He throws himself to the grave and competes with Laertese in showing sorrow to the deceased. He apologizes to him before they fight (eCheat 3).Later on, he attributes his action to madness. He thus apparently admits being mad then and goes ahead to exhibit skill and wit in the duel. Finally, in his last moments, he once again depicts lucidity by supporting the next ruler, Fortimbras.

From the above arguments and angles on Hamlet’s madness, one is left at crossroads to categorically state his psychological disposition. As seen in the onset of this paper and the play of course, he determines to fake madness yet at the end he attributes his actions to insanity. Sometimes he appears completely mad yet again very sane, witty and circumspective in his decisions. While there is a possibility of his madness being feigned, the events that constitute his lifetime- the death of his father, mother and Ophelia his lover- cannot be over looked and may have authenticated his insanity. The true and final verdict however, always rests with the reader.

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