Hamlet Essay, Research Paper
Hamlet’s behavior affects that of the other characters in the play in that his action drastically alters, not only their perception of Hamlet and his intentions, but also their actions and words in dealing with Hamlet. It is difficult to classify Hamlet as either sane or insane; however, it is certain that his mad behavior, whether feigned or authentic, serves only to heighten the confusion and eventual suspicion of the court, particularly Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, and Polonius and Claudius duo.
Hamlet’s mental state is hard to decipher due to the complexity of the issue and the variety of ways his actions can be viewed. Edward Strachey believes that Hamlet is, “?A character made of many elements, ramifying themselves in many directions, some being healthy and some diseased” (Strachey 173). Strachey goes on to say that an attempt to classify Hamlet as either mad or sane is an, “?Over simplification of what is most complex” (Strachey 173).
At the beginning of Hamlet, Ophelia tells her father about the vows of love that Hamlet has expressed to her. Polonius immediately questions Hamlet’s intentions and reminds Ophelia that making a rash decision could cost her; but Ophelia assures her father that, “?He hath importuned me with love In honorable fashion?And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, With almost all the holy vows of heaven” (Shakespeare 17). However, after Hamlet visits Ophelia in a crazed state she immediately turns to her Father and reports Hamlet in a much darker light.
Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stocking fouled, Ungartered and down-gyved to his ankle,
Pale as a shirt, his knees knocking each other And with look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors (Shakespeare 28).
The complexity of Hamlet’s sanity is most evident in Ophelia’s description of him at this point in the play. Hamlet is championed for his intellect and wit, so at first glance it might seem as if he put on an extravagant show for Ophelia, knowing she would alarm her father and he in turn the King. However, the description of Hamlet looking as if he had come straight out of hell with his face paled and knees shaking, suggests a truly wary man teetering on the edge of madness. Regardless of Hamlet’s true mental state, his behavior forced Ophelia to turn to her father and disregard her prior comments about Hamlet’s honorable intentions; instead condemning him a mad man.
The query into Hamlet’s madness raises too many other unanswerable questions; however, the effects of his odd behavior are clearly visible. After Ophelia relates her tale to her father, Polonius, he immediately becomes wary of Hamlet and promptly reports all new information to the King. Polonius and King Claudius, in Act II Scene II, plot to set up a chance meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia in the lobby of the palace, in order to monitor Hamlet’s behavior. The madness they perceived in Hamlet, from Ophelia’s description, led them to spy on him. After Hamlet’s meeting with Ophelia, the King becomes unsure of Hamlet’s sanity. He notes that although Hamlet’s words do have something beneath the surface attached to them, it did not sound like madness. “Now what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness. There’s something in his soul O’er which his melancholy sits on brood, And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose Will be some danger; which for to prevent?” (Shakespeare 47). This causes Claudius to become even more suspicious of Hamlet and more concerned with what he might do next as he attempts to revenge his father’s murder; saying, “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (Shakespeare 48). Claudius becomes concerned with Hamlet’s actions because if Hamlet is in fact mad, Claudius knows he must be extremely cautious of Hamlet’s irrational behavior. If Hamlet is, however, only feigning madness this forces Claudius to become even more concerned. In this case Hamlet’s motivations would be guided by revenge, meaning they would have a purpose and direction. If Hamlet is truly mad then his actions would not follow and order or reason and therefore would not be as threatening to the King; but either way, both King Claudius and Polonius, until his demise, are forced to devote much of their attention to dealing with Hamlet.
Charlotte Lennox, in one respect, believes that the question over hamlet’s sanity is irrelevant to the story. She does, however, go on to say that the only importance of Hamlet’s madness is that it throws the other characters into alarm over his motivations and whether he is truly mad or not.
“For Hamlet’s madness alarms the King’s Suspicions, and that produces the treacherous Embassy to England, which failing, the Contrivance of the poisoned Rapier followed, and that does the business” (Lennox 129).
The treacherous embassy is of course Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, who had heard of Hamlets madness and made their assistance readily available to the King. The King asks them to go to England and put an end to Hamlet’s mad brain. R and G reply(with G speaking),
We will ourselves provide, most holy and religious fear it is to keep those many many bodies safe That live and feed upon your majesty (Shakespeare 58).
Hamlet, however, discovers their treachery and has them disposed of; then, King Claudius sets up a fight between Laertes and Hamlet by convincing Laertes that he should avenge Polonius’, his father, murder. The King covers Laertes’ sword with poison and even put poison in Hamlet’s goblet.
Hamlet’s mad behavior sets off a train of events where the King and his followers become more and more suspicious of Hamlet and eventually take action against him. Samuel Traylor Coleridge says that Hamlet’s displays an internal struggle by attempting to feign madness while at the same time struggling to maintain sanity. Coleridge also points out that feigning madness can be considered an act of insanity in and of itself. “Hamlet’s wildness is but half-false. O that subtle trick to pretend the acting only when we are very near to what we act” (Coleridge 40). If he was feigning the madness, then his plan was misguided and he was working against himself and his quest for revenge. If Hamlet is indeed truly mad then he alerts his foes to this information and they in turn become very circumspect of Hamlet and his plans. Hamlet’s madness serves to call attention to himself and raise suspicions of his enemies.
Coleridge, Samuel Traylor. “Notes on the Tragedies of
Shakespeare: The Character of Hamlet.” Shakespearean Criticism. Ed, Thomas Middleton Raysor. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930. 40.
Lennox, Charlotte. Shakespeare, the Critical Heritage.
Ed, Brian Vickers. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976. 129.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Norton Critical Edition.
Ed, Cyrus Hoy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992.
Strachey, Edward. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare:
Hamlet. Ed, Horace Howard Furness. Vol. IV. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1877. 173.