Was Hamlet Mad Essay, Research Paper
Plucking Out the Heart of His Mystery: Was Hamlet Mad?
“I will be brief. Your noble son is mad,” states Polonius (II.ii.92). “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown, Ophelia exclaims (III.i.142). “Alas, he’s mad,” concludes Gertrude (III.iv.107). I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw, professes Hamlet (II.ii.331). Four hundred years later the debate still rages.
It seems odd Hamlet s sanity would be so widely debated for centuries when we need only to look at the background sources of this tragic play for explanation the character s feigned madness. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was a remake of an already popular play, based in turn on historical fiction, based in turn on a episode from the Dark Ages. The Historical Hamlet was the son of a Danish “King of the Jutes,” who lived during the lawless period that followed the collapse of Roman-era civilization. Saxo Grammaticus “Historia Danica,” written around 1200, presents a highly fictionalized version of his story. This ghastly tale depicts a prince named Amleth who must feign madness while plotting the revenge he finally achieves. Although a success story and not a tragedy, it is a bloody account of fratricide and a queen s remarriage, of tests and secret commissions, of deceit and death. Francois de Belleforest adapted Saxo s historical fiction and published “Histories Tragiques” in 1570. In the 1600s The Spanish Tragedy,” a revenge play by Thomas Kyd, with several similarities to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was performed, as was the Ur-Hamlet, a companion-piece to the original “Hamlet” play, which Kyd probably also wrote (Edwards 1-3). Belleforest provided the essential story line. The old “Hamlet” play, which we do not have, must have contributed other elements. Knowing this background, it now become apparent where Shakespeare was constrained by his plot and genre to have Hamlet’s revenge delayed, and his madness feigned when he wrote his best known and most popular play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in 1600 or 1601.
If a 400-year-old plot basis is not enough to put the demons to rest, we need only to look to the author s characteristic writing style to further strengthen this argument. In all of Shakespeare s works, characters can be trusted to reveal their true selves, as indicated by Lily B. Campbell in her essays on his tragic heroes. Shakespeare never tried to fool his audience about the nature of his characters. In fact, he uses them to reveal to the audience exactly what he wants them to know (112). This being the case, we are well advised to heed Hamlet when he forewarns, As I perchance hereafter shall think to meet / To put an antic disposition on (I.v.171-172). Subsequently, if there be any room for doubt, he reassures us of his agile mind: I am but mad north-north west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hand saw (II.ii.331).
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