On Hamlet’s Madness


In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character puts on the guise of insanity in order to extract revenge against his murderous Uncle, who took the life of his father. What Hamlet hopes to gain from this faux-madness is ambiguous, seeing as it is an act that draws attention to oneself and one’s actions as opposed to masking it. However, his decision in this is significant to the work as a whole not only becasue it is a driving force of the plot, but because it makes the audience question what Hamlet’s true mental state it and, in turn, whether or not the lengths he goes to for revenge can be perceived as rational or moral.  Hamlet’s “madness”, however, at several points can be perceived as reasonable, due to the instances surrounding it.

One of the first places we see this shine through is in II.II. in which Polonius, the father of Hamlet’s quasi-lover Ophelia, approaches Hamlet with the hope that he will be able to figure out what is ailing him, the strong suspicion being that he is mad over his love for Ophelia. However, Hamlet’s answers are always elusive and enigmatic — he first pretends not to know who Polonius is (“You are a fishmonger.”, II.II.190), makes sexual innuendo about his daughter (“Let her not walk i’ th’ sun.”, playing on “son”, meaning himself  II.II.201), and then insults him under his breath (“These tedious old fools.” II.II.237)  — yet still, even Polonius, it’s pretty clear that this madness is not incoherent enough to be genuine. Polonius even remarks the world-famous lines that vouch for Hamlet’s sanity:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” (II.II.223-224)

Hamlet’s guise of craziness here can certainly be described as reasonable to the discerning eye, bboth because he has proved himself so far to be exceedingly sharp-witted and lucid, and because Polonius, in the past scenes, has already proven himself ot be an annoying, overbearing character through his long-winded speeches (see I.III.60-87), and an enemy of Hamlet in that he has easily taken the side of Claudius for personal gain — which therefore makes it reasonable that Hamlet should want to taunt him with this interaction and semi-incoherence. This particular instance of insanity is significant because it is Polonius (and, in turn, Gertrude and Claudius)s first impression of the newly-mad prince, which leads them to set Hamlet up for the meeting with Ophelia, which, like dominoes, sets the plot in motion.

Another case of Hamlet’s “madness” is when he visits Gertrude in her chamber, attacking her and yelling at her for what she did to both him and his true father. This, to the audience, is likely perceived as something that is reasonable and overall just due to the fact that Gertrude, a character who is solely described as traitorous, lustful, and pernicious, is surely deserving of a passionate talking-to about her awful actions. Hamlet’s heightened emotions and almost manic monologuing in this scene feel a little closer to true madness in that he seems to be more pointed and dangerous, yet still — Hamlet has already established himself as being an eccentric, melodramatic, passionate character even before he begins to feign madness (see especially I.II.133-164), which may lead the audience to believe that his words to Gertrude come from a place of sincere yet blunt honesty. This scene is important both because of the slight ambiguity of Hamlet’s mental state — in that we are beginning to wonder whether or not he has truly lost his marbles, or if he is simply finally getting out the words that have been on his heart for the two months that his father has been dead  — and because this is the scene that leads to Claudius’s banishment of Hamlet which, in turn, eventually leads to the death of every major character.

And yet still, I would not describe Hamlet’s actions in Gertrude’s chamber as truly mad, even though they are, at times, rash, foolish, and irrational (i.e., the murder of Polonius, and the fact that he can see his Father’s ghost were Gertrude cannot). Hamlet establishes full well in past soliloquies that he is extremely upset with his mother and her actions, and disapproves largely of her unpure sex life, especially in the aforementioned passage:

… within a month
(Let me not think on ’t; frailty, thy name is woman!),
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she
(O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!), married with my
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her gallèd eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good. (I.II.149-163)
 And just as well, in the chamber in which he tells Gertrude of his feelings about her actions, he does not say anything there that he had not already said in the passage above, even using exact wording twice (he calls his father a Hyperion in both the personal monologue in act one, and his lecture to Gertrude in act three, which certainly is a display of mental coherence)! This, I believe, attests to Hamlet’s sanity as well — for indeed, the stress of mental illness that we see in Hamlet (the likeliest being depression and paranoia of a sort) does not fully amount to the other case of true insanity we see in Hamlet, which is Ophelia’s fate.
Finally, the last important instance of “insanity” to be found here is when Hamlet is speaking with his old friends from University, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It has been established in the play that Hamlet truly did love and respect both of them once (see II.II.19-26) — however, this quickly dissolved when he learned that they were both spying on him for Claudius, the enemy of all of Hamlet’s endeavors. Hamlet’s madness in III.IV consists of him essentially yelling at both of them for thinking that they could play upon him and lie to him:
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing
you make of me! You would play upon me, you
would seem to know my stops, you would pluck
out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me
from my lowest note to the top of my compass;
and there is much music, excellent voice, in this
little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood,
do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?
Call me what instrument you will, though you can
fret me, you cannot play upon me. (III.II.393-402)
Just as with Polonius in the aforementioned II.II., Hamlet’s words are riddled with puns, wordplay, and other intricacies that betray his method and true thoughts underneath. This can easily be judged as reasonable due to the fact that the audience knows that Halmet thinks the two of them deserve this type of wrath and, as with Polonius and Gertrude, believes they deserve his punishment (verbally and, later, mortally). This “madness”, as mentioned earlier, enhances the idea that Hamlet truly is sane due to the fact that he recognizes people’s motivations with crystal-clear vision, and uses keen literary devices in order to convict their emotions with such clear intelligence and, well, “method” so as to attest to the idea that his wit truly is together.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the audience wonders at many different points if Hamlet is truly sane. This slight ambuigity leads to several different questions that, undoubtedly, Shakespeare poses so that any particular viewre might look inside themselves and decide: is it right or rational to take justice into your own hands? Is revenge ever a just thing to enact? And, of course is cruelty ever reasonable? The meaning fo this work includes each of those questions, and the text itself seems to beg an answer of its audience as they wath Hamlet go about his questionably-maddening business.