Madness as a term is defined as “The state of senseless folly” by the modern English dictionary. The general perception of madness within the text of Hamlet mirrors that of the perception of madness in modern society, which is more an act or behavior which differs significantly from the norm or accepted level, a lack of logic or rational thought. Perception affects every human condition, in a sense we are nothing within society if we are not perceived to be so:
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” (3.2.206)
– Polonius commenting on the state of Hamlets behaviour. This essay aims to argue just that, that is for the sanity of Hamlet & that the madness he projects in certain circumstances is nothing more than a guise to hide his dark ambition.
There are many elements within the play that suggest Hamlet is simply acting insane in order to avoid suspicion, such as his relationship with Horatio; his language use in certain areas; his spatial awareness of the things going on around him and his observant and manipulative strategy. Also, his delay in taking actions when the opportunity presents due to his indecisiveness but knowing also exactly what he is leading up to through his wise decisions. It is the contention of this essay of the essay to argue these points.
The Ghost presents in the form of Hamlet’s late father
“In the same figure like the king that’s dead.” (1.1.39)
-Barnardo commenting on the ghost’s appearance. When the ghost relays the message of murder most fowl to Hamlet it is pivotal, as Hamlet in his own way moves from a teenage angst state of mind to one seemingly vastly more vengeful. The text shows his displeasure with his mother’s hasty marriage and his suspicion of his uncle:-
“Within a month, ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, she married” (1.2.153)
When the ghost confirms fowl play we see wheels within wheels beginning to form in hamlets mind. Hamlet is set on avenging his father’s death but is unsure of the method in which to do so without “tainting his mind”. The Ghost suggests madness in itself, in the way of being able to physically see an un-dead spirit roaming the earth. Yet we know others see the ominous being. Hamlet however can hear it speak a power unique to only him. This begs the question, is the spirit truly speaking or is Hamlet manipulating the idea of the ghost in order to confirm his suspicion? In answering this we must look to hamlets ambition, what he plans to do, and the fact that the planning is logical and within the normal boundaries of the human mind.
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Hamlet has a deep relationship with his mother, Gertrude, it is obvious that he cares for her deeply and this allows her action to affect him greatly. Within the opening scene they are acting tender towards one another ***. As the play develops we see Hamlet coming to revelations and having doubts about his mother’s purity and so this relationship suffers some great dents. Gertrude’s is a catalyst in Hamlets false insanity, her actions often invoke a more hasty side of Hamlet allowing him to make decisions and take action more quickly, this is important as he procrastinates a large amount in some instances of the play****. When Gertrude marries Claudius the uncle of Hamlet within just two months of his father’s death Hamlet develops a sort of Angel/Whore complex for his mother. Although he loves his mother but he feels his mother betrayed the memory of his father *****. A mixture of Hamlets grief for his father along with his disapproval for his mother’s speedy marriage only further his suspicions and his scheming. Hamlet, not wanting to offend his mother by telling her about his disapproval, hides his true feelings about the marriage. His disapproval then grows into hatred, not necessarily for his mother but he is struggling with a tidal wave of emotion and this comes to a head after the players present The Murder Of Gonzago***. This is unexpected to his mother as he has only presented his displeasure mostly towards Claudius. Gertrude is upset but seems to forgive her only son quite quickly. Hamlet feels a pressure release after confronting his mother. He accepts the ghost’s message that his mother had nothing to do with his death. Hamlet’s mother has a deep impact on him throughout the play she is a support but also a catalyst to his revenge, this point will become important again later in this essay.
One relationship greatly affects another within the text, and we see a deep mistrust within Hamlet towards women because of Gertrude, he begins to see them as vile. This has an impact on the romantic relationship Hamlet shares with Ophelia. Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia is sort of a wild card as it affects Hamlet greatly but also shows the level of manipulation he is capable of, if he is truly manipulating her.
Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship seems like an ordinary dating couples’; Hamlet makes “many tenders of his affection” on her, as well as “importuning [her] with love in an honorable fashion” and making “almost all the holy vows of heaven.” (1.3). However Ophelia’s family aim to turn her against Hamlet, she is in conflict with this and says to her father “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.” (1.3.103). Ophelia listens to her father in the end and the scene that shows Hamlet in the light of madness ensues. However, reading into this scene in greater detail, we are shown that Hamlet is not only playing the mad-man because of his aforementioned planning but also he seems wounded by Ophelia’s rejection of him. Ophelia recounts the experience “To speak of horrors-he came before me. He took me by the wrist and held me hard…” (2.1.99)
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Within the encounter which is essentially Ophelia spurning his love, Hamlet acts as if Ophelia is within his mind, hated. She expects, in a way, for him to fight for her. She is confused by his mannerisms and by the things he says to her. Hamlet, feeling betrayed and acting insane, states, “I did love you once,” but then proceeds to tell her “I love you not” (3.1.118)
Hamlet is cruel to Ophelia. He makes crude jokes and insulting puns. He is in a deep state of emotional turmoil. We see just how invested Ophelia is in the idea that hamlet is truly mad “O help him, you sweet heavens!” (3.1.133)
Another relationship that shows Hamlet’s inner thoughts is that which he shares with Horatio. Horatio’s purpose is to be Hamlet’s one true confidant. Apart from Hamlet’s soliloquies, his conversations with Horatio are the only insight we have into what the Prince is really thinking and feeling. This is a crucial point in deciding for or against the sanity of Hamlet. We see Hamlet behave with unruly temper and a sharp tongue with many other characters but this is all wiped clear within the prince’s interaction with Horatio.
“Thrift, thrift, Horatio, the funeral bak’d meats Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” (1.2.176)
Hamlet, in his way sarcastically allowing Horatio know how he truly feels about his mother’s marriage to Claudius.
The players are Hamlet’s ace in the hole so to speak, he sets them up to be detectives in a way through the play “the Murder of Gonzaga”. Hamlet aims to see Claudius break down in guilt. This planning begins from their (the players) very entrance and in this we see the shift from madness to calculative strategist and it is a swift one. He evens asks
“You could for need study a speech of some dozen lines, or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert in’t, could you not?” (2.2.476)
Hamlet is emerging as a true spatial manipulator here as he is not only manipulating the players in choosing the play they should put on, but manipulating the very play itself for his own purpose. The elegant creep away from madness is again proof that he is only adorning his “antic disposition” in order to effectively carry out his dark but noble desires. The irony of the players is that within the text most of the characters hide their true nature throughout, Hamlet and King Claudius being the prime examples. The actors through doing simply what they are supposed to, drag the honest personality from both Hamlet and Claudius into a new light. They agitate King Claudius and allow Hamlet to see their appearance as more accurate to the truth than the appearance of “real life characters,” therefore triggering him to take action. The second Hamlet had not planned on but with the noticeable shift in Claudius’s mannerisms Hamlet goes back to playing the mad man knowing what he must now do. Gertrude becomes the catalyst yet again. In the final scene Hamlet throws off the act of madness. When his mother dies because of a poison meant for Hamlet, he is so overcome with grief as he watches her die that he finally finds the strength to kill the king and take revenge for the death of his father.
In conclusion, this essay set out to prove the sanity of hamlet through his various relationships, the set of circumstances presented in the text and the crippling pressure he feels towards avenging his father. The young prince battles through huge levels of turmoil and inner conflict, through catastrophic confusion and pain to do what he believes is only justice. Whether his justice is right or wrong is not for my deliberation but the fact that he exacts it with such strategy and poise is the key reason for the sanity Hamlet. In a way we are all Hamlet, we decide on our method to overcome whatever may lie in our path to what we believe is right. This is not madness but human nature, a choice to act, however selfish, on what we perceive to be wrong and correct it.
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