“To be or not to be” begins one of the most famous soliloquies of all time by an author that has stood the test of time, William Shakespeare in his play, Hamlet. There are several different themes that are relayed within Hamlet’s story. These themes include death, obsession, and betrayal, all of which contribute in some manner to encourage Hamlet’s madness. In every theme, the audience can relate on a universal level both back in the day and in contemporary times as death, obsession and betrayal are common entities, well known today and will continue to be known and understood until the end of time. There are many overlapping themes that all relate back to Hamlet’s madness, specifically including death, obsession, and betrayal.
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In fact, it could be said that Hamlet, the play, is a perfect fusion of internal and external forces. Hamlet experiences turmoil based not only on his inner mental state, but also on the external circumstances of both the murder of his father-committed jointly by his mother and Claudius-and the constant spying upon him by those whom Claudius and Polonius dispatch to do so. Thus, Hamlet suffers from justifiable paranoia, although the extent to which he responds to those circumstances is, at least from one perspective, extreme.
Hamlet frequently thinks about suicide throughout the course of the play. Hamlet’s perspective on his life can be seen in his “To be or not to be” speech. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep- No more, and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks” is only the beginning of his verse (III, i, 59-64). By mentioning the thoughts of suffering the “slings” and “arrows” that are naturally life’s tribulations, followed by the consideration of facing a “sea of troubles” by living, it is apparent that he desires to experience death. Hamlet hopes to avoid and not to be subjected to inevitable “heartache” that is simply part of life, and by wishing to not have to tolerate pain, exhibits his wish to die. At the end, Hamlet has apparently made the decision that he would rather die, but if, and only if he were not afraid of what would come after death. In a manner of speaking, this also reflected Hamlet’s depression in that he would constantly think about death. He was melancholy to say the least. The question remains as to whether or not this is madness. In truth, it is possible that because he contemplates suicide in a very real way, it could possibly be thought of as madness as it is not a thought that any normal person would ever have. Instead, a normal individual may see issues in life that need to be dealt with instead of run away from which may have been what Hamlet was doing. Madness surrounds this possibility of death because most individuals will never truly contemplate taking their own life in any normal circumstances. In any event, Hamlet’s uncertainty is also what drives Hamlet’s obsessions, which revolve around the betrayal leading to the death of his father.
Hamlet can be said to be truly neurotic. At the same time that, for obvious reasons, he resents and hates his mother for killing his father, he is strongly attached to her, in an emotional mother-son relationship whose intensity is painful to behold. This gigantic conflict in his feelings is the foundation for his neurosis and thus his alienation, which is compounded by the knowledge that his mother’s lover Claudius is constantly spying on him. Hamlet cannot act. He philosophizes; he sees his father’s ghost relating the horrific event of his murder; he pours out what he can of his heart to Ophelia, even though he knows she too has been sent to spy on him. Yet, in spite of all this, he will not take up the sword against Claudius. Hamlet is above all alienated from himself. While it is true that the constant pressure from her father, Polonius, and Claudius as well to spy on Hamlet is a major factor in the growing madness of Ophelia, it would be difficult not to say that Hamlet’s own madness and alienation is also clearly instrumental in Ophelia’s deteriorating mental condition. Her love for Hamlet is frustrated in every possible way by her father’s pressuring of her, Gertrude’s attempts to transfer her own guilt for the murder of her husband to Ophelia, and Hamlet himself who obviously cannot respond normally to her (Ophelia’s) love, because of his own severe neurosis. From this perspective, Hamlet’s alienation is really a major factor in Ophelia’s complete breakdown and eventual suicide.
At the same time, Hamlet does finally manage to confront his enemies and without meaning to per se, kills Polonius. The latter’s son, Laertes, dispatches Hamlet with a poison-tipped sword, but not before Hamlet has also killed his real enemy, Claudius. Yet all this happens late in the play-late enough so that the diagnosis of neurosis is well founded. The significant delay in this finally acting upon his justifiable need for revenge indicates just how removed Hamlet is from the normal desire to act. It is, in fact, a mark of how intense and deep his alienation is that when he does finally act, it ends ultimately in his death.
Hamlet’s obsession revolves around the betrayal his family has faced at the hands of his uncle. Despite the fact that Hamlet appears to have been given evidence that his uncle did, as a matter of fact, murder his father, it seems as though this so-called evidence is simply not enough for Hamlet to be absolutely certain. “Where wilt though lead me? Speak; I’ll go no further” Hamlet begins in Scene V (Shakespeare) Although this statement may be perceived as Hamlet attempting to stand his ground in search for answers as to what is happening, the other side of this could also be that he is somewhat afraid of the specter that is standing in front of him. During Shakespeare’s time period, fear of ghosts was not unusual because it was believed that ghosts did indeed exist as a way of explaining sometimes what seemed to be supernatural things. The ghost of Shakespeare’s Hamlet first appears in Act I and reveals truths to Hamlet, one of which is admitting that he is Hamlet’s murdered father. A conversation takes place between Hamlet and the ghost of his dead father where the ghost openly accuses Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, of having been the murderer by stating that “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown” (I, v, 39-40). If the ghost is indeed Hamlet’s father and is to be believed, theoretically, the ghost’s accusation should be all of the proof that Hamlet needs, yet he continually searches for proof, all the while replacing normal joys with his obsession to know the absolute truth behind the betrayal the resulted in the death of his beloved father. Eventually, his obsession with his father’s death gets reinforced by an increase in separation from his family as well as his loved ones.
Simply seeing a ghost raises questions of madness because reality says that there are no such things as ghosts, but yet, people still claim to see ghosts. In this particular case, it can be thought that Hamlet descended into madness even further as he attempted to come to terms with several factors that surrounded this particular event in the play. The first factor that really stands out is the fact that Hamlet sees a ghost period. Not too many people will see such things unless they are perhaps clinically and mentally disturbed. That is the first implication that signals Hamlet’s madness. It continues even as others see what Hamlet sees. Even Hamlet’s friends, Horatio and Marcellus, see him after Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost.
Hamlet truly wants closure for the loss of his father and as such, urgently wants assurances as to what has been witnessed from his friends’ perspectives. While his friends fear the ghost, Hamlet feels as though he must go in order for the ghost to talk to him. Is it madness that drives him to go forth and attempt to communicate with the ghost? Honestly, it can be looked at from either perspective. Simply believing that an individual can even talk to a ghost is somewhat disturbing. There would have to be some sort of mental illness or blockage there to believe that he truly was talking to his father’s ghost. At the same time, maybe it was not madness as it could have been because there are many different ways that an individual learns to cope with what they are dealing with. In this case, Hamlet must learn to deal with the loss of his father and perhaps seeing something like a specter is in fact his coping mechanism. That cannot possibly be healthy, but for lack of better explanation, at least it is a way to cope. On the other hand, it can even be questioned as to whether or not he may instead be experiencing a true mental illness like schizophrenia. The only reason that can be tossed out the window as an option is because his friends also see the ghost even if they are unaware as to who or what it is supposed to stand for. Also considering the fact that the only person that the ghost talks to is Hamlet, it would seem that perhaps this was also because Hamlet was the only one willing to see and talk to the ghost. Perhaps that is also a sign of madness as he allowed himself to communicate with someone that really should not exist in any real scientific manner. Since Hamlet seemed to be far past the idea true sanity, it would further seem that his talking to a ghost would simply add to the madness that is Hamlet.
As the play progresses, Hamlet has become separate emotionally from his family and the woman he once proclaimed to love, Ophelia. He would rather push Ophelia away and encourage her to go to a nunnery because of the way he has come to view women in general. He goes on to tell her that he loved her once, only to say that Ophelia “should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not” (III, i, 119-121). How hurtful that was to the fair Ophelia and did nothing but make her wish for the Hamlet she once knew. Clinical depression exhibits withdrawal from loved ones, as Hamlet has done here with Ophelia. Hamlet even finds it necessary to be vulgar towards Ophelia as it would have been impossible for him to continue to love her while simultaneously attempting to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet pulled away from the woman he had once proclaimed to love and still continued to contemplate his father’s death as well as his own.
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The death of Hamlet’s father is also reflective of the types of plays that were written of the time which were morality plays. . The play contains many elements that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages such as the idea of the nation being diseased like a physical being which reminds the audience of the plague that had run rampant during medieval times. It is interesting that the health of the country and the well-being of the family are so closely related in such a manner that the country actually reflects the family. This brings forth the dark ages to the audience because the people held the royal family largely responsible for the plague and felt as though the royal family could have done more for the people as opposed to simply getting away. Denmark is constantly described as a physical person that has been made ill by the moral corruption within the family.
In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote what was common for that time which was a morality play. Clearly, morality played a significant part in the entire piece as Hamlet struggled with the idea of death. After the king’s death, Hamlet is obsessed with death and looks at death from several different points of view. Then again, death was a common component of life during the dark ages what with the plague having run its course through Europe. With all of the surrounding destruction, contemplating death was normal, but for Hamlet, it took a slightly different twist.
Some might argue that Hamlet’s madness was real or not, but in truth, it was a truly disastrous time in Hamlet’s life. Hamlet experienced tragic life situations rather quickly and these all had a huge impact on Hamlets life. His father had passed away and his uncle had just married his widowed mother. This was then followed by the appearance of the ghost of his dead father with instructions for revenge, and then as if that were not enough, Ophelia’s father had made it impossible for Hamlet to see her. It is no wonder that Hamlet had episodes of madness throughout the play and appeared to lose touch with reality a number of times. In all reality, Hamlet never fully lost touch with reality and as such did eventually stop exhibiting his insanity after his argument with Laertes in the graveyard. Even in considering the revenge that was plotted against Claudius required some sort of reality hold in order to plan something effectively for it to really work.
Once Hamlet saw his ghost of a father, his sole purpose in life was to uncover the truth about the matter and avenge his father should it be deemed necessary. From that perspective, madness seemed to be the perfect vessel to manipulate the way that the people worked around him. In fact, madness allowed him to confuse Polonius into believing that Ophelia was the root of his madness so much in fact that Polonius went to the king and queen who also seem inclined to believe that Ophelia could in fact be the cause of Hamlet’s madness. The interception of the love letters from Hamlet to Ophelia was also in favor for Hamlets portrayal of “madness”. For Hamlet to carry this on effectively, he would have had to retain some sort of connection to reality in order to manipulate those that would otherwise doubt whether or not he actually knew what he was talking about. Hamlet was a brilliant man indeed!
Depending on how Hamlet is examined, it would appear that there are both real and not quite so real bouts of madness. The world of Hamlet shrinks from being one in which he could have been a noble prince in a peaceful and prosperous kingdom to one in which potential enemies are everywhere present. Given the time in his life, it would be more likely that Hamlet would in fact be a victim of madness while still retaining some of his ability to keep in touch with reality to some extent. This attachment is what kept Hamlet from going entirely over the edge, but ultimately, his madness is what caused the story to take the path that it did because his madness led to his obsession which bled over into several different other themes within the play. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a tragedy that is longed to be remembered.
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