To Be Insane, Or Not To Be
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To Be Insane, Or Not To Be
In reading William Shakespeares “Hamlet,” many ponder the question of the title characters sanity. The Britannica dictionary has defined “insane” as “Mentally deranged or unsoundone afflicted by temporary or permanent irrational or violent deviations from normal thinking, feeling, and behavior… unable to distinguish between right and wrong, to control the will, foresee the consequences of an act…” So was Hamlet acting out of pure passion and insanity in his quest for revenge, or was he following a clearly reasoned path towards a reasonable goal? On the surface the reader would certainly find Hamlets antics crazy, but with further attention the true extent of Hamlets mental facilities becomes clear.
There is evidence from nearly every character in the play that Hamlet is less than sane. In fact, much of the action of the play is devoted to the question of Hamlets insanity, with several characters being given the sole task of determining whether or not Hamlet is mad. These characters conclude that Hamlet is insane. The first character to notice Hamlets odd behavior is Polonius. He comes to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude with the news that their “noble son is mad.” Polonius first begins to believe this when he intercepts a love letter intended for Ophelia, and wonders why a High Prince like Hamlet should be interested in his lowly daughter. In subsequent conversations with Hamlet, Polonius comes to the conclusion that Hamlet is mad with love and anguish over his fathers death. Polonius explains that he sees Hamlet experiencing the classic stages of the declination into love-madness: “And he…fell into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watch, thence into a weakness, thence to a lightness, and, by this declension, into the madness wherein now he raves, and all we mourn for.” In conversations with Hamlet, Polonius notes that Hamlet makes replies with “a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.” In seeing Hamlet “rave” in a state of “happiness” only obtainable through irrationality and senselessness, Polonius concludes that Hamlet must be starting to go insane with love.
Ophelia also begins to believe that Hamlet is going mad. He goes from treating her with great tenderness, to accusing and insulting her. Hamlets treatment of Ophelia could definitely be considered irrational, and without logic. In a letter to Ophelia, he declares his love by saying “Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar; but never doubt I love.” These are words of a romantic and dedicated lover, and yet, at their next meeting, Hamlet treats Ophelia with icy rudeness. He denounces his love, and accuses Ophelia of being dishonest. He tells her that he did love her once, but that it was not true, and says, “If thou dost marry, Ill give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go! Farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them…” This is quite a contrast from Hamlets request for Ophelia to never doubt he loves her. When asked by Polonius, her father, whether she thinks Hamlet is “mad for thy love?” Ophelia answered, “I truly do fear it.” By any measure Hamlets treatment of his love does seem quite irrational.
Claudius and the Queen come to an even stronger conclusion than Polonius and Ophelia. They do not simply suspect Hamlet to be insane or even somewhat mad. They are quite sure that he is totally and completely insane. To be sure of it they employ Hamlets two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to speak with him and find out conclusively whether or not he is insane, and if so, the cause of his insanity. However, Hamlet keeps aloof “with a crafty madness,” and they are unable to find the cause for his odd behavior. The Queen is the one to discover the conclusive evidence of Hamlets insanity. She tells King Claudius that he is “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is mightier!” after watching Hamlet kill Polonius and speak to the unseen ghost of her former husband. A mothers assessment of a childs sanity is a hard thing to contend with. Who should know Hamlet better than his own mother?
The answer to this question is, of course, the reader. Only the reader knows Hamlet better than any of the characters within the play. Those around him speculate that Hamlets loss of his father and his love for Ophelia have pushed him over the edge and site his odd behaviors as the primary evidence of his madness. However, for several years preceding the murder of his father Hamlet has been away at school, so the characters within the play have no better basis of comparison than readers have when analyzing Hamlets behavior. They have not seen Hamlet for several years, and it is quite possible he changed greatly during this time. Therefore, the characters know him only negligibly better than the readers.
Furthermore, his past several years of education have most likely sharpened his wit, and his perceptions of reality. Thus, in returning to Denmark, it is not surprising he acts somewhat differently. In many passages, Hamlet plays mental games with those he does not like, namely Polonius. He attempts to make fun of people using sarcasm and other forms of jest in order to make the other person look silly. To the person being made to look silly, this often comes off as being incoherent, or illogical. At one point in the play, Hamlet and Polonius have a series of exchanges that seem harmless and inconsequential, but they are a prime example of the ways in which Hamlet continually makes fun of those he dislikes.
Hamlet: My lord, you played once i th university, you say?
Polonius: That I did, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet: What did you enact?
Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i the Capitol. Brutus killed me.
Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there…
In this exchange, Polonius is bragging about his acting exploits while Hamlet mocks him. Using a play on words, Hamlet is making fun of Poloniuss claims at being a good actor by sarcastically saying that was harsh of Brutus to kill such an important young cow as Polonius. Throughout the play, Polonius and Hamlet have such exchanges, dueling back and forth mentally with