Hamlet by William ShakespeareCommentary by Maria Rioux
Hamlet determines to “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.172); in otherwords, that he will act mad. We know he is acting, because he is not alwaysmad, and tells Rosencrantz et al that he “knows a hawk from a handsaw.”(2.2.387) Hamlet always appears mad before those characters from whom hehas something to fear - Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and even Ophelia, aftershe has been reduced to the role of bait for Hamlet. He is buying time in order toavange his father. (That is not his only grievance: In a later letter to Horatio, heaccuses Claudius of the murder of his father, the whoredom of his mother, andhaving "popped between the election and my hopes" (5.2.65)).There is only one time when Hamlet
s actions suggest that he may bemad. He has just left the chapel, deciding against kiling Claudius as it would onlysend him directly to heaven. (We might excuse his hate given the information hehas had from his father: The ghost cries that he was killed before he could repentof his own sins, "sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head"(1.5.70ish, meaning that he cannot go to heaven.) Hamlet berates his mother forher conduct, hears a noise, which he cannot imagine is Claudius (having just lefthim) and whom he must suspect if Polonius. He claims it is a rat, stabbingthrough the tapestry. That
s one tall rat, for his sword fatally injures Polonius.Hamlet had no real motive to kill Polonius, although Polonius did conspire againsthim to some extent. In this, Polonius was protecting his daughter whom he fearedHamlet was merely trifling with. This act of Hamlets suggests that he is losingcontrol. Hamlet describes his deed as "almost as bad, good Mother, as kill aking, and marry with his brother" (3.4.29-30). This points to complicity on the partof Gertrude, for between her and Claudius only she can marry the king
s brother.Hamlet couples the marrying with the killing, each action having the same impliedsubject. The fact that Gertrude cannot see the ghost could also be taken asevidence of Hamlet's madness. Earlier apparitions were seen first by Hamlet
smen, then by him. Why is it that Gertrude cannot see her former husband? It issignificant, that the characters that can see the ghost are the same charactersthat see Hamlet in control of his faculties. Gertrude, meanwhile, is one of thecharacters for whom Hamlet puts on his "antic disposition." Perhaps the ghostappears only to those who would be sympathetic to his plea for revenge. On theother hand, Hamlet
s father expressly told Hamlet to leave his mother to God
s justice, as if her actions were less culpable. Even in this somewhat questionableinstance, Hamlet tells his mother he is not mad, but mad in craft. (3.4.188-189).