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Humanities II Rewrite: Essay #3
The Method in Hamlet’s Madness
The ambiguous question of Hamlet's madness weaves its way in and out the entirety of the play. Hamlet displays changes in behavior that can be attributed to a number of reasons. This essay will be exploring on which grounds Hamlet's underlying sanity is subject to question. In my opinion, through deliberately altering his behavior in such traumatic and stressful times, Hamlet’s feelings, thoughts, and impulses become dangerously aroused and take precedence over his planned behavior. In turn, he appears controlled by urges and impulses that may be foreign to his own personal nature. Hamlet is inherently introverted, melancholy, and morose in the wake of these traumatic events. He is distraught by the sudden death of his father and his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, King Claudius. Gertrude and Claudius have only reinforced this behavior in Hamlet by inappropriately dismissing Hamlet's mourning, calling it “unmanly grief” (1.2.94) and pursuing their untimely romance “Within a month / Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes / She married.” (1.2.153) He gives passage to his woeful mood with lines like "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seems to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133) Although Hamlet's thoughts here seem to be suicidal and imply emotional instability, the abnormality of his behavior appears to be justifiable. His remorse is an essentially normal reaction to the series of occurrences that he must take vengeance for at the ghost of his father's dire command but without further
direction against a powerful adversary in the guilty King. Hamlet sees and speaks with a ghost, but the rational character of Horatio does the same. All of this suggests that Hamlet, while depressed, the actions he has promised his father’s ghosts are fueled by his rage, not madness. In Act I, Scene V, after hearing the ghost’s demand for revenge, Hamlet declares “How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself, / As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on” (1.5.170) Deciding he will consciously feign madness while seeking revenge, he begins planning the opportune moment to kill Claudius. Therefore, it is hard to conclude that he coincidentally became insane after making such a vow. Proceeding with his plan to seek revenge, Hamlet clearly uses the guise of madness toward strategic ends. Hamlet’s sharp and targeted observations lend significant credence to his feigning madness; most remarkably, he declares, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.349). The signs of Hamlet’s feigned madness surfaces when speaking to Polonius. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is "far gone, far gone" in his love for Ophelia. However, if we take a close look at the passage in which Hamlet calls Polonius a "fishmonger," (2.2.186) it seems clear that Hamlet is mocking Polonius. Many of Hamlet’s seemingly lunatic statements have strong offensive undertones, in particular, Polonius’s conceit and old age and become even more clear in light of the fact that just a few lines earlier, Hamlet compared Ophelia to a "dead dog" that "breeds maggots" while rotting in the sun (2.2.180). When Polonius walks away, Hamlet calls him a tedious old fool since he is rather quick to assume the source of his bizarre behavior. (2.2.213) Hamlet appears in total control of his behavior. That is to say,
he is only mad when he is oriented in a certain way, but that he is lucid the rest of the time. Hamlet appears successful in throwing off Claudius and Polonius's footing. His madness creates confusion, and uncertainty of the specific threat Hamlet poses. It is through this methodical madness that Hamlet presents his "play-within-a play," to successfully "capture the conscience" of the King. (2.2.561) Such deliberate acts in which the appearance of madness is used are not those of a madman. By using his grim and wicked state to the advantage of the situation, he is able to remain one step ahead of the game. However, it is possible to gather textual evidence of Hamlet’s instability. Unable to keep his composure, Hamlet’s sensitive, wary nature suddenly evaporates in the wake of an impetuous, violent outburst of activity. Furthermore, instead of being contrite, Hamlet seems to become rather conceited, "'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites" (5.2.60) when talking about his sentencing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Worse, there appears to be no good end served by Hamlet breaking the hearts and spirits of people in his path. These deviations from his exhibited state of self-control, suggest that Hamlet may be spinning out of control and losing his mind, if not in whole, then in part. Hamlet harbors so deep an animosity toward his own mother that he is specifically prohibited from acting upon by his father's authority, Hamlet's hyperaggressive displacement of wrath upon Ophelia could certainly serve as a psychiatric condition warranting further examination. His treatment of Ophelia, his former lover, Hamlet displays a cruelty that is extreme, abnormal and, in fact, psychopathological. His
declaration, "Get thee to a nunnery, why would'st thou be a breeder of sinners" (3.1.119), is so vicious in its utter rejection of Ophelia's tender efforts to understand him, so lewd in its punning suggestion that Ophelia is a whore, and so conclusive in its denial of womanhood that we are shocked by it. We are bound to blame Hamlet's inexplicable brutality toward Ophelia as out of character even for a naturally disturbed young man acting under the guise of madness. Hamlet does not advance his plans by turning Ophelia further into madness; indeed, he accidentally kills her father, driving her to suicide. Hamlet's vindictive attitude toward Ophelia throws everything we think we know into question. The rash and impulsive deviations from his exhibited state of self-control suggest that Hamlet is actually incapable of keeping his composure. In conclusion, it appears Hamlet’s calculated method for retribution is ultimately tainted by his deep seeded sorrow and resentments. If someone in a rational frame of mind chooses to act mad, for the purpose of manipulating others, while giving free license to speech and thought to make the role seem more complete, could one be wholly certain at what point that someone stops feigning madness and actually takes on the behavior of their fabricated character?