Hamlet: Insane in the Membrane?

“Pure mad or not pure mad: that is the question”

First have a look at this poem by W.S Gilbert from the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Some men hold

That he’s the sanest, far, of all sane men –

Some that he’s really sane but shamming mad –

Some that he’s really mad but shamming sane –

Some that he will be mad, some that he was –

Some that he couldn’t be. But on the whole

(As far as I can make out what they mean)

The favourite theory’s somewhat like this:

Hamlet is idiotically sane

With lucid intervals of lunacy.

If that just confuses you even more, here are some things to consider in any discussion of whether or not Hamlet is ‘mad’:

  1. Hamlet’s decision to “put an antic disposition on” is a baffling one for the audience. Throughout the play he is highly critical of those who put on a false appearance (“one may smile and smile and be a villain” “God has given you one face and you make yourselves another“) or who act hypocritically (“I have that within which passes show, these but the trappings and the suits of woe“) yet he himself decides to put on a pretence of being crazy. We wonder why? Perhaps it is so that he can disguise his true feelings while he plots and schemes against Claudius. Ironically, this makes Claudius more – not less – suspicious. Once Hamlet decides to fake madness, he is at pains to convince us that he is simply putting on an act and it is up to us to decide as events unfold if his madness remains an act or if he truly becomes unhinged as a result of the events in which he is embroiled.
  2. The breakdown of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia is viewed by Polonius as one of the root causes for his increasingly bizarre behaviour. When Hamlet visits Ophelia in her chamber (“his doublet all unbraced, no hat upon his head“) Polonius concludes that “this is the very ecstasy of love“, that he is “mad for thy love” and he rushes off to report to Gertrude and Claudius “thy noble son is mad“. We, the audience, disagree. We know the reason why he “raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being” – he doesn’t think he can trust her. His cruel behaviour towards Ophelia in the nunnery scene leads her to conclude that he has lost it “oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” but we know this isn’t true. What’s really going on is that he has figured out that they are being spied upon and feels disgusted and betrayed. Ophelia is correct to conclude that his behaviour is utterly uncharacteristic but this does not mean that he is crazy – we are inclined to agree with Claudius who clarifies that “what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness“. Like Claudius, we the audience know more than Gertrude, Polonius & Ophelia; like him we know that “there’s something in his soul o’er which his melancholy sits on brood“.  Claudius concludes that he needs to keep a very close eye on Hamlet “madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (he casually uses the word ‘madness’ but he doesn’t really accept this as an explanation for Hamlet’s behaviour).
  3. Hamlet puts on and takes off a mask of madness at will. In all of his conversations with Polonius he uses his supposed ‘madness’ as an excuse to mock and ridicule the older man – at one point he calls him a “fishmonger” (Shakespearean slang for sex addict or pimp). When talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he claims “my wit’s diseased” and jokes that the reason behind his odd behaviour is twarted ambition (“Sir, I lack advancement“) yet earlier he admitted to them “I am but mad north-north west“. He rages against their repeated attempts to discover the root cause of his distemper (“Sblood do you think I am easier to be played upon than a pipe“) and in all ways behaves like a man who is not mad, but acting mad. Even Polonius, the person most convinced of Hamlet’s madness, comments “though this be madness yet there is method in’t“.
  4. Hamlet’s behaviour becomes increasingly unhinged and erratic as the play progresses and we begin to wonder if he has lost touch with reality. Certainly his personality appears to have been corrupted and it is up to us to decide if his actions could use a ‘guilty but insane’ defence if he were put on trial. His desire to see Claudius burn in hell for all eternity (he wants to “trip him that his heels may kick at heaven“), his rage against his mother and obsession with her sexual appetites (“honeying and making love over the nasty sty“), his impulsive murder of the man behind the arras and flippant reaction when he discovers he has killed the wrong man (“I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room” “you shall nose him as you go up the stairs…he’ll stay til you come“) all point towards a kind of madness, yet he claims “I essentially am not in madness but mad in craft” and asks Gertrude to cover for him (which she does, claiming he is “mad as the sea and wind“). Nor does his behaviour particularly improve. His attack on Laertes (“I loved Ophelia, forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum”) could be excused if you put it down to the effect of shock at discovering that Ophelia is dead and rage that he is being held responsible but he seems utterly blind to the fact that Laertes has every reason to hate him (Hamlet says to Laertes “what is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever“). Claudius tries to separate them for his own selfish reasons suggesting that Hamlet isn’t in his right mind (“O he is mad Laertes“) and for once we are temped to agree with him. We certainly don’t think his decision to send R&G to their deaths (“he should the bearers put to sudden death, no shriving time allowed“) is a rational one and we think he has lost it completely when he claims “they are not near my conscience“. His new-found belief that he is an instrument of divine justice certainly seems (to a modern audience at least) like the ravings of a madman “heaven hath pleased it so that I must be their scourge and minister“).
  5. Despite Hamlet’s “rash and bloody deeds” he has many moments where he is totally sane, in control, lucid, intelligent and wise. His realisation that he has behaved terribly to Laertes (“I am sorry that to Laertes I forgot myself, for by the image of my cause I see the portraiture of his“), his poignant musings on death in the gravedigger’s scene (“Alas, poor Yorick!…a fellow of infinite jest…where be your jibes now, your gambols, your songs?“) and reluctant acceptance of the fencing match (“thou woulds’t not think how ill’s all here about my heart”) all point to a fully sane mind. Indeed when apologising to Laertes, Hamlet for the first time seems to genuinely consider the possibility that he has indeed been driven crazy by grief (and by the burden of the task he must carry out) “what I have done…I here proclaim was madness…Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged, his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy“. Finally, his calm demeanour in the face of death and his determination to save Horatio’s life and to avoid future strife over who will now sit on the throne (“I do prophesy the election lights on Fortinbras. He has my dying voice“) lead us to conclude that despite moments of pretend insanity (where he is acting) and temporary insanity (where he behaves like a madman) Hamlet is for the most part not mad, but rather brokenhearted in this play. Thus we can say that

    “Hamlet is idiotically sane

    With lucid intervals of lunacy”.

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