The Pretense of Madness by Hamlet
Great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide. Though John Dryden’s quote was not made in regard to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it relates very well to the argument of whether or not Hamlet went insane. When a character such as Hamlet is under scrutiny, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what state he is in at particular moments in the play. Nonetheless, Hamlet merely pretends to be insane so that he can calculate his moves according to the situation at hand.
There are many situations throughout the play that are enough to bring Hamlet to insanity. Take, for example, Act IV, scene II, after Polonius’s death. Hamlet’s day has been hectic; he finally determines that Claudius has killed his father. The chance to kill Claudius confronts him, and he comes very close to convincing Gertrude that Claudius killed his father. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius and finally, the ghost of his father visits him. Though at this point these situations create plenty of reasons for Hamlet to be insane, he remains sharp and credible. [Hamlet] concocts this state of madness…his intellect remains clear, his discourse sound and comprehensive, (Harris, p. 129).
Hamlet reveals to his friends and his mother of his plans to pretend act insane. He tells Horatio that he is going to “feign madness,” and that if Horatio notices any strange behavior from Hamlet, it is because he is putting on an act. (I. v). Hamlet also tells his mother that he is not mad, “but mad in craft.” (III, iv). In addition to his confessions, Hamlet’s madness only manifests itself when he is in the presence of certain characters. When Hamlet is around Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he behaves irrationally. When Hamlet is around Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, The Players and the Gravediggers, he behaves rationally (Bevington, p. 59).
Some of the characters themselves come to realize that Hamlet is not mad. Claudius confesses that Hamlet’s “actions although strange, do not appear to stem from madness.” (II, i). In addition, Polonius admits that Hamlet’s actions and words have a “method” to them; there appears to be a reason behind them, they are logical in nature. (II, ii). Hamlet is also able to make smart remarks to Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, comparing them to sponges. “When he (Claudius) needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again,” (). This is random and unexpected, as many of his actions, but the comparison makes sense; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern soak up all the kings favors, only to become dry again after they mop up the King’s mess, which was spying on Hamlet, and getting Polonius’s body.
Later, with Claudius, Hamlet tells how lowly a king can be by saying, “A man (beggar) may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” ( ). This also makes sense, and is not quite as random; when Hamlet confronts Claudius, and the king asks where Polonius is, Hamlet immediately begins the comparison by telling Claudius that Polonuis is at supper. This proves that Hamlet had some kind of planning for this degrading comment, and that his thoughts are not scattered and he is able to stay focused.
Hamlet believes in his sanity at all times. He never doubts his control over psyche. There is a question, though, of what being insane really is. Is Hamlet really mad? If so, what causes Hamlet’s madness? Is it his reluctance to take revenge? Is it his confused feelings about his mother? Is he in fact sane and the world mad for failing to understand the things he says? Is he sometimes pretending to be mad and at other times genuinely unbalanced? All of these question still remain unanswered, yet it can be inferred from the text of Hamlet that there was a method to Hamlet’s madness.