The Views on the Madness of Hamlet and the Controversy of William Shakespeare
The madness of Hamlet has always been a topic of controversy when discussing William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet. In this play, the tragic hero contemplates his own concepts of moral judgment and, in the process, may be considered mad. Hamlet both feigns madness and actually has some characteristics of a madman. His madness is defined by his inability to decide between right and wrong and to make appropriate decisions based on standards of society.
Hamlet’s mere circumstances at the opening of the play are a major contributing factor to his madness. His father, King Hamlet, has just been murdered; his mother, Gertrude, has married his uncle Claudius only a month after her late husband died, stripping Hamlet from his natural right to the throne. The loss of his father, as well as his uncle’s new role as
King of Denmark and father to Hamlet, contribute to Hamlet’s disturbed mental state. The play illuminates this trapped position Hamlet experiences, both in circumstances and in his own mental state. The first sign the audience receives that Hamlet may be mad is after his encounter with Ophelia. Ophelia is Hamlet’s secret love and her father has forbidden her to see Hamlet any more. She must discontinue her relationship with Hamlet, but she can give Hamlet no reason for her rejecting him. She has returned his letters and presents, “My lord, I have remembrances of yours.
That I have longed long to redeliver. I pray you now receive them” (129). Hamlet receives no explanation for his love’s actions. He confronts Ophelia. yet it frightens her and makes Polonius think Hamlet is mad. Hamlet could either be extremely upset or insane, but Polonius attributes his actions to madness: “[Ophelia’s rejection] hath made him mad/ I feared he did but trifle/And meant to wrack [Ophelia]” (81). Hamlet’s state of mind is obviously in question when one considers his soliloquy. Hamlet was contemplating his own death:
To be or not to be-that is the question/ To die, to sleep-no more-and by asleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to/ But that the dread of something after death, the/ undiscovered country form whose born no traveler returns/ does make cowards of us all (127).
Hamlet ultimately decides against suicide for fear of God’s punishment after death. Obviously a man who is contemplating his own death is not completely sane. His depression from his father’s death, his corrupt uncle’s position, his mother’s adultery, and his lover’s rejection have pressed Hamlet enough to make him question the continuation of his own life.
One major contribution to Hamlet’s confused state of mind is the apparition of his ghost father King Hamlet. The ghost of the late King appears to Hamlet at the beginning of the play and relays to Hamlet that Hamlet’s uncle Claudius murdered the king. “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown,” cries the ghost (59). Hamlet is doubly dismayed to learn that his own mother, the “seeming-virtuous queen,” committed adultery with Claudius and possibly had a hand in King Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet’s father was killed in his sleep without a chance to repent his sins and now roams the earth in a state of purgatory as a ghost seeking revenge. The ghost tells Hamlet to avenge him: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not./
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/ A couch for luxury and damned incest”(61). Hamlet’s state of mind is filled with thoughts of vengeance against his father’s murderer, yet the guilty murderer is Hamlet’s own uncle. Hamlet speaks of his late father and his mother’s hasty marriage, “So excellent a king/ so loving to my mother/ And yet, within a month/ (Let me not think on’t, frailty thy name is woman!)./ A little month, or ere those shoes were old/ With which she followed my poor father’s body married with my uncle, My father’s brother, but no more like my father/ Then I to Hercules” (29).
“Do not forever with thy vailed lids/ Seek for thy noble father in the dust/Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die/Passing through nature to eternity,” says Gertrude (25). She denies Hamlet his right to grieve and tries to tell him that all men must die-it is a mere fact of life. Hamlet is even more disturbed by this because he feels that his own mother should be mourning the loss as well. That death is common does not soften the loss of his father. He must decide between avenging his father and obeying the laws of God and man by not killing the King.
This decision puts Hamlet in a heightened state of confusion and temporary madness. The ghost ends his monologue with the words, “Remember me,” allowing Hamlet no excuses to forget the bidding of the ghost. Throughout the entire play, these words haunt Hamlet and continually upset his usual train of thinking. This is evident later in the play when the ghost appears again, increasing Hamlet’s state of confusion.
Other small factors in the play also contribute to Hamlet’s state of mind: the country is currently on the brink of war with Fortinbras; Hamlet learns that he is to be sent to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are later executed by the order of Hamlet, where he will be promptly put to death by the order of King Claudius; and when Hamlet returns to Elsinore, he learns that his dearest Ophelia has drowned.
All of these occurrences influence Hamlet’s way of thinking and actions. After closely examining the events that occur in Hamlet’s life p, one can conclude that though at times he appeared to be feigning madness, there can be no question as to whether or not certain events in the play added to Hamlet’s actual madness. His extraordinary circumstances are cause to make a man react irrationally, making Hamlet a candidate for temporary insanity. Works Cited