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Shakespeare’s Hamlet has often been considered one of the most intriguing and problematic plays of the English language. Among the many questions that Hamlet raises, lies the subject of whether or not Hamlet actually becomes insane. Using extensive evidence from the text and scholarly criticism, it can be efficiently argued that Hamlet does indeed maintain his sanity throughout the entirety of the play. By analyzing the character of Hamlet, the major theme of appearance versus reality in the play, and the suspicious purposefulness of Hamlet’s apparent madness, one can ultimately determine that Hamlet is sane.
In order to determine Hamlet’s sanity, it is first important to look into his character. Hamlet’s most noteworthy character trait is that he is enigmatic. It is impossibly difficult to establish a complete character analysis of Hamlet. There is more to him than the other characters in the play, and even the highest academics, have managed to determine. Hamlet hides much of himself, often acting on his own without input from others and tending to prefer his own company versus that of others. It can even been argued that there are times where Hamlet does not even understand himself. Professor Ian Johnston states introductory lecture on Hamlet at the Malaspina-University College that, “Hamlet himself agonizes over his inability to carry out the deed and is constantly searching for reasons why he is behaving the way he is.
He doesn’t himself understand why he cannot carry out the revenge…he is in the grip of something that he cannot fully understand, no matter how much he rationalizes the matter.” (Johnston). Hamlet is also famously philosophical. In his seven soliloquies, the audience sees into his theoretical and speculative thoughts of death, suicide, the after-life, heaven and hell, and the purpose (or lack of purpose) of life itself. Hamlet is attracted to difficult or impossible questions of mortality and the hereafter. It can be said that Hamlet is thoughtful to the point of obsession, he thinks about suicide and death extensively but does not act. Despite his profound contemplation, Hamlet tends to act impulsively. Professor Ian Johnston further states that, “Hamlet is quite capable of swift decisive action…He kills Polonius without a qualm and proceeds to lecture his mother very roughly over the dead body. He dispatches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, without a scruple…And he has no hesitation in taking Laertes on in a duel” (Johnston).
His ironic inclination to act rashly causes many of the problems for him throughout the play. By killing Polonius, Hamlet must accept the fact that he will be immediately dispatched to England, making it more difficult for him to progress in his plan for revenge against Claudius. Additionally, his action in taking on Laertes in a duel leads, of course, ultimately to his death. It is of importance to note that Hamlet’s rash actions are therefore a cause of his personality, not from madness. Directly before and after killing Polonius, he acts completely lucid. Similarly, his thoughts are clear when he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Author George Santayana sums up this idea by stating, “Hamlet is irrational. He acts without reflection, as he reflects without acting. At the basis of all his ingenuity and reasoning, of his nimble wit and varied foolings, lies this act of inexplicable folly…This unreason is not madness, because his intellect remains clear, his discourse sound and comprehensive; but it is a sort of passionate weakness and indirection in his will” (Santayana).
Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind the considerable amount of loss and despair that Hamlet goes through in a short period of time. The death of his beloved father has a powerful affect on Hamlet, leading him to thoughts of suicide. The quick marriage of his mother to Claudius adds to his despair. When the ghost comes, it places upon Hamlet information of his uncle’s betrayal and places upon him the overpowering responsibility of revenge. Finally, the rejection of Ophelia’s affection causes him to loss faith in love. In this way, Hamlet is understandably distraught and may give some insight into why his actions are often impulsive. His troubles do not, however, lead him to become insane. Author Edward Strachey, states in his essay Shakespeare’s Hamlet that “Upon a sane mind is laid what is enough to destroy it, and in fact it does destroy all except that mind and the will and freedom of the mind” (Strachey). All together, these character traits suggest that Hamlet is indeed sane. His plan to put on an intricate act of madness makes sense considering his contemplative and complex mind, and his actions that might otherwise suggest madness are simply a character weakness to act impulsively. Hamlet’s sanity is further supported by the principal theme of appearance versus reality in the play.
There is a recurring theme of appearance versus reality in Hamlet. There are several instances where what appears to be is not what truly is. Perhaps the most obvious example is Claudius. While Claudius appears to others to be the perfect king, fulfilling his duties as a kind and caring leader, he is in fact a cruel and selfish murderer who was willing to kill his brother for power. The character of Ophelia also exemplifies the theme. When she is in love with Hamlet, she covers her love because Laertes tells her to “keep you in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire” (Shakespeare 1.3.37). Laertes means that she must hide her feelings because although she loves Hamlet, his high status will prevent their love from ever being true. Similarly, when she no longer loves Hamlet, she is forced to pretend she does on the orders of Polonius, so that her can prove to Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet’s madness comes from his love for Ophelia.
Another instance of appearance versus reality is the play-within-a-play. On the surface, the play appears to be simply a form of entertainment for the court. However, the play-within-a-play has the much deeper purpose of displaying Claudius’ guilt for Hamlet. Another instance of the distinction between truth and appearance is Claudius’ attempted repentance. When Hamlet comes to Claudius after the play-within-a-play with the intentions of killing him, Claudius is found kneeling and apparently in prayer. After Hamlet leaves, however, it is learned that Claudius was actually unable to repent. Hamlet verbalizes this theme of the play when he tells Ophelia, “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” (Shakespeare 3.1.155). In this way, he chastises Ophelia and others for pretending to be something they truly are not.
Hamlet further articulates the theme to Polonius by stating, “To be honest, as the world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand” (Shakespeare 2.2.194). The establishment of this theme throughout the play is a means of suggesting that Hamlet is, in actuality, sane. By establishing Hamlet as a sane man who is simply feigning madness, he too fits into this major theme. To have Hamlet actually become insane would be to break down a central idea of the play. It is important to have the difference between Hamlet’s apparent madness and his actual sanity because it thus represents the most noteworthy example of this theme in the play. Perhaps the most powerful evidence that Hamlet is sane, however, is the fact that his madness is extremely purposeful.
Hamlet’s apparent madness is too focused and pointed to be real. The fact that his madness serves a distinct purpose and is only seen during distinct moments and around specific characters in the play suggests that the madness is certainly an act. Although his language seems to be wild, there is always a purpose or hidden meaning in his insane speech. For example, Hamlet acts mad when speaking to Polonius in Act 2, Scene 2. Hamlet says that Polonius is a “fish-monger.” Although this statement appears to be illogical, it actually has a hidden meaning of calling Polonius a pimp who uses his daughter for his own advantages. Hamlet’s commentary typically contains observations and critiques that strongly suggest the presence of a sane mind seeking revenge. Hamlet adopts a plan of feigned madness as a way of confusing his enemies and hiding his ultimate intentions of revenge. It further allows him the freedom to transgress the rules of etiquettes and obedience, and thus become a critical and sardonic commentator on the actions of the other characters.
At the beginning of the play, prior to adopting this plan, it is seen how Hamlet must restrict what and whom he criticizes. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet discusses suicide and reprimands his mother for marrying so quickly. When Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo walk in, he cuts his thoughts short, by stating, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (Shakespeare 1.2.163). This statement portrays how a sane man is restricted in articulating his thoughts in the court of Denmark. Once Hamlet adopts the act of insanity, however, he is much more able to assert his feelings and objections. This idea of insanity giving Hamlet a greater ability to protest to others and protect himself is described by George Santayana in his Shakespearean Criticism essay by stating, “since [Hamlet] is playing madness he can allow his humor to be broader, his scorn franker, his fancy more wayward than they could well have been otherwise” (Santayana). The same idea is expressed by Edward Strachey in his Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where he writes, “By the behavior [Hamlet] adopts he has no longer any need to show respect for those whom he despises” (Strachey).
Hamlet’s supposed madness is also suspicious because it only occurs at specific and convenient times in the play. Hamlet has the ability to pick and choose when he is going to act insane, a clear indication that his madness is feigned. Hamlet’s soliloquies, his confidences to Horatio, and elaborate plans demonstrate his ability to choose when to act sane. His soliloquies reveal Hamlet’s inner thoughts, which are consistently thoroughly reflective and coherent. Hamlet confides to his trusted friend Horatio that when he finds the appropriate occasion he will “put an antic disposition on” (Shakespeare 1.5.172). Hamlet patiently devises his plans to prepare for his revenge through the play-within-a-play; a cunning way of proving to himself that Claudius did indeed kill his father as the Ghost said. Hamlet is able to act perfectly sane, friendly, and courteous with the players. He even offers the players tips on how to act during the play stating, “Be not too tame either, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (Shakespeare 3.2.17).
Additionally, shortly after to acting insane towards Polonius and calling him a fishmonger, he suddenly acts sane when Guildenstern and Rosencrantz walk in. He is completely capable of holding a rational and witty conversation with them, further suggesting his sanity. Hamlet is also lucid when speaking to his mother, moments before killing Polonius. His statements are witty and critical, responding with plays on words. For example, when Gertrude tells him, “Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue,” and Hamlet responds with, “Go, go, you answer with a wicked tongue” (Shakespeare 3.4.15). This presents proof that his killing of Polonius was an act caused by his weakness to act impulsively, not by insanity. He also remains lucid directly after the murder, stating an intricate analogy between his father and Claudius, comparing them to mythological gods and agriculture, further chastising his mother for her rash action in marrying his uncle, and telling her that Claudius killed King Hamlet.
Hamlet himself reaffirms his sanity to several characters throughout the play. He tells Guildenstern and Rosencrantz that he is “but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (Shakespeare 2.2.402). This quotes means that Hamlet is mad only at certain times, and when he wants to act sane, he is able to distinguish between things that do not resemble each other. This quote demonstrates that Hamlet is picking when to act out his insanity. It further proves that beneath his apparent madness, he is actually completely sane. He is capable of recognizing his enemies from his allies, and is calculating at what times to appear mad. Hamlet again assures that he is actually sane to his mother, stating, “it is not madness that I have uttered. Bring me to the test, And (I) the matter will reword, which madness would gambol from” (Shakespeare 3.4.162). Hamlet affirms his sanity a third time when he says, “that I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft” (Shakespeare 3.4.209). This statement further confirms that his act of madness has a specific purpose and is thus “crafty.”
Other characters in the play are also suspicious of Hamlet and propose that he may be faking his madness. After talking to an apparently mad Hamlet, Polonius states that “though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t…how pregnant sometimes his replies are!” (Shakespeare 2.2.223). Polonius means by this that even though Hamlet’s speech appears to be that of a madman, there is a reason behind his madness and that his responses are actually full of meaning. When Claudius becomes suspicious of Hamlet’s actions, he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him, stating “And can you, by no drift of conference, get from him why he puts on this confusion, grating so harshly all his days of quiet with turbulent and dangerous lunacy” (Shakespeare 3.1.1) Claudius’ word-choice of “why he puts on this confusion” suggests that Claudius believes that Hamlet might be pretending to be mad. Following his talks with Hamlet, Rosencrantz replies to Claudius that, “with a crafty madness [he] keeps aloof” (Shakespeare 3.1.8). This statement appears to suggest that Rosencrantz feels there is deliberateness to Hamlet’s madness. Claudius verbalizes his suspicions about Hamlet’s madness once again when he states, “what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness” (Shakespeare 3.1.177). Claudius portrays again his belief that Hamlet’s madness seems to have something sane underneath.
Hamlet purposefully acts insanity in certain scenes of the play as a cunning strategy to act out his plan of revenge against the King. Hamlet’s character traits demonstrate that he is extremely thoughtful and introspective. This personality trait supports the idea that Hamlet created a complex plan of feigned madness as a means of proving Claudius’ guilt, criticizing his enemies, and hiding his ultimate intentions of revenge. Furthermore, his trait of ironically acting impulsively demonstrates that certain acts that may otherwise be characterized as irrational are actually a manifestation of a character flaw. By analyzing the central theme of appearance versus reality, it become clear that Hamlet’s feigned insanity is critically important to the substance and message of the play overall. Hamlet’s madness has an obvious function of allowing him greater freedom to critique his enemies and plan out his revenge against Claudius. The fact that his madness comes at such useful times is also a significant piece of evidence that his madness is not real. Hamlet has the ability to act sane at specific times and around specific people, and then suddenly act insane around others. This evidence comes together to form the strong argument that Hamlet is in fact a sane man acting insane.
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