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In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius puts forth a simple explanation of insanity, stating that “to define true madness, what is it to be nothing else but mad?” Such a diagnosis is necessary in the court of Denmark, in which the perspective of reality shared by the courtiers cannot accommodate Hamlet’s reactions to a distinctly different reality. The entire world is caught up in a massive charade of nobility and honor created to shield its players from the cruel realities of their circumstance and protect them from the schism between emotion and expectation. It is Hamlet’s inability to act and his intolerance for actors that cause him to be labeled as mad. Similarly, he is unable to avenge his father’s murder because he knows that to do so would be merely to act out his role in a meaningless drama in which the players lie about their parts. Not only is the society in which he lives artificial, but the terrible sins that he knows have occurred has caused his view of reality to be one utterly void of justice and salvation. While madness is usually thought of as an inability for the individual to accept reality or society, Hamlet’s madness is instead the reaction of an acutely sane mind to a society that cannot accept reality and a reality that is essentially flawed.
Hamlet’s position can be best understood when seen in light of his foil, Laertes. The fathers’ of both men have been killed. Hamlet had a loving relationship with his father, seeing him as a God among men. Instead of using the knowledge of his father’s murder as an opportunity for revenge, the information only worsens his situation. While he acknowledges his duty to the deceased king, he declares, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” (1.5.188) The truth does not give Hamlet clarity and conviction as to the path he must take, instead it casts a shadow of doubt on the notion that anything he can do will set the universe right. Similarly, he declares “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (1.5.166-168) The terrible sins that he has encountered have cast a shadow on a world that would give birth to them, and as a result they have sucked the meaning out of life. Laertes, on the other hand, reacts to grief in the exact fashion that would be expected by Danish society. He is completely ignorant of anything except for the social context of the events that have transpired, and masks his cold-blooded plot to murder Hamlet using trickery with the façade of honor and a fair duel in which he even gives Hamlet a handicap. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the duel is that while it results in the death of nearly every major character it is never thought of as anything other than “play.” Before they begin Hamlet states that he will “this brother’s wager frankly play.” (5.2.253) All of the stage directions indicate that Laertes and Hamlet “play.” (5.2) They never actually fight, although they play to the death. In this fashion the nobles of Denmark die as actors recreating a duel, not as people who live and die.
By commissioning the players to re-enact his reality, Hamlet adds both an element of realism to the play and a perspective on his situation. The play that is shown in the court of Denmark is the one in which the universe has not gone so terribly askew. In the murder of Priam and the Mousetrap, the act of revenge and the notion of justice and morality maintain some degree of value and meaning because the universe in which they take place was created and given value by the playwright and the players. As a result the contrast that is created between the plays within a play and the play itself elevates Hamlet to a reality. At the same time, the fact that there are actors within the reality of Hamlet erodes the barrier between what is play and what is reality. Hamlet declares that a man’s expression of grief are merely “actions the a man might play.” (1.2.84) Perhaps there is no difference between the enactment of grief of a man on stage and the expressions of grief of a man in the world. To Hamlet, who can not muster as much passion about the terrible realities of his universe as the player can while enacting the fictitious mourning of Hecuba, it would probably seem as though the player’s speech were more real than the deceit and emptiness he perpetually encounters in the world around him.
Hamlet fights in a battle that is far more than a mock duel between with Laertes or the pursuit of revenge. He and everyone close to him are locked in a struggle between the two forces that would control his sanity. On one side is Claudius, whose goal is maintain the play that is being put on in the court of Denmark. Those who oppose Hamlet are the subjects who refuse to placidly submit themselves to the play written for them by Claudius and Danish moral precedents. The insanity of Ophelia is an excellent example of this. She finds herself constantly tossed between these two conflicting perceptions of the world. On the one hand she is courted by Hamlet who does not hold anything back in his interaction with her. On the other hand she is advised by Claudius, Polonius, and Laertes to conduct her affairs in a manner appropriate to her class, rank, and all of the other elements of the system that controls Danish nobility. Finally, the force of Hamlet’s reality is too much for her to bear. When she experiences the death of her father as Hamlet did, she reacts in a way similar to her brother by retreating to the world of play. In the same way that Hamlet created a nicer reality for himself by asking the player to recite the “Death of Hecuba” for him, Ophelia attempts to shield herself from the cruel nature of reality by singing songs.
Hamlet deals with nothing less than an existential crisis. All of the systems he may have conceived of prove to be part of a much larger universe that lacks any governing force, meaning, or innate sense of justice that can only be dealt with by acting out one’s life and ignoring the nuance of truth that dwells in the corner of the human psyche. That is the real tragedy of Hamlet, that great minds are condemned to suffer because they can penetrate the façade that plays itself out all around him, and the only escape is death.
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