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There is much evidence in the play that Hamlet deliberately feigned fits of madness in order to confuse and disconcert the king and his attendants. His avowed intention to act “strange or odd” and to “put an antic disposition on” is not the only indication. The latter phrase which is of doubtful interpretation should be taken in its context and in connection with his other remarks that bear on the same question. To his old friend, Guildenstern, he intimates that “his uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived,” and that he is only “mad north-north-west.” (II. ii. 360.) But the intimation seems to mean nothing to the dull ears of his old school-fellow. His only comment is given later when he advises that Hamlet’s is “a crafty madness.”
When completing with Horatio the arrangements for the play, and just before the entrance of the court party Hamlet says “I must be idle.” This evidently is a declaration of his intention to be “foolish” as Schmidt has explained the word. Then to his mother in the Closet Scene he distinctly refers to the belief held by some about the court that he is mad and assures her that he is intentionally acting the part of madness in order to attain his object:
There need he no doubt then that Hamlet’s madness was really crazed. He saw much to be gained by it and to this end he did many things that the persons of the drama must construe as madness. His avowed intention was to throw them off the track. To understand the madness as real is to make of the play a mad-house tragedy that could have no meaning for the very sane Englishmen for that Shakespeare wrote. There is dramatic value in the play traces the causes of his madness and the influences that restore him.
Lear’s madness had its roots in his moral and spiritual defects and the cure was his moral regeneration. But no such dramatic value can be assigned to Hamlet’s madness. Shakespeare never makes of his dramas exhibitions of human experience wise or otherwise but they are all studies in the spiritual life of man. His dramas are always elabirate attempts to get a meaning out of life, not attempts to show either its mystery, or its madness. If Hamlet were thought of as truly crazy then his entrances and his exits could convey no meaning to sane persons, except the lesson to avoid insanity. But it needs no drama to teach that.
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