Critics often call William Shakespeare s Hamlet the greatest of all his tragedies. The main character, Hamlet is, without a doubt, a prominent factor to the play s greatness. This witty young prince exhibits a confusing, duplicitous nature throughout the play. The beginning of the play portrays Hamlet s melancholy mood. He is in a weak mental state as he becomes caught in between love, grief, and vengeance. When Hamlet sees his father s ghost, he admits that he is not emotionally ready to fulfill his father s request:
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right! (Ham 1.5.188-189)
It is probable that his internal dilemmas and psychological depression has plunged him into emotional insanity (Taylor 531). Throughout the course of the play, Hamlet s state of mind changes. He can be seen, to be or not to be mad by different characters at different stages. His actions towards Ophelia and Gertude, the two women in his life, prove to be inconsistent. He often acts madly and becomes calm and rational an instant later. The controversial theme of Hamlet s sanity can be arguably discussed. Many portions of the play support his uncontrollable actions, while other parts uphold his ability to role-play. Moreover, Hamlet s hardships in his life justify his madness or feigned madness. This issue can be discussed both ways and overall, provide a significant support to either theory.
Regardless of Hamlet s mental state, he was undoubtedly stressed and under a great deal of emotional trauma, which is the cause of his antic disposition (Ham 1.5.179). In the first act, Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions and inner state. When Gertude questions his melancholy mood, Hamlet replies: Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems (Ham 1.2.76). His depression even causes him to contemplate suicide in the famous to be or not to be soliloquy. Despite of Hamlet s misery, he fears the afterlife and the consequences of suicide. Along with his mother s incestuous marriage with his uncle, Hamlet later learns that his father s death was the result of a murder. This causes another dilemma of vengeance that he may not be psychologically prepared for. He is already in a weak emotional state and makes numerous inquiries on life. His inability to cope with reality because of his philosophical beliefs causes Hamlet s state of mind to constantly change. By Ophelia s words, it is evident that Hamlet was seen as the Renaissance man:
O, what a noble mind is here o erthrown!
The courtier s, soldier s, scholar s, eye, tongue, sword; (Ham 3.1.152-153)
Hamlet is a scholar and he always makes informed decisions based on reasoning and careful analyzing. Now he is caught between his passion, for immediate vengeance and his born-traits of reasoning and moral judgement. Hamlet is trapped in between two worlds: the ideal world he has created in his head (vengeance) and the existing reality (Hazlit 73). He even realizes that the weakness of his mind prevents him from taking action:
Why, then, tis none of you: for there is nothing
either good or bad but thinking makes it so (Ham 2.2.249-250)
His weak psychological state is the primary cause of Hamlet s madness or feigned madness.
Hamlet appears to act mad when he first hears of his father s murder. At this time, he speaks wild and whirling words:
Why, right; you are I the right:
And so, without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part; (Ham 1.5.127-129)
From then, his moods change abruptly throughout the course of the play. His personality alters from an intelligent prince who will not commit suicide because it is morally wrong, to a barbaric prince who slays Polonius with no feeling or remorse. Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! (Ham 3.4.33). To be even more ruthless, Hamlet hides Polonius body to deny him a proper Christian burial. This murderous, cruel personality was never present in Hamlet. Hamlet even admits to Laertes that he killed Polonius in a fit of madness (Ham 5.2.236-250). His severe punishment for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also unreasonable and not in the prince s character. He sends them to their deaths even though they were not part of his revenge-against- his-father s-murder-plan.
Hamlet s erratic behaviour can also support his madness. He is especially inconsistent in his behaviour towards Ophelia. During the fight with Laertes in Ophelia s grave, he professes to be the only one that truly loves her:
I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum (Ham 5.1.263-265)
But when Ophelia returns his gifts, he swears to have never loved her. Hamlet s erratic behaviour towards his mother also upholds his insanity. He has violent outbursts towards her and even lashes out at her until she is in tears. In this famous bedchamber scene, Hamlet finally reveals his madness. He is the only one who sees his father s ghost. Every other time the ghost has appeared, another character has seen it. Here, Gertude no longer doubts his madness.
Throughout the play, there are also supporting factors to argue Hamlet s sanity. Hamlet tells Horatio that he is going to feign madness and if he acts strangely, it is all an act. Hamlet s antic disposition (Ham 1.5.173), in no way, reflects Ophelia s true madness. His lunacy only manifests itself in the presence of certain characters. When he is in the vicinity of: Polonius, Claudius, Gertude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he behaves irrationally. But Hamlet s actions are sensible around Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, the gravediggers, and The Players. Other characters also question the legitimacy of Hamlet s insanity. Polonius agrees that although Hamlet s words are strange, there is method in t (Ham 2.2.206). Claudius is suspicious and doubts Hamlet s madness:
Nor what he spake, though it lack d form a little,
Was not madness
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger (Ham 3.1.165-169)
Throughout the whole play, Hamlet never doubts his sanity. He tells his mother that he is essentially not in madness But mad in craft (Ham 3.4.190). He even admits to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of his feigning insanity:
I am but mad north-north-west: When the wind is
Southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. (Ham 2.2.376-377)
Hamlet also shows to be sane in his clever words and actions. He tells Horatio about his discovery of Claudius plan, during his voyage to England. As revenge, Hamlet devised a brilliant plan to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their demise.
Shakespeare s tragic hero, Hamlet was brilliantly created to be an exceptionally controversial and complex character. Throughout the play, Hamlet reveals a puzzling and contradicting personality. His erratic behaviour poses a question: is he being rational in his acts and sacrificing himself for the greater good (Taylor 522) or is he simply mad? There is significant proof to either theory. The young prince who cannot face the consequences of suicide is the same prince who slays Polonius in a fit of madness. Although Hamlet s actions often seem irrational, even Polonius agrees that there is method to them. On several occasions, Hamlet has even admitted to feigning insanity. But it is also probable that Hamlet s depression, and unusual state of mind has plunged him into lunacy. Hamlet is seen from beginning to end as a grief stricken prince, who has become full of rage and passion, and has developed through the stages by his own sanity and madness. Whether he was sane or had lost control of his actions, both theories have its own strong support.