In both Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character in each play, namely Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King Lear, acts as a balancing argument to the other character?s madness or sanity. King Lear?s more decisive distinction between Lear?s frailty of mind and Edgar?s contrived madness works to better define the relationship between Ophelia?s breakdown and Hamlet?s “north-north-west” brand of insanity. Both plays offer a character on each side of sanity, but in Hamlet the distinction is not as clear as it is in King Lear. Using the more explicit relationship in King Lear, one finds a better understanding of the relationship in Hamlet.
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While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelia?s insanity (or breakdown) against Hamlet?s madness, there is instead a clear definitiveness in Ophelia?s condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet?s madness. Obviously, Hamlet?s character offers more evidence, while Ophelia?s breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet?s sanity beginning with the first scene of the play.
Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father?s ghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatly improve. Yet, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio says, being the only of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the play, “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes. (I.i.56-8)” Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the King with his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts somewhat from its credibility, but all the men are witness to the ghost demanding they speak alone.
Horatio offers an insightful warning:
What if it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o?er his base into the sea, And there assume some other horrible form Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness? Think of it. (I.iv.69-74)
Horatio?s comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that the ghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King and speaks to Hamlet rationally. There is also good reason for the ghost not to want the guards to know what he tells Hamlet, as the play could not proceed as it does if the guards were to hear what Hamlet did. It is the ghost of Hamlet?s father who tells him, “but howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind. (I.v.84-5)” Later, when Hamlet sees the ghost again in his mothers room, her amazement at his madness is quite convincing. Yet one must take into consideration the careful planning of the ghost?s credibility earlier in the play.
After his first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friends cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than the devastation it really is.
Horatio: What news, my lord?
Hamlet: O, wonderful!
Horatio: Good my lord, tell it.
Hamlet: No, you will reveal it. (I.v.118-21)
This is the first glimpse of Hamlet?s ability and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve effect. Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets the guards know the severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Another instance of Hamlet?s behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while his uncle and Polonius are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlet?s affection for Ophelia has already been established in I.iii., and his complete rejection of her and what has transpired between them is clearly a hoax. Hamlet somehow suspects the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are sent by the King and Queen to question him and investigate the cause of his supposed madness in II.ii.
Hamlet?s actions in the play after meeting the ghost lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy, yet that madness is continuously checked by an ever-present consciousness of action which never lets him lose control. For example, Hamlet questions his conduct in his soliloquy at the end of II.ii, but after careful consideration decides to go with his instinct and prove to himself without a doubt the King?s guilt before proceeding rashly. Even after the King?s guilt is proven with Horatio as witness, Hamlet again reflects and uses his better judgement in the soliloquy at the end of III.ii. before seeing his mother. He recognizes his passionate feelings, but tells himself to “speak daggers to her, but use none,” as his father?s ghost instructed. Again, when in the King?s chamber, Hamlet could perform the murder, but decides not to in his better judgement to ensure that he doesn?t go to heaven by dying while praying. As Hamlet tells Guildenstern in II.ii., “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This statement reveals out-right Hamlet?s intent to fool people with his odd behavior. This is after Polonius? enlightened comment earlier in the same scene, “though this be madness, yet there is method in?t.”
Compare the copious evidence against Hamlet?s madness with the complete lack of evidence for Ophelia?s sanity after her father?s murder. Her unquestionable insanity puts Hamlet?s very questionable madness in a more favorable light. In IV.v. she is quite obviously mad, and unlike Hamlet there seems to be no method to her madness. All Ophelia can do after learning of her father?s death is sing. Indeed, Hamlet?s utter rejection of her combined with this is too much for her, and she doesn?t sing a mourning song at the beginning of IV.v, but rather a happy love song.
Later, when she meets with Leartes, she says to him:
There?s rosemary, that?s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that?s for thoughts.
Leartes: A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.
Thought and afflictions, passion, hell itself, She turns to favor and to prettiness. (IV.v.179-89)
While the Queen tells Leartes that an “envious sliver” broke and flung Ophelia into the river wearing a headdress of wild-flowers (compare the mad Lear?s crown of weeds), the clowns in V.i. confirm the reader?s suspicion that she did not die so accidentally:
Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation? (V.i.1-2)
Here lies the water; good. Here stands the man; good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes, mark you that. But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself; argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life. (15-20)
Ophelia?s breakdown into madness and inability to deal with her father?s death and Hamlet?s rejection is dealt with neatly and punctually. There is little evidence against her madness, compared to Hamlet?s intelligent plotting and use of witnesses to his actions. Thus, by defining true madness in Ophelia, Shakespeare subtracts from the plausibility of Hamlet?s supposed insanity.
Comparing the juxtaposition of insanity and questioned sanity in King Lear reveals another use of this device by Shakespeare. In King Lear the lines are drawn more distinctly between sanity and insanity, allowing a sharper contrast between the play?s two versions of madness. Edgar?s soliloquy in II.iii. communicates his intent to act and dress as a mad beggar:
… Whiles I may scape
I will preserve myself, and am bethought To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast. My face I?ll grime with filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots, And with presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. (II.iii.5-12)
There is no question of Edgar?s intent here, and when they see this ?Bedlam beggar? in action, the audience is aware that it is Edgar and that he is not really insane. As in Hamlet, the contrived madness is more spectacular than the true madness. Edgar changes his voice, tears his clothes, and babbles on like a genuine lunatic seeming in contrivance more genuine than Lear, the genuine maniac.
Just as Ophelia?s breakdown is believable because of her father?s death and her rejection from Hamlet, Lear?s old age accounts for his frailty of mind and rash, foolish decisions. The reader is given no motive for Lear to tear his clothes off like a raving maniac or wear a crown of weeds and babble like a fool other than his old age and incapability to deal with his inability to act rationally. He realizes after being told for most of the play that he is being a fool that perhaps his advisors are right. Only at this point, it has long been clear to the reader that his madness is due to senility.
In these two plays, Shakespeare uses the dimmer light of reality to expose the brighter light of contrivance. Hamlet and Edgar are dynamic, animated, and absurd in their madness, making Lear?s and Ophelia?s true madness seem realistic rather than absurd. Hamlet and Edgar both explicitly state the contrivance of their madness, while Lear and Ophelia do not. Further, Hamlet and Edgar both have motive behind leading others to believe they are insane. Although both are under severe pressure and emotional strain due to their respective situations in each play, they both show a remarkable amount of intelligent, conscious, and rational decision-making in efforts to resolve their situations. In this way, they are sharply contrasted with the mad Lear and Ophelia, whose insanity is not questioned by themselves or other characters in either play. Neither after displaying madness make any rational decisions that would lead the reader to believe in their sanity. Thus, the argument that Hamlet is truly mad refutes his ability to act rationally and discounts the dramatic device of Ophelia (as Lear is to Edgar) as a contrapuntal example of true insanity.
Hamlet one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, where the young
prince of Denmark must uncover the truth about his fathers death.
Hamlet a play that tells the story of a young prince who’s father
recently died. Hamlets uncle Claudius marries his mother the queen
and takes the throne. As the play is told Hamlet finds out his father
was murdered by the recently crowned king. The theme that remains
constant throughout the play is appearance versus reality. Things
within the play appear to be true and honest but in reality are
infested with evil. Many of the characters within the play hide
behind a mask of falseness. Four of the main characters that hid
behind this mask are Polonius, Rosencrantz (Guildenstern), the king
Cluadius. From behind this mask they give the impression of a person
who is sincere and genuine, in reality they are plagued with lies and
evil. There appearance will make it very difficult for Hamlet to
uncover the truth, the characters hide behind.
Polonius the kings royal assistant has a preoccupation with
appearance. He always wants to keep up the appearance of loving and
caring person. Polonius appears like a man who loves and cares about
his son, Laertes. Polonius speaks to his son with advice that sounds
sincere but in reality it is rehearsed, hollow and without feeling.
Polonius gives his advice only to appear to be the loving caring
father. The reality is he only speaks to appear sincere as a
politician, to look good rather then actually be good: “And borrowing
dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be
true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be
false to any man. Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!” Act 1
Polonius gives his son Laertes his blessing to go away, he sends
a spy to follow him and keep an eye on him. This shows his lack of
trust for anyone, he gives the appearance of a confident father who
trusts his son to go off on his own. In reality he lies about his
trust for his son by sending a spy to watch him. His advice he gives
his son is rehearsed and only said to give the appearance of a loving
father. Polonius further adds to the theme appearance verses reality
by ordering Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet. He lies to her telling her
that Hamlet does not love her, he only lusts for her, in truth he does
love her: Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know, When the blood
burns , how prodigal the soul Through the play Polonius hids behind
his mask appearing to be honest loving parent. In reality Polonius
lies, manipulates people and eavesdrops on peoples conversation.
Polonius helps contribute to the theme appearance verses reality by
showing how his appearance is not his true nature, behind the mask
there lies someone totally different.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlets childhood friends
who when asked by the king, try to find out what is troubling the
young prince. Both help to contribute to the theme by showing there
appearance of being Hamlets friends. The pair go to Hamlet pretending
to be his friends when in truth they are only there because the king
asked them to find the truth. There is some irony within the twins,
they are asked by the king to find out the truth by hiding within a
lie, by pretending to be his friend: A dream is but a shadow Act II.
Hamlet knows there purpose for their visit is to dig into his
soul to find the real reason for his actions as of late. As the play
continues the twins are asked again by the king to go to Hamlet and
try again to find the real reason for Hamlets behavior. Hamlet
insults them at every chance knowing they are lying to him about there
purpose of the visit: Tis as easy as lying; govern these ventages with
you finger and thumb, give it breath with your mouth…Act III
As the melodrama continues Hamlet goes with the twins to reclaim
money that another state owes Denmark. Hamlet is sent by the king to
retrieve the assets. In actuality Hamlet is sent off to wither
because the king, Claudius knows that Hamlet knows too much and must
be killed. The twins show there appearance of being Hamlets friends
but in truth they have a hidden reason for visiting with Hamlet. Both
show that it will be very difficult for Hamlet to uncover the fidelity
hidden within the lies.
Claudius the king of Denmark conduct in council gives him the
appearance of an Honest and honorable man. In Act one scene two
Claudius in the presence of council shows his true skill and ease of
manner at speaking. Claudius speaks well of the spent king by
showing a general love for him by all his subjects. Claudius show
respect for the old sovereign by speaking kind words of him. In
reality he cares little for the old king, he speaks kindly only to
give the appearance of loving brother.
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe Act I
As Claudius sends Voltimand and Cornelius off to give the king of
Norway the message of Fortibras, he thanks and gives them complete
trust, in the deliverance of the notation. This shows his trust and
caring for his subjects in front of the council, wining even more
consent from the council: We doubt it nothing: heartily farewell. Act
I Claudius increases his appearance of a honest and honorable man, in
front of the council by showing his respect for Polonius. He gives
him the power to let his son Laertes stay or leave for Norway.
Claudius speaks highly of Polonius giving him thanks and saying the he
was responsible for Claudius becoming king:
The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
What woudlst thou have, Laertes (Act I ii, 47-50)
This council would see this as a man who greatly respects his
subjects and cares for them. This adds to the difficulty of
uncovering the truth for Hamlet later. Hamlet enters the council
chamber and speaks with Claudius. The king (Claudius) speaks with
Hamlet seeming to be concerned with Hamlet. He gives advice that over
grieveing is not healthy, this shows a concern for Hamlets well being.
This conduct of Claudius gives him the appearance of being kind in
front of council that accepts him even more for his family values: How
is it that the clouds still hang on you? Act I Claudius appears to be
even more caring when insulted by Hamlet he still shows love and
general care for Hamlet. A normal king would have become angry and
Hamlet would have gotten into trouble. Claudius shows the council that
he is understanding of Hamlet’s grief over his father: A little more
than kin, and less than kind. Act I . Claudius gives Hamlet advice
that over grieveing can be harmful and not healthy. Claudius tells
Hamlet that he is a admirable person for grieveing
for so long over his dads death. Yet again Claudius keeps putting on
the appearance of the honorable man.
Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, you father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow; but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course Act I
Claudius further makes it difficult to uncover the truth by
announcing that Hamlet is next in line for the throne of Denmark.
This shows that Claudius would let Hamlet become the next king when
he is gone. This reveals a love and care for Hamlet to the council
and Gertrude making Claudius appear to be kind, loving person: You are
the most immediate to our throne; And with no less nobility of love
Claudius final conduct that makes him a difficult truth to
uncover, is his care and want that Hamlet remain in Denmark. Claudius
is insulted by Hamlet, he asks Hamlet to stay only that his queen
Gertrude wants Hamlet to stay. Claudius appears to be concerned with
Hamlets well being, Gertrude and council see this ,making Claudius a
more deserving person to be king.
As Claudius speaks in council he gives the appearance of someone
who is a deserving person that should be king. Claudius is voted in
as king meaning he is already approved by everyone. Claudius gives
respect to his subjects giving the council the impression that he
respects them. The king shows general concern for Hamlet, his nephew.
This will make it very difficult to prove the truth about Claudius
in the future for he has not only, one the love and respect of council
(that voted him in). But also has prevented a attack on Denmark (from
Fortinbras) proving that he is good king that can protect the state
from harm. Claudius makes it very difficult for Hamlet to uncover the
truth about the true nature of Claudius in the future.
Through the characters within the play all help to show the theme,
that being appearance verses reality. Polonius, Rosencrantz
(Guildenstern) and the king all appear to be good and honest. As
Hamlet finds out, all contain lies and have hidden intentions within
them. As each character is presented in the play all appear to be
good and honest making it a difficult task for Hamlet to uncover the
hidden truth about the nature of each character. As Hamlet best said
it somethings is rotten in Denmark That being the lies which have
replaced or covered the true state of each character.
Madness may be “mental incapacity caused by an unmentionable
injury.” Such wounds often are not easily perceived but may be
revealed in time of stress. Hamlet?s question, “have you a
daughter?”(Act II. Sc2 182) Polonius about the Prince?s emotional
state. What is hidden will surely be told to Cloudius by his adviser.
Laertes? search for revenge is sharper proof that madness in degrees
of publicity causes harm to the observers. Claudius promise “no wind
of blame”(Act IV, Sc.7,66) once Laertes kills Hamlet; perhaps this is
what the uncle has sought all along for himself. Ophelia has a
unique, very powerful form of madness; she seems caught as a “baker?s
daughter,”(Act IV, Sc. 5, 42) between memories of her father and
Hamlet who ought have spokedn to her of events on “Valentine?s
day.”(Act IV, Sc 5, 48) She is doubly hexed and the madness she has
infects the whole court. Once a person?s mental state has been
studied in public, there is no telling the injuries which may affect
Ever since the death of King Hamlet young Hamlet has been what
appeared to be in a state of madness. In a discussion between Hamlet
and Polonius Hamlet questions Polonius by asking him “have you a
daughter.”(Act II, Sc.2, 182) In this discussion Hamlet shows antic
behavior towards Polonius by mocking him when Hamlet would usually
show great respect for him because of he age and heis high position in
the court. This sudden question to Polonius has caused Polonius to
believe that Hamlet has a form of love-sickness and that Polonius is
sure to tell Claudius of his condition. Hamlet also accuses Polonius
of being the “Jephthah, judge of Israel,”(Act II,Sc.2, 399) meaning
that Polonius would put his country in front of his daughter. Hamlet
has now convinced Polonius that he is in a state of madness because he
knows that Polonius cares for his daughter very much and would never
put her second. By convincing Polonius that he has no consideration
for the well-being of others, Hamlet is then hoping that Polonius will
tell the court of his emotional madness.
Unlike Hamlet, Laertes has developed a different kind of
madness, a madness that is controlled by revenge. When Laertes is
talking to Claudius, Laertes gets so much revenge building up inside
him against Hamlet that Laertes now wants to “cut his throat.”(Act
4,Sc.7,125) Laertes? behavior is caused by the sudden death of his
father who was without a due ceremony, and his sister who has been
driven mad, has contributed to the madness that is being built up
inside Laertes. This madness grows even stronger when Claudius
promises “no wind of blame”(Act IV.Sc7,66) when Laertes kills Hamlet.
With Claudius being the puppet holder and Laertes being the puppet,
Claudius turns Laertes into a savage beast to avenge for his fathers’
death; perhaps this is what the Claudius has planned all along.
Laertes has a form of madness that is escalating because Laertes knows
that he has the capabilities and motivation to act on what he believes
Ophelia has a unique form of madness unlike Hamlet?s and
Laertes? because it a mixture of love and hate. An example of hate
is when she sings about a “baker’s daughter.”(Act IV,Sc.5,42) Ophelia
is referring to the way her father used to treat her before the tragic
incident of his death. A love within her madness is when she speaks
about the events on “Valentine?s day.”(Act IV, Sc.5,48) When Ophelia
speaks about Valentines day she is referring to the events of romance
that she was denied. Ophelia?s madness is brought on by her lack of
being able to demonstrate any maturity in trying to cope with her
losses and in return can only inflict her madness on the court.
By stating that Hamlet could have controlled his fraudulent
madness, he then had the capability of controlling his conscious mind
into acting traditional. Where Laertes was very influential by others
and had no real control over the mental state he was developing by the
sway of Claudius. Ophelia was the most innocent victim of all
because she was the side affect of everyone else?s actions and had no
idea that she was mentally disintegrating. It can be noticed that
within each of these three people there can be no reassurance on what
the affect they may have on others due to their mental state in
Hamlet appears to be insane, after Polonius?s death, in act IV scene II. There are indications, though, that persuade me to think other wise. Certainly, Hamlet has plenty of reasons to be insane at this point. His day has been hectic?he finally determined Claudius had killed his father, the chance to kill Claudius confronted him, he comes very close to convincing Gertrude that Claudius killed his father, he accidentally kills Polonius, and finally the ghost of his father visits him. These situations are enough to bring Hamlet to insanity, but he remains sharp and credible.
Hamlet is able to make smart remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, comparing then to sponges, “When he (Claudius) needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again,” (pg 98, 20). This is random and unexpected, as many of his actions, but the comparison makes sense; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern soak up all the kings favors, only to become dry again after they mop up the King?s mess (spying on Hamlet, and getting Polonius?s body). Later, with Claudius, Hamlet tells how lowly a king can be by saying, “A man (beggar) may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” (pg 99, 29). This also makes sense, and is not quite as random; when Hamlet confronts Claudius, and the king asks where Polonius is, Hamlet immediatly begins the comparison by telling Claudius that Polonuis is at supper (the worms are eating him for supper, and so on). This proves that Hamlet had some kind of planning for this degrading comment, and that his thoughts are not scattered and he is able to stay focused.
There is a question of what being insane really is. Since it is agreeable that Ophelia was crazy, it?s possible to use her as a guide to make this argument valid. Hamlet and Ophelia both shared the trait of having calculated thoughts, Ophelia?s singing and Hamlet?s verbal attacks. They also shared calmness before their deaths. But was Hamlet spraying rude remarks to everyone before he died, as Ophelia had sung floating down the river? No, in-fact Hamlet was the opposite of what he was before. If he were crazy, like Ophelia, he would have remained hectic and random up until the time of (and after) the duel. Hamlet, though, was not?he even reasoned what death for him was, finishing his question of whether life was worth living for. Hamlet can truley be seen to be sane, and not. The facts that Hamlet was smart and swift thinking, and in such a reversal of emotions (from after Polonius died) in the end, leads strongly to the opinion that Hamlet was not insane.
Hamlet appears to be insane, after Polonius?s death, in act IV scene II. There are indications, though, that persuade me to think other wise. Certainly, Hamlet has plenty of reasons to be insane at this point. His day has been hectic?he finally determined Claudius had killed his father, the chance to kill Claudius confronted him, he comes very close to convincing Gertrude that Claudius killed his father, he accidentally kills Polonius, and finally the ghost of his father visits him. These situations are enough to bring Hamlet to insanity, but he remains sharp and credible. Hamlet is able to make smart remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, comparing then to sponges, “When he (Claudius) needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again,” (pg 98, 20). This is random and unexpected, as many of his actions, but the comparison makes sense; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern soak up all the kings favors, only to become dry again after they mop up the King?s mess (spying on Hamlet, and getting Polonius?s body). Later, with Claudius, Hamlet tells how lowly a king can be by saying, “A man (beggar) may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” (pg 99, 29). This also makes sense, and is not quite as random; when Hamlet confronts Claudius, and the king asks where Polonius is, Hamlet immediatly begins the comparison by telling Claudius that Polonuis is at supper (the worms are eating him for supper, and so on). This proves that Hamlet had some kind of planning for this degrading comment, and that his thoughts are not scattered and he is able to stay focused. There is a question of what being insane really is. Since it is agreeable that Ophelia was crazy, it?s possible to use her as a guide to make this argument valid. Hamlet and Ophelia both shared the trait of having calculated thoughts, Ophelia?s singing and Hamlet?s verbal attacks. They also shared calmness before their deaths. But was Hamlet spraying rude remarks to everyone before he died, as Ophelia had sung floating down the river? No, in-fact Hamlet was the opposite of what he was before. If he were crazy, like Ophelia, he would have remained hectic and random up until the time of (and after) the duel. Hamlet, though, was not?he even reasoned what death for him was, finishing his question of whether life was worth living for. Hamlet can truley be seen to be sane, and not. The facts that Hamlet was smart and swift thinking, and in such a reversal of emotions (from after Polonius died) in the end, leads strongly to the opinion that Hamlet was not insane.
the book of hamlet