Hamlet’s Madness or Antic Disposition
At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet is clearly a sensitive and idealistic young man: a scholar, a philosopher, and a poet too. But in course of the play, he acts like a mad man. This problem of madness is perhaps the most maddening problem in Hamlet. Certain critics believe that Hamlet is really mad while others believe that he is only pretending to be mad. Again, those critics who argue that Hamlet is feigning madness are not in agreement with each other about his motives in doing so.
Some critics are of the opinion that after the Ghost’s revelation and his mother’s hasty marriage, Hamlet’s “noble and most sovereign reason” is all out of tune and harsh. The goodly earth then appears a “sterile promontory”. Man delights him not, nor does woman either. Ophelia’s description of Hamlet to Polonius when he called on her in her closet further strengthens the idea of madness to be real. She says that Hamlet in a pale appearance took her by the wrist, and holding her hard, scrutinized her face and raised a sigh so piteous and profound as if it did seem to shatter all his bulk. Ophelia herself says: ” what a noble mind is here overthrown!” This description gives Polonius the idea that “the very ecstasy of love” is the cause of the present condition of Hamlet, for under his instructions and advice Ophelia had returned his gifts and had refused to court him further.
The conversation between Hamlet and Polonius in Act II, Sc. II, is also quoted to support the theory that Hamlet is really mad. He calls Polonius a fishmonger and further insults him with his remarks on his daughter, Ophelia. His talks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the honesty of the world; his talk with Ophelia in the nunnery-scene in which he insults and advises her to join a convent to escape breeding sinners and his obscene talks with her in the play-scene all are taken to prove him to be a man who has lost reason.
Another instance quoted in support of the view of Hamlet’s madness being real is Hamlet’s act of killing Polonius. When he is having an interview with his mother, he hears the word ‘help’ from behind the arras. Not knowing the identity of the person who is hiding there he takes it is be Claudius, and draws his sword, and kills the person. Only afterward does he find out it is Polonius and remarks with least remorse:
“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell;”
Had he been in his real senses, he would not have acted in this heartless manner. Finally, his strange behavior at Ophelia’s funeral is supposed to show the genuineness of his madness. when he sees Laertes leaping into Ophelia’s grave, he too follows him and they grapple with each other. But the surest proof of Hamlet’s madness comes from his own lips when he repents for his actions in Ophelia’s grave and confesses to Laertes;
” who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction is wrong’d.”
Though all the evidence given above does quite prove his madness to be real. But there is also evidence that proves that Hamlet’s madness is assumed, for he acts normally when he chooses to and in the presence of those like Horatio with whom it to safe to do so. In the first Act, we are presence told by Hamlet himself that he is going is feign madness to carry out his entrusted task of avenging his father’s death successfully.
“As I perchance hereafter shall think to meet
To put an antic disposition on…. ”
In his talks with Polonius, where he calls him a fishmonger” and insults him further with satirical remarks, Polonius observes:
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it?
However, as he is a fool he is deceived by Hamlet’s feigned madness. But Claudius the shrewd man, who suspects the authenticity of Hamlet’s madness. When Polonius reveals “the very ecstasy of love” as the cause of his madness, Claudius after observing Hamlet says in Act III, Sc-I:
” Love? his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he shake, though it lack’d form a little,
Was not like madness.”
So Claudius strongly suspects and so do we that Hamlet’s madness is feigned and not real.
Hamlet enacts the “mousetrap” play to confirm Claudius’s guilt. He discusses with Horatio about the whole thing and expresses his feelings and views of Claudius and his future plans of avenging the murder. Now only a wise man could plan such a thing systematically and arrive at the expected conclusion proving that he is not only sane but also cunning. Again Hamlet advises the players against extravagant gestures and melodramatic exhibitionism. They should “suit the action to the word, the word to the action” and hold the mirror up to nature. Such an advice, by all means, does not come from an insane man but a man of sound nature.
When Hamlet in the closet scene castigates his mother for her frailty and her wickedness, Gertrude’s conscience is awakened, for she confesses:
” O Hamlet, speak no more;
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very Soul”
His coherent speech portrays him as a man of sanity with enormous power to bring about a change in the queen.
Hamlet loved Ophelia before the ghost’s revelation of his father’s murder. But the duty imposed on him by the Ghost against his nature and in his want to escape the burden of life, he rejects Ophelia and tells her to go to a nunnery. And when he learns that Ophelia has met with a tragic death, his true feelings come to life, and being provoked by Laerte’s action, he too leaps into her grave and admits has love. So these incidents cannot account for his madness is real.
All of Hamlet’s soliloquies show his wisdom and deep thinking for they are coherent and logical. Through his soliloquies, he reveals his plans and actions and acts according to them. So the words, ideas, and feelings expressed in these soliloquies cannot be those of a mad man. So Granville Barker in this context points out: “When he is alone, we have the truth of him, but it is his madness which is on public exhibition.” This is why Dowden explains: “He assumes madness as a means of concealing his actual disturbances of the mind. His overexcitability may betray him; but if it is a received opinion that his mind is unhinged, such an excess of over-excitement will pass unobserved and unstudied.” In fact, to prevent these consequences of over-excitement and at the same, time to afford himself breathing time — for no plan of action immediately occurred to his mind, and he was always reluctant to perform actions he counterfeits Insanity.
Infine, to solve this controversy one shall have to resort to Bradley who goes to the root of the matter and says that Hamlet is not mad, he is fully responsible for his own actions. But he suffers from it melancholia, a pathological state which may well develop into lunacy. His disgust with life com easily assumes the form of an irresistible urge for self-destruction. His feeling and will are already disorderly and the disorder might extend to sense and intellect. His melancholy accounts for his nervous excitability, his longing for death, his irresolution and delay.