Hamlet: Sanely Ingenious or Genuinely Insane?
Often, when a person allows a certain thought to permeate his mind, that thought can consume him – driving him to a skewed perception of reality, also known as insanity. Such is the case for the title
character in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. After speaking to the ghost of his dead father and former kings, Hamlet contrives a plot to exact revenge on his uncle King Claudius. At this point in the play, Hamlet’s outward insanity is a mere guise – simply a ploy in his plot for revenge. As the play continues, however, and as Hamlet sets his plan in motion, the all-consuming thoughts of revenge drive Hamlet to mental instability. By the play’s end, Hamlet’s insanity is no longer a façade but a reality.
Hamlet is completely in his wits toward the beginning of the play when he formulates his plan for revenge. Directly after seeing his father’s ghost, he already begins scheming against King Claudius. Knowing that in order to exact his revenge successfully he must become outwardly mad, he asks Horatio and Marcellus to swear that no matter “how strange or odd” he begins to act, they must not “head-shake” nor pronounce any “doubtful phrase” regarding his “antic disposition” (1.5.92, 96, 97, 94). At this point in the play, Hamlet does not know what exactly he is going to do to punish King Claudius, but he does know that he may need to keep up the appearance of being mentally unstable. Thus, he asks his friends to keep secret the fact that his apparent insanity is a mere guise, lest his plan be foiled. Though Hamlet is, indeed, completely sane at this point in the play, signs of his oncoming insanity begin to present themselves as Hamlet puts his plan into action.
One of the factors which contributes to Hamlet’s eventual regression into mental instability is the tremendous grief he causes himself. After seeing the player recite a portion of a play, Hamlet immediately becomes forlorn. He feels such guilt that the player can produce such emotion over nothing, while he, himself, feels “unpregnant of [his] cause/ And can say nothing” (2.2.572-73). This guilt weighs on Hamlet heavily and adds to the already tremendous amount of emotional stress to which the play’s events submit him. Another such emotional stressor is the feelings wrought by his and Ophelia’s falling out. When Ophelia approaches Hamlet with the intent of returning the gifts he had given her, the ensuing conversation greatly upsets Hamlet, driving him to spout such invective as “I’ll give thee this plague for/ thy dowry” and “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.145-6, 148).
At this time Hamlet is emotionally upset because Ophelia, his love, does not want to be associated with him anymore. Though he is upset, at this point in the play according to King Claudius his actions are not yet “like madness” (3.1.175). Eventually, however, this additional emotional stressor contributes to Hamlet’s true madness. Another factor which contributes to Hamlet’s impending insanity is the betrayal of his friends. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlet’s closest friends, so it comes as no surprise when Hamlet becomes upset upon the realization that they have betrayed his trust and are working as spies for the king and queen. Finally, the entire emotional burden of knowing that his father was murdered by the man who is now married to his mother weighs on Hamlet heavily. The point at which he allows these thoughts and thoughts of revenge to completely consume him is at the end of Act IV Scene IV. He pledges that his “thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth” (4.4.68). From this point on, all Hamlet thinks about is revenge. These all-consuming thoughts, in addition to the overwhelming emotional stressors, lead to Hamlet’s ultimate insanity.
In the beginning of the play, Hamlet’s seemingly mad actions and sayings are but mere guises to help him successfully claim revenge. As the play wears on, however, the number of emotional stressors on Hamlet builds and Hamlet’s thoughts of revenge become an obsession. Though he is the prince of Denmark, Hamlet is still human and humans can only handle so much emotional stress. There is a breaking point at which the emotional stress is too much, and Hamlet reaches this point. The tremendous emotional weight Hamlet is forced to carry is what eventually causes his break from reality, his emotional breakdown, his insanity.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. New York: Gramercy Books, 1991.