INTO THE MOUTH OF MADNESS ANALYSIS OF HAMLET AND INSANITY
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:” or is it really? Perhaps the more pressing issue is rather these immortal lines where uttered by the lips of a madman in the grips of insanity. Madness has major importance in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and certain questions beg to be answered. Is Hamlet truly insane? Or is he merely angry? Or does Hamlet cross the line between sanity and insanity without even realizing it? The best answer to all these questions is simply “yes!” However, it would appear Hamlet’s madness and irrationality led to his own downfall, and also the destruction of the lives of those around him. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates the destructive nature of insanity and mental illness, and it is this destructive nature that makes Hamlet a true tragedy in every sense of the word.
It is not that hard to believe that Hamlet has gone insane if one simply looks at the circumstances that could have made him lose his grip on reality. For one thing, his father, the former King of Denmark has died; and before he is cold in his grave, Queen Gertrude has married Hamlet’s uncle, the new King of Denmark Claudius! This alone would cause most to go insane; and the reason why relations between Hamlet and Claudius become strained, and Hamlet’s attitude becomes destitute. Since the death of his father, Hamlet has been what appeared to be in a state of madness. His madness is the result of his fragile personality being confronted with the great anguish of his father’s passing. Hamlet proves to be a man-child—incapable of dealing with heavy issues. The queen encourages him to look to the future, and to cease his grieving, believing it false. Hamlet responds angrily to her suggestion, “But I have within which passes show; these but the trappings and the suits of woe” (I.ii.88-89). Hamlet’s strained relationship with Claudius is now evident as he comments on his mother’s marriage, “It is not, nor it cannot come to good” (I.ii.158). As Hamlet struggles between emotion and clear-headedness in order to enact revenge on his father’s death, he also struggles to retain his sanity in the wake of so much tragedy.
Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his father considerably changes his disposition, and his actions become infinitely more bizarre. Possessing the unique ability to communicate to his father by talking to a ghost; his friends must swear themselves to secrecy because of the threat that others may dismiss him as “mad”. Nevertheless, Hamlet’s actions after meeting the ghost do lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy. From the beginning, Hamlet feels much pressure to speak out against Claudius, but lacks the strength to do so. This inner conflict is shown in his soliloquy in act two, when he states, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (II.ii.534) can be interpreted as the source of Hamlet’s inner conflict—thus insanity. He confesses that he is a coward, and is torn between speaking out and actually taking action against Claudius. These new pressures cause much inner torment in Hamlet, and hint at the fact that he is mentally unstable. Further evidence of Hamlet’s madness can be found in Hamlet’s encounter with his mother in act three, scene four. Hamlet has gone to see his mother in an attempt to force her to cleanse herself of her sin. As he attempts to make his mother see her wrongs, he screams at her, “Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamÃ¨d bed, stewed in corruption, honeying and making love” (III.iv.103-105). This attack on his mother clearly shows that he has gone beyond merely playing the role of a son in mourning, and has crossed the line between sanity and insanity with his wild actions and words.
After this attack on his mother, Hamlet furthers his irrational behavior by killing Polonius, who was standing behind the curtain in his mother’s room! As Polonius slumps out from behind the curtain, the queen exclaims “O me, what hast thou done?”. Hamlet replies, “Nay, I know not. Is it the king?” After the slaying, Hamlet appears to justify the killing in his own mind by stating that Polonius’ death is “almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother” (III.iv.30-31). Hamlet’s excuse for the murder is irrational, for he left Claudius a scene before, and did not take any action against him. He continues to verbally attack his mother, and does not cease until his next meeting with the ghost. Hamlet is indeed acting madly, and without justification. Then Hamlet begins to talk to his father’s ghost, which does not help his cause of proving he his not mad, causing the queen to proclaim, “Alas, he’s mad!” (III.iv.121). Gertrude is now convinced of Hamlet’s psychosis, as she has what appears to be solid evidence that Hamlet is hallucinating and talking to himself. While he is struggling with the truth of his father’s death, Hamlet is also struggling with thoughts of suicide: “Devoutly to be wished; To die, to sleep…” (III.i.72). This now famous soliloquy shows how Hamlet’s obsession with death has now turned on him to the point where he is considering taking his own life.
Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia is inconsistent throughout the play. After her death, as he was visiting her grave, he jumped in the grave to fight with Laertes. During the fight, Hamlet states “Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum (V.i.285-287). This statement contradicts his words when she returned his gifts, stating that he never loved her. In the final scene when Hamlet is confronting Laertes, his thoughts and words turn again to the topic of madness: “Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet. If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away, Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness” (V.ii.247-251). By these words, Hamlet is speaking of his true madness, which caused him to kill Polonius. He is apologizing to Laertes, and admits that his loss of control is due to his madness.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates to its readers that hatred and revenge can lead to insanity and madness. In this final scene, Hamlet comes to terms with his own madness, and apprehends that it was his suffering and procrastination that kept him from killing Claudius sooner. The tragedy of Hamlet lies in the notion that Hamlet loses control over his revenge, and it is only at the plays end that Hamlet comes to realize that, “Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged; his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy” (V.ii.252-253). Perhaps if Hamlet had come to terms with his insanity earlier in his life, many lives could have been saved. This idea is at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and another reason why scholars continue to analyze Hamlet.
ï‚§ Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Pocket Books, 1992.