The problem of madness is perhaps the most maddening problem in Hamlet. The question is asked, was Hamlet really mad, or did he merely assume madness?’ Certain critics believe that Hamlet is really mad whereas certain other critics believe that Hamlet is only pretending to be mad. Shakespeare earliest critic Samuel Johnson (1765) in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, calls it “The pretended madness of Hamlet” (p. 196) whereas T.S Eliot also consider that’ the ‘madness’ of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully. (Eliot, 1922. p.98) These critics who labels Hamlet madness as pretending and fabricated disagree with each other on the motives of this pretending madness. Samuel Johnson (1765) find no reason for his ‘putting on antic disposition: ‘Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity.’ (Johnson, 1765 p. 196)
The problem of Hamlet’s madness is complex thus because his declaration in Act 2 of the play that he is going to intentionally put on ‘antic disposition’ to achieve his objectives has cast many doubts on the real nature of his insanity. Due to lack of direct textual evidence, this enquiry was never answered with certainty. Let’s look into the indirect evidence on the Hamlet’s psychological instability and find answer to this paradoxical preposition whether Hamlet was actually mad or was playing mad.
The sound physique of Hamlet:
Before the play begins Hamlet is clearly a sensitive and idealistic young man. He is a scholar, a philosopher and a poet too. He is gentle and genial to those below his station. He is a noble man who conceives the finest thousands and has a high intellectual quality. We get a vivid picture of Hamlet as he was from the words of Ophelia that shows that Hamlet was once a master of his own self and had full command over his mind and senses. But we do not see the normal Hamlet in the course of the play, just as we do not see the normal Macbeth in the course of that tragedy. After his mother’s hasty marriage and the Ghost’s revelation, Hamlet’s “noble and most sovereign reason” is all out of true and harsh. The observed of all observers is quite, quite down and the noble mind is overthrown.
Hamlet’s madness considered real:
Some critics are of the opinion that under the pressure of these two circumstances-his mother’s hasty marriage and the Ghost’s revelation – Hamlet loses his reason. When he appears for the first time in Act I, Sc. II, he is not normal state of mind. More than the sudden death of his father, his mother’s ‘frailty’ shocks him and this produces in him a disgust for the affairs of life, and apathetic and moody inclination to put an end to his misery by self-slaughter. After the Ghost’s revelation, he sinks into a morbid state of mind, so that he finds no interest at all in the word or mankind. The goodly earth appears a “sterile promontory.” The bright firmament appears only a “foul and pertinent congregation of vapours.” Man delights him not, nor woman withers. This state of mind is very near insanity.
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 that Hamlet is really mad. He calls Polonius a fishmonger and further insults him with remarks on his daughter, Ophelia:
“Let her not walk I’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to it,” His talk with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the honesty of the world his talk with Ophelia in nunnery-scene in which he insults her and advises her to join a convent to escape breeding sinners and his obscene talk 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 words ‘help’ from behind the arras. Not knowing the identity of the person who is hiding there he takes it to be Claudius, and draws hiss sword and kills the person. Only afterwards does he find out it is Polonius. 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. Hamlet rages with fury, speaks ill of Laerts and warns him with danger of his life. The Queen tries to explain to Laetes the nature of Hamlet’s outbursts of passion:
This is mere madness, / And thus a while the fit will work on him./ Anon as patient as the female dove/ When that her golden couples are disclosed/ His silence will sit drooping. (5.1. 284-288)
Thus the surest proof of Hamlet’s madness comes from his own lips.
His madness is feigned:
All the above given evidence does quite prove his madness to be real: There is more evidence that his madness is assumed, for he acts normally when he chooses to and in the presence of those with whom it is safe to do so. We agree with Deighton (1896) when he says:
In every single instance in which Hamlet’s madness is manifested, he has good reason for assuring that madness; while, on the other hand, whenever there was no need to hoodwink anyone, his thought, language and action, bear no resemblance to unsoundness of intellect. (p. XII)
He talks rationally and shows great intellectual power in his conversations with Horatio. He receives the players with kind courtesy and his refinement of behavior towards them shown that he is not mad.
In the first Act we are told by Hamlet himself that he is going to feign madness to carry out his entrusted task of avenging his father’s death successfully.
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet/ To put an antic disposition on … (1. 5.171-172)
In his talk with Polonius where he calls him a “fishmonger” and insults him further with satirical remarks, Polonius observe:
Though this be madness, yet /there is method in’t—(2. 2. 206-207)
His soliloquies show a sane man:
Hamlet shows great wisdom of thought in his soliloquies and one can not assume that it is the utterances of a madman. He is not a normal man there but is full of sagacity and wisdom. Granville-Barker (1946) in his preface to Hamlet points out: ‘when he is alone, we have the truth of him, but it is his madness which is on public exhibition.’? (p. XII) All of his soliloquies show his wisdom and deep thinking for they are coherent and logical. His reasoning and generalizations portray him as a scholar and a philosopher. The thoughts which he reveals in these soliloquies have a universal appeal and remarkable for their poetic quality and excellence of language. Through his soliloquies we come to know about the inner Hamlet, his feelings for others and his feeling for himself. He reveals his plants and actions and acts according to them. The words, Ideas and feelings expressed in these soliloquies cannot be those of a mad man.
His advice to the players:
Hamlet’s advice to the players on the art of acting is too sound to come from the lips of a madman. He advises them 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, comes from a sound man.
His sounds sense:
Hamlet’s comments on Yorick the court jester’s skull: “I know him, Horation; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times” . . . and his generalisatior, “where are your gibes now? Your gambole? Your songs? Your flashers of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar,” . . . . . along with the comments on the other skull, which could have been the skull of a politician or a lawyer, are too full of sense and meaningful thought to come from an insane man.
His harsh attitude towards Ophelia:
Hamlet loved Ophelia before the Ghost’s revelation of his father’s murder. Now the duty imposed on him by the Ghost of which feels incapable and his mother’s guilt have driven all thought of love away. In his rebellion against nature and in his want to escape the burden of life, he rejects Ophelia and tells her to get to a nunnery. When he learns that Ophelia has met with a tragic death, his true feelings comes to life and being provoked by Laeter’s action, he too leaps into her grave, and admits his love. So these incidents cannot accounts for his madness being real. But Samuel Johnson (1765) considers his madness as fabricated even in his (Hamlet’s) treatment of Ophelia. Johnson says in this regard, ‘He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.’ (Johnson, 1765)
Reasons for assuming madness:
Dowden (1918) explains: “He assumes madness as a means of concealing his actual disturbance of mind. His over-excitability may betray him; but it is be a received opinion that this mind is unhinged, such an excess of over-excitement will pass unobserved and unstudied.”
Richardson as early as 1785 too supports his view and says:
Harassed from without, and distracted from within, is it wonderful, if during his endeavour to conceal to his thoughts, he should betray inattention to those around him: incoherence of speech and manner . . . . . Hamlet was fully sensible how strange those involuntary improprieties must appear to others; he was conscious he could not suppress them; he knew he was surrounded with spies; and was justly apprehensive, lest his suspicions or purposes should be discovered. (Vickers 368)
To prevent these consequences, and at the same time to afford himself breathing time – for no plan of action immedications – he counterfeits insanity.
T.S Eliot argues that ‘the madness of Hamlet lay in Shakespeare’s hand; in the earlier play a simple ruse, and to the end, we may presume, understood as a rule by the audience. For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned.’ (Eliot, 1922. p. 102) By pretending to be mad, Hamlet kept open the safety valve and could speak order to relieve the pressure on his mind. This is what T.S Eliot means when he uses the words “more than feigned.” The phrase means that such pretence is psychologically inevitable and necessary, and is not a mere practical trick or a device of the old revenge play as critics like Stoll would have us believed.
To solve this controversy one shall have to resort by Bradley (1966) who goes to the root of the matter and says that Hamlet is not mad, he is fully responsible for his actions. But he suffers from melancholia, a pathological state which may well develop into lunacy. His disgust with life can easily assume the form of an irresistible urger for self-destruction. His feeling and will are already disordered, and the disorder might extend to sense and intellect. His melancholy accounts for his nervous excitability, his longing for death, his irresolution and delay.
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