Does Hamlet Truly Go Mad?

Published: 2021-07-12 01:50:05
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Category: Hamlet

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In the late middle ages, it was common to imprison or even execute those with mental illnesses.1 The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark takes place in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, where one would be severely punished for acting in an insane manner;² Hamlet, however, goes unpunished for his behavior, which acts as an incentive to continue being mad. There are many strong indications of Hamlet’s diminishing mental state throughout the play, including his violence toward everyone other than the intended prey: Claudius, his sporadic episodes of guilt which are followed by extended periods of indifference, and finally, his unstable mood which often varies from determined to suicidal. Throughout the play, Hamlet quickly progresses from acting mad to truly being both sociopathic and bipolar.
In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is told by a ghost in the form of his father that the one who has murdered him now wears the crown.3 He sets his mind on killing King Claudius, and decides to act mad in order to not be perceived as dangerous. In the next four acts, Hamlet commits cruel acts toward practically every main character except King Claudius. He starts by abusing Ophelia’s emotions, coming into her room underdressed with dirty clothing, grabbing her wrist tightly, staring at her for a very long time, and then running away without any explanation. Hamlet later becomes more hostile toward Ophelia during a meeting in which he tells her that he never loved her, and berates her harshly, cursing her with calumny, and telling her to “get thee to a nunnery.”4 Although the first encounter was likely an act, the second shows that Hamlet is beginning to show sociopathic traits, the most prevalent being his inability to recognize his faults: “Sociopathy…is indicative of having a sense of morality…but the sense of right and wrong is not that of the parent culture.”5 This is most descriptive of Hamlet as he is becoming disconnected from societal standards. Hamlet becomes aggressive with his mother, Gertrude, when she attempts to question him – only for him to reciprocate tenfold. She cries out in fear for her life “Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help!”6 as he attempts to confront her regarding her sins. Another harsh act that Hamlet commits is switching the letters and sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. The two servants were not aware that Hamlet was to be killed upon reaching England, and were simply following orders. Hamlet states with pride that “they are not near [his] conscience”7 further proving his sociopathy. Although Claudius is Hamlet’s real target, Hamlet never reaches the level of cruelty with him that he inflicts on other innocent characters.
In his journey to kill Claudius, Hamlet ends up killing many others on the way. Hamlet has rare episodes of guilt and eventually stops realizing that he is causing the deaths of many people close to him. “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness”8 – although not aimed at Hamlet, this quote by Horatio is the best description of Hamlet’s development throughout the whole play, and may even be what Shakespeare was alluding to with the statement. Hamlet is either directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, his mother, Laertes, King Claudius, and even himself. He has moments of guilt and remorse over some of these deaths, but mostly remains apathetic. This clearly demonstrates both sociopathy and bipolar disorder. During Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet grieves, saying “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum”9 – a claim that completely contrasts his treatment of Ophelia from earlier, but also evinces some level of guilt, though this guilt comes with an ulterior motive of seeking to provoke Laertes into fighting with him. Hamlet is not shown grieving for Ophelia again later in the play. Hamlet is also indifferent to the fact that he killed Polonius, and often excuses his actions by saying that his act was “almost as bad…as [killing] a king”10 – he does, however, reveal a guilty conscience when it benefits him. Prior to the swordfight with Laertes, Hamlet asks for pardon over Polonius’s murder, but quickly blames it on his madness, rendering himself guilt-free.11 Soliloquies are meant to express deep emotions of characters, and in Hamlet’s soliloquies, he does not reveal any feelings of guilt for anything other than his inability to avenge his father’s death.12 Hamlet’s guilt is selective, which is a trait that even Claudius doesn’t have – this pattern of apathy further shows that Hamlet is indeed turning mad.
Polonius stated early in the play that there was “method” in Hamlet’s madness.13 This however, does not extend to actually committing the one deed he set out to commit. Hamlet’s madness has no method in it, evident in his soliloquies. Hamlet switches from determined, to depressed throughout the play to be considered sane. Hamlet’s soliloquy after he learns about his father’s murder is filled with anger toward both Claudius and his mother: “O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”14 – this introduces his desire for revenge. The soliloquy concludes with his declaration of his new goal to kill Claudius.
The very next soliloquy begins with “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”.15 Hamlet realizes his lack of action and rebukes himself harshly, diametrically different from the previous soliloquy. He calls himself weak and cowardly, and starts doubting the ghost of his father from earlier on. He vows to recommit to his cause once he can confirm Claudius’ guilt. The next and most well-known soliloquy occurs after Hamlet has confirmed that Claudius is indeed the murderer; Hamlet, however, is indecisive and still struggles to act. He explores the idea of suicide through the famous lines “To be, or not to be?”16 He contemplates whether it is nobler to live suffering, or to die and prevent the pain. His madness is similar to Ophelia’s, with illogical thoughts and inner turmoil. Suicide rates in people with bipolar disorder are twenty times more than that of the general public, and this is what Hamlet is struggling with.17 Hamlet’s madness is shown greatly through his soliloquies and his fluctuating mood – if Shakespeare were portraying a sane person, the soliloquies would have been very different.
In conclusion, The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark masterfully presents how easy it is to cross the vague, liminal border from sanity and insanity. Hamlet is first introduced as a sane person in the opening act, but later decides to act insane to execute his father’s killer and his uncle, Claudius, and arguably descends further into insanity, which we witness at the end of the play where he says “Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be [that] way”.18 Hamlet perfectly characterizes sociopathy and bipolar disorder, though these terms did not exist then.

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