The concept of insanity has been built upon by many great playwrights, including Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most widely read tragedies due to the contentious recurring theme of insanity. The theme of hysteria in Hamlet has been one of the most discussed topics in literature, with many people debating whether Hamlet was actually sane or insane. Shakespeare uses the characters of Ophelia and Hamlet to discuss the theme of insanity in his play. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are overcome by emotion and a lack of sound reasoning, which ultimately drives them insane and leads to their horrific deaths. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the theme of madness to develop the plot and characterization of the whole play. The theme of madness is important to the plot of the play because it keeps the play going and the readers entertained. It is through the theme of madness that we come to know the main characters, Ophelia and Hamlet.
Hamlet’s madness is described as an on and off madness which has raised several questions as to whether he was truly mad or he was just faking the insanity. According to Hall, Hamlet chose when to be mad and when to be sane and because it is something he willed on himself, as the play progresses to the end, he truly goes insane (9). In contrast, Ophelia’s insanity was not a feigned one; she indeed went insane after the death of her father and after Hamlet’s rejection. The two characters present the theme of madness in different ways as Ophelia’s madness contrasts to that of Hamlet. The most intriguing aspect of the theme of madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is how he intertwines between the feigned and the real madness in the play.
According to Antony and Siddharth, in the beginning of the play, there is no doubt that Hamlet fakes his madness (5). After the death of his father, Hamlet appears to be in a state of madness that progresses throughout the play. The main character’s madness is questionable because there is a lot of evidence in the story to prove that the madness was feigned. Hamlet was not insane, but he was using the madness to accomplish his plans of avenging his father’s death. Hamlet had stated that he was going to act “strange or odd “and “put an act of disposition” to confuse the king and his attendants for him to accomplish his revenge (Shakespeare). This is when he was speaking to the ghost assuring him that he was going to act crazy to be sure that King Claudius killed his father, and if that is the case, then he was going to avenge his death. Therefore, Hamlet uses insanity as a trick to achieve his goals in the story, which was to carry out a revenge on King Claudius for the death of his father.
Besides, it is evident that Hamlet feigned his madness when he says, “I essentially am not in madness, but in craft.” (Shakespeare 187). In this statement, as he was talking to Gertrude, Hamlet made it clear to his mother that he was not insane, but he was only using the madness to accomplish his revenge on his father’s death. He tried several times to follow through with his revenge, but most of his plans were delayed. Therefore, he decided to deceive King Claudius by putting on an act of madness just to avenge his father’s death.
Moreover, another instance that proves that Hamlet was not crazy is when he failed to kill King Claudius when he got the opportunity. Hamlet had been planning to avenge the death of his father for long and here comes a chance to kill his father’s killer when he is alone and praying. Therefore, the fact that Hamlet did not kill Claudius while he was alone praying shows that he was sane and he could think rationally. Claudius was vulnerable at that moment he was praying, but Hamlet decided not to kill him because he was in control of his mental state and not insane as he had made the king and his attendants believe. Hamlet never wanted to outright the king because according to him, he has to suffer as he caused his father to suffer during his death. Therefore, he came out with a plan to cause Claudius to confess murdering his father, Hamlet the king and then he could kill him later on.
There is no doubt that at the opening of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s madness was feigned because it was an act to confuse Claudius to carry through with his revenge. However, as the play progresses, Hamlet’s madness becomes real and liable because he becomes distracted and irrational. Bali notes that, even though Hamlet’s madness was feigned at some point, his life events such as the demise of his father and that of his lover could be enough reasons to make him insane (81). Hamlet suffered a lot because of the death of his father; as a result, he spent his life trying to avenge his death, and this made him insane. Hamlet at first faked a madness that later made him mad altogether.
Apart from the death of his father, Hamlet was driven insane when his mother married his father’s murderer. He was devastated by the little time her mother took before remarrying and the thought of this drove him to madness. Hamlet’s real madness is also shown when he kills Polonius in his mother’s bedroom and shows no remorse about the act. Hamlet murdered Polonius without thinking twice. He has just committed murder due to the rage he has against King Claudius, he shows no guilt, and this shows that he is truly insane.
Hamlet’s life was from one tragedy to another whereby his father dies; he learns his uncle Claudius killed him and the death of his girlfriend Ophelia’s death drove him completely insane. As a result, his life becomes worse because of the pain and suffering brought about by the incidences in his life. Hamlet’s tragic experiences made him lose touch with the real world and the people around him, and this brought episodes of madness throughout the play.
Unlike Hamlet, Ophelia’s madness was real and it is not questionable like Hamlet’s madness. There is no doubt that she has completely lost her mind when she acts weird, for instance, making strange sounds, talking to her dead father, and speaking incoherently. Ophelia was just a young girl who was controlled on what she is supposed to do about different men. She had no mother figure to direct her and so, several men hurt her in addition to her father using her as bait. Ophelia developed a permanent kind of madness after the suffering and tragic events that happened in her life. Her madness was out of hate and love at the same time because of the stress she faced in her life due to her father and Hamlet. First, Ophelia was isolated from the people she loved for instance Hamlet. Her father forbade her from getting close to Hamlet and this was driving her insane. As a result, Hamlet rejected her, she felt all alone, and this drove her insane. Secondly, she was used to her father until her old lover murders him and this changes her life completely leading into a depression. Ophelia could not contain her stress because she could not imagine living her life alone without her father and this drives her more insane. She is seen talking to an unseen person and she insists that she is talking to her father and this reaffirms her insanity.
Ophelia’s madness is also depicted when she sings after her father’s death because no one in his/her right mind can sing after the death of a parent. Ophelia sings songs that have no relevance and this also affirms her insanity. Ophelia was already permanently mad and that is why she was acting irrationally. Therefore, unlike Hamlet, Ophelia was truly mad and her madness was because the rejection form Hamlet, the loss of his father, and his brother’s absence. She felt alone and could not control her misery and sorrow over the loss of Hamlet and her father and this drives her into madness and later on taking her own life.
The main difference between Hamlet and Ophelia’s insanity is that Hamlet’s madness is on and off while Ophelia’s is permanent. Ophelia’s madness was complete because other people witnessed it and she never went around confessing that she was mad. On the other hand, Hamlet planned his insanity and he only behaved insane before certain people. Even though at some point his madness seems real, it is still questioned throughout the play.
One notable similarity of Ophelia and Hamlet’s madness is that they both become insane after the deaths of the fathers. The two characters lost their parental figures through terrible murders. As a result, they this harms their character and causes them grief which leads to depression which later on turns into madness. As the play ends, both Ophelia and Hamlet’s madness drove them to their ultimate death. This is another similarity of their madness.
In conclusion, madness is a controversial topic in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. In the play, at some point, Hamlet’s madness can be justified and at some point, it cannot because he acts genuinely mad. Shakespeare presents the theme of insanity through two main characters, Ophelia and Hamlet. Hamlet’s madness has become a debatable topic with some people arguing that he faked it while others are claiming that he was indeed mad. However, as the play progresses, Hamlet lapses into real insanity. On the other hand, Ophelia’s madness is real, and it is because of the death of his father and Hamlet’s rejection. As the play Hamlet ends, both characters are eventually destroyed by their insanity as they die tragically. Hamlet is a play that exploits the theme of madness through its principal characters, Ophelia and Hamlet.
Antony, Adappatu Ancy, and Siddharth R. “Feigned Madness–Treatment of Theatre Imagery inShakespeare’s Hamlet.” Language in India 17.3 (2017):1-6. Print.
Bali, Shweta. “Mechanics of Madness in Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.” Iup Journal ofEnglish Studies 9.4 (2014): 81-92. Print.
Charney, Maurice. Style in Hamlet. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Print.
Corum Richard. Understanding Hamlet: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and HistoricalDocuments. Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1998. Print.
Hall, J. Christopher. “A Narrative Case Study of Hamlet and the Cultural Construction ofWestern Individualism, Diagnosis, and Madness.” Journal of Systemic Therapies 35.2(2016): 1-13. Print
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Penguin Classics, 2015. Print.