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Was Hamlet Reallly Insane?

Essay by   •  April 23, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,660 Words (7 Pages)  •  2,464 Views

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"Great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide." Although John Dryden's quote was not said in regard to William Shakespeare's Hamlet, it relates very well to the age-old question of Hamlet's insanity, a major theme in the play. In order to truly analyze this controversial aspect of Hamlet's character, it is essential to define what 'insanity' is. One must realize that the term is used very loosely and informally, therefore becoming a very subjective term in nature. For instance, just because one is slightly different from the crowd doesn't classify them as 'insane'. A formal definition of this term would be 'such unsoundness of mind or lack of understanding as prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction or as removes one from criminal or civil responsibility' . In short, Hamlet is the tale of a young Danish prince of the same name who must endure the pain of losing his father and witnessing his mother fall for his uncle Claudius, who is his father's brother. After encountering his father's ghost, Hamlet begins to feign madness in order to avenge for his father's murder. Throughout the play, it is evident that Hamlet is only faking madness when in the company of other characters, but is fully capable of thinking rationally when alone. In other words, he is simulating insanity in order to fulfill the promised duty towards his late father.

The play opens during a dark winter night, when a ghost walks onto the vicinity of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. The watchmen, and Hamlet's confidant Horatio, notice that the ghost resembles the recently deceased King Hamlet. When the watchmen and Horatio inform Hamlet of this, their suspicion is confirmed, for it is indeed the late king's ghost, for he says, "I am thy father's spirit,/ Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,/...Till the foul crimes done in my days are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid/ To tell the secrets of my prison house,/ I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/...But this eternal blazon must not be/ To the ears and flesh and blood." (1.5)

The late king's ghost then delves into a very picturesque account of how his life ended, for the current king, Claudius, lied to the people of Elsinore and informed them that the cause of King Hamlet's death was because of a snake bite. In fact, Claudius had poured poison into his brother's ear, causing his skin to break out in a scaly rash and his blood to coagulate. Furthermore, he also "won to his shameful lust" the affections of the "seeming-virtuous queen", detailing Gertrude's implied infidelity in the play. Hamlet says of his uncle "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." (1.5) and promises to devote himself to murdering his uncle by saying that he will "put an antic disposition on" (1.5) that he will feign madness, confirming that he thinks that his father's ghost is telling the truth.

Moreover, Hamlet must also deal with his dilemma concerning Ophelia, daughter of his father's councilor Polonius. After seeing off his son Laertes to Paris, Ophelia storms in to her father in a state of very intense fear. She has never been "so affrighted...Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced...as if he had been loosed out of hell...he comes before me" (2.1). Polonius interrogates if he (Hamlet) is "Mad for thy love?" (2.1), promising Ophelia that he will inform King Claudius of the incident, stating that "This is the very ecstasy of love" (2.1), meaning that love can be so powerful it is enough to make a man self-destruct completely.

However, in order to understand what Hamlet does and more importantly, the causes behind his behavior, one must examine the events that took place prior to the death of King Hamlet as to not analyze from Hamlet's extremely inadequate perspective. Concerning the setting of the play, Hamlet takes place in a small town called Elsinore located in Denmark, which has been ruled by King Hamlet for several decades. His wife, Queen Gertrude is unhappy about living in this patriarchal world, a world that echoes with her husband's Viking times of yore that resonate with his past spent camping on battlefields and so forth. His brother, Claudius, reads the signs of discontent and saw opportunity. When the right time came, he presumably offered what she must have desired: a world of that is not focused on drinking bouts and recitals of battle legends but is instead focused on culture, not war, would be the crux and Gertrude would be in charge, hence moving the heavy-drinking, fighting man's lifestyle to the private chambers of the castle.

As far as Hamlet's whereabouts are concerned prior to the play, his studies in Wittenberg are suddenly interrupted by King Hamlet's death. It is implied that before the demise

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