Hamlet Sample Answer: Madness

2012 HL Paper II 
Based on a student's essay

“Hamlet’s madness, whether genuine or not, adds to the fascination of his character for the audience.”

Discuss this statement, supporting your answer with suitable reference to the play, Hamlet.

The more I explore Shakespeare’s work, the more I am convinced that he had more wisdom in 1616 than we have managed to accumulate since. The lesson I derive from Shakespeare’s exploration of madness in Hamlet is that sometimes one just has to fight fire with fire. It is how Hamlet’s (probably) deliberate manipulative portrayal of madness exposed the falseness and hypocrisy of Elsinore that fascinates me most. This essay argues that Hamlet's madness, whether feigned or real, lasting or temporary, reveals additional layers to the complexity of the character in Shakespeare’s tragedy. The question of whether Hamlet's madness is genuine has been widely debated among scholarly critics. There is ample evidence throughout the play to suggest that at times, a fully sane Hamlet is completely aware that he is engaging in an 'antic disposition' as part of his plan to outwit Claudius and avenge the murder of his father. However, there are other times when the audience must be questioning the mental stability of Hamlet as he most certainly goes beyond the requirements of an 'antic disposition'. [For your own clarity - the phrase “antic disposition” is open to interpretation. It most likely means Hamlet wanted to come across like he is mad without actually being mad.]
[This essay is about 1.5 times longer than what you are expected to produce in the exam].

From the moment the audience meets Hamlet, he balks against falseness: 'I know not 'seems.''. Hamlet is disgusted by the falseness of Elsinore, but falseness is at the core of his 'antic disposition' and his plan to avenge his father's death. His projected madness therefore encourages the audience to explore the fact that Hamlet is himself being hypocritical. However, he is honest with Gertrude in relation to his madness when he reveals 'I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft'. He also reveals to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz that he is 'but mad north-north-west'. [meaning he is only mad sometimes]

hamlet leaving cert notes theme of madness

Hamlet's mental state has to be questioned in the immediate aftermath of his meeting with the Ghost. Horatio describes Hamlet as uttering 'wild and whirling words'. Given that Prince Hamlet has just seen and listened to the Ghost reveal the details of King Hamlet's murder, it is hardly surprising that he is somewhat beside himself. Therefore, even before Hamlet reveals his plan to feign madness by adopting an 'antic disposition', he is already acting erratically, suggesting that he is progressing towards a degree of genuine mental instability.

The time interval between the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2 subjects Hamlet to increasing mental torture. He is mourning his father and writhing in disgust at his mother's hasty marriage to the man who has been revealed by the Ghost to be his father's murderer. Adding to this stress, Hamlet has been rejected by Ophelia. Her description of Hamlet suggests that he is genuinely in mental distress 'with a look so piteous in purport as if he had been loosed out of hell'. It would be relatively easy for Hamlet to feign madness with erratic speech and behaviour. However, to conjure up a hellish appearance as described by Ophelia would suggest genuine mental torture. Despite Laertes' and Polonius' doubts about the genuineness of Hamlet's love, it is likely to be the case that Hamlet truly loved Ophelia. At her funeral, Hamlet claims that the love of 'forty thousand brothers' could not have equaled the feeling he had for Ophelia. Therefore, the one positive aspect of Hamlet's life was denied to him at the height of his need for compassion. It is therefore a fascinating conundrum for the audience as to the genuineness of Hamlet's madness at this point in the play.

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Image credit: Savva Brodsky
Hamlet's displays of madness have not escaped the residents of Elsinore. Claudius speaks of 'Hamlet's transformation'; Gertrude speaks of her 'too much changed son' while Polonius notes that her 'noble son is mad'. However, in conversation with Hamlet, Polonius notes: 'Though this be madness, yet there is method in't' and 'How pregnant sometimes his replies are!' These characters express their own differing opinions on Hamlet's state of mind, and the reasons they perceive for his apparent madness. Polonius believes the cause to be his daughter and 'neglected love'. Gertrude recognises the death of King Hamlet and her own hasty re-marriage to be contributory factors. Claudius debates Polonius' love proposition: 'Love? His affections do not that way tend, nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness'.[meaning Love? His feelings don’t move in that direction. And his words, although they were a little disorganized, weren’t crazy.] The contradictory reasons for Hamlet's madness proposed by his contemporaries, together with the audience's knowledge of the 'antic disposition' present them with a fascinating scenario.

If Hamlet is merely acting insane, he is presenting an excellent portrayal of insanity as Ophelia begs of the heavens to 'restore him!' What is fascinating about the Nunnery Scene is that in order for Hamlet to simply portray insanity, there is no requirement for him to be so cruel and heartless with Ophelia. Presumably, he still loves Ophelia despite his abhorrence at his mother's actions and his extension of this frailty to all womankind. Hamlet's madness allows him to fascinate the audience with his outbursts that would not be feasible, plausible or realistic from the mouth of a man presumed sane, putting curses on and disowning Ophelia: ‘Go to, I’ll no more on ’t. It hath made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages’ [meaning Come on, I won’t stand for it anymore. It’s driven me crazy. I hereby declare we will have no more marriage.]

It is clear from Act 3 Scene 2 that any insanity possessing Hamlet has disappeared, thus giving credence to the theory that Hamlet's exhibited state of mind in the Nunnery Scene was part of his 'antic disposition'. Hamlet possesses the sanity to direct the players and to speak sensibly to Horatio. It is noticeable that Hamlet falls into insanity mode as soon as Claudius and Gertrude appear for the play. As he says to Horatio: 'They are coming ... I must be idle'. At the end of this scene, Hamlet says referring to his mother: 'I will speak daggers to her'. This verbal pronouncement provides further evidence that Hamlet's tirade of verbal abuse toward Ophelia was not the consequence of temporary insanity at all but merely the exposition of his planned 'antic disposition'. The audience therefore, through the channel of 'antic disposition', becomes aware of an inner cruelty within Hamlet that conflicts with the image of him as a 'noble mind' and loved by the people. Perhaps, Claudius was right when he described the populace as 'the distracted multitude'. All of this adds to the complexity of Hamlet's character, leading to additional debate and fascination for the audience.


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Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap? Ophelia: No, my lord. Hamlet:I mean, my head in your lap? Ophelia: Ay, my lord. Image credit: Savva Brodsky
Hamlet's madness allows for a series of dialogues between himself and Polonius that illustrate the falseness of the court of Elsinore. The falseness of Polonius is highlighted by their discussion regarding the shape of a cloud. Polonius agrees with any shape Hamlet will assign to the cloud, whether it be a ‘camel’, ‘weasel’, or ‘whale’. We see Hamlet indulge in the same revelation of falseness in the course of his conversation regarding the weather with Osric who agrees that it is both hot and cold. Similarly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are victims of Hamlet's ridicule. Therefore, the madness of Hamlet also fascinates the audience because it provides an additional means for the falseness of Elsinore to be exposed.

If Hamlet is at times actually suffering from temporary insanity, this is certainly not the case as he stands over Claudius after the play. Hamlet sanely ponders over the injustice of sending Claudius' soul to heaven while King Hamlet's soul purges. At the very beginning of Act 3 Scene 3, Claudius refers to Hamlet's madness and the insecurity of letting it roam freely. It is ironic therefore that in this scene if Hamlet had been genuinely mad he would not have philosophised and waited for a more revengeful moment to murder Claudius. He would not have had the ability to rationalise and conclude that 'this is hire and salary, not revenge'. Therefore, while it has been argued that Hamlet's insanity enhances the fascination of his character for the audience, it is also the case that many aspects of Hamlet like his philosophising would have proved fascinating even if he was presenting himself as sane throughout the play.

The final scene reveals a Hamlet much altered from earlier in the play. This could be a consequence of his ‘antic disposition’: he got accustomed to a different frame of reference. His description to Horatio of how he dealt with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suggests that he no longer has to grapple with his conscience: 'They are not near my conscience'. This is in sharp contrast to Hamlet's earlier declaration that 'Conscience does make cowards of us all'. The change in Hamlet's character provides a further point of fascination for the audience.

In conclusion, the adoption of an 'antic disposition' allows Hamlet to expose and deride those at Elsinore who live by falseness, pretence and hypocrisy. This approach is full of both irony and tragedy, causing damage to all involved. It appears that Hamlet’s madness was a game of sorts, but it transformed him. This in turn allows the audience to witness deeper layers to not only Hamlet but all of the inhabitants of Elsinore.

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