Shakespeare’s use of madness was used as a way to explain his characters’ reactions to various events in their lives. Neely writes, “In tragedy, mad protagonists and madwomen, whose distract conditions are triggered by loss, grief, and rage, will represent inner turmoil with new verbal strategies and in culturally inflected ways” (27). In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses murder and madness to create an illusion of madness, but more importantly, leaves playgoers with the ultimate goal of determining if his madness was real. Horatio asks Hamlet, “Which might depriue your Soueraignty of Reason, And draw you into madnesse thinke of it?” (Shakespeare). In return, Hamlet responds, “Make you to rauell all this matter out, That I essentially am not in madnesse, But made in craft” (Hamlet). Analyzing The Tragedie of Hamlet will show that Shakespeare created a character who embodied a mentally ill person to create an illusion of madness out of duty he felt to his fallen king and father. But at times, his madness seemed real even to the audience, but Shakespeare’s choice of language deceives them.
Hamlet, the real heir to the throne, is acting mad as a way to gain access to the people who he blames for his father’s death. Neely writes, “Feigning or errant madmen will be maddened or madden others, appropriate supernatural rituals to practical ends, and expose or disrupt social hierarchies” (28). Hamlet embodies all of the aforementioned. He wants to be able to create an illusion that his madness has taken his senses, but it seems he has created a role that he is playing to benefit his end game to kill the culprit(s) he finds to be responsible for his father’s death. In the beginning, Volt says, “In that, and all things, will we shew our duty” (Shakespeare). Duty and crafted madness speaks to the very heart of the argument in that Hamlet felt a duty to first to his king and second to his father to right the wrongs of his death. Just as Neely suggests, Hamlet experienced loss, grief, and inner turmoil that may well have made him feel mad at times. But, the evidence in the play suggests he was focused on an act that he knew would lead to death; be it his own or others. Hamlet says, “My Pulse as yours doth temperately keepe time, And makes as healthfull Musicke. It is not madnesse That I haue vttered; bring me to the Test And I the matter will re-word: which madnesse Would gamboll from” (Shakespeare). The quote suggests he kept his cool while perpetrating his plan, and if tested, would pass it at any time. He assured readers of his sanity even in the most insane scenes.
In the beginning, Marcellus and Bernardo saw the ghost of Hamlet’s father, so it gives credibility to the fact that he also saw the ghost with a sane mind. The character adds a balance to his mental state because it shows the ghost is a character in the play and not a vision in Hamlet’s mind. His uncle Claudius has stolen his throne and married his mother. So, he has reason to see a plot at hand as he is the rightful heir. To get close enough to take revenge, he creates the madness as a way to seem less of a threat. The Queene made an interesting comment when she said, “Mad as the Seas, and winde, when both contend Which is the Mightier, in his lawlesse fit” (Shakespeare). There is no control over the wind or the seas, so it leaves the idea that Shakespeare is foreshadowing the battle raging inside Hamlet. No doubt a man who had his right to the throne stolen by his uncle would cause him to go mad, but the next reference the king makes brings home the act of revenge and not madness. The King says, “His Liberty is full of threats to all, To you your selfe, to vs, to euery one” (Shakespeare). The king sees his insanity as their downfall, but he still does not see the threat because of an act. It is Ophelia who commits suicide after finding out her father and brother died by Hamlet’s hand, and that is the reference to madness the finds a true ending. In the end, his trusted friend Horatio says, “Of carnall, bloudie, and vnnaturall acts, Of accidentall iudgements, casuall slaughters Of death’s put on by cunning, and forc’d cause, And in this vpshot, purposes mistooke, Falne on the Inuentors head” (Shakespeare). If Hamlet was mad, his final command to name his successor would not have been followed as he commanded. So, it was important for Horatio to tell the tell from a trusted and loyal position to honor Hamlet out of duty, honor, and respect for both kings he served.
As Hamlet laid bare the story of a man who created a persona, he also showed how his perceived mental state led others to their deaths. In the end, Hamlet also died. But because he contemplated life and death, it seems that he understood that was part of the final act. As the protagonist, Hamlet’s duty was to honor his father. To achieve that goal, he had to become a character that he knew would make people not fear him. It was the perfect plan, and Hamlet died by his own choosing. The loss of a father, his kingdom, his trusted friends, and Ophelia showed that he gave all for the duty he felt for his father. It is Horatio who lives, “To tell the secrets of my Prison-House; I could a Tale vnfold” (Shakespeare). So, in the end, the prophecy told by Shakespeare of the tale of madness and deceit played out with someone living to tell of the wrongs done to King Hamlet and his son. It also held true to the idea that a man’s duty was to his king even in death when Fortinbras referred to Hamlet’s death as, “Oh proud death” (Shakespeare). A man died an honorable death in battle, and it seems that makes the argument that Hamlet played the part of an insane man more plausible. With Hamlet’s last words, the throne changed successions, and it shows that Hamlet understood that honor on the throne was more important than a birthright. The intrigue and the allure of the play is what it keeps people guessing to his method though.
Neely, Carol Thomas. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Cornell University Press, 2004.
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Gutenberg Project. (1603), Retrieved on Nov 17, 2016, from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2265