Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies written in the golden age of Elizabethan theatre, the era where notions of Renaissance humanism gradually superseded the God-fearing and more communal values of the Middle Ages. In many ways, Hamlet is a product of the Reformation, in which Protestants separated from the Catholic Church, which had been dominant until then, and a period of skeptical humanism, which held that there were limits to human knowledge. Throughout the play, this transition is evidenced by Hamlet’s constant anxiety about the difference between realism and delusion, and his difficulties with religion (the sinfulness of suicide and the notion that slaying a murderer while the murderer is in prayer will send the murderer to heaven). This is a direct consequence of the departure from religion and changes in thoughts brought about by the Renaissance humanist thought. This transition, and the consequent conflict of ideas, arguably, largely explains why this old tragedy has been fascinating and relevant for more than 400 years.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is staged in a kingdom of Machiavellian power struggles. He uses the theme of revenge, a pagan virtue, to shape the play’s plot, but at the same time inducing a kingdom that has at least some adherence to Christian values. The protagonist, Hamlet, is designed, not as a staunch avenger, but rather as a hesitating thinker. As a result, this play not only portrays Aristotle’s conventional plot elements of a tragedy, but it also twists and elevates them to philosophical and theological ideas and moral conflicts that can be related to the rise of the Renaissance humanism.
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Shakespeare uses several conventional plot elements in Hamlet. One of them is that of Madness. In this play, the audience is lured to assume that Hamlet is indeed insane considering his incredibly convincing portrayal of a mad man at various occasions in the play. On the other hand, the manner in which Hamlet handles one tragedy after another, his level-headedness and rationality even in the face of immense ordeal, and the legitimacy with which he feigns madness in order to avenge his father’s murder suggest otherwise. Hamlet can be seen as deploying an “antic disposition” to fool his adversaries, a common Elizabethan plot device. So, was Shakespeare’s Hamlet the tragedy of a genius or a case of “raving lunacy”?
Madness is a broad term whose explicit definition can only be offered by the play itself. In Act II scene 2, Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain of Denmark, and father to Laertes and Ophelia remarks: “…Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, What is't, but to be nothing else but mad… (Shakespeare II, ii, 93-94)? In spite of mocking Polonius’ dubious eloquence, these lines, by their redundancy, give a clue that madness is an all-encompassing state of mind that leaves no room for anything else.
In Act I Scene 2, when Claudius, Hamlet’s power hungry and lustful uncle addresses Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (or, rather, Den-mark) as “my cousin Hamlet, and my son,” (Shakespeare I, ii, 64), Hamlet (or, rather Ham-let) responds as an aside, “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (Shakespeare I, ii, 65). This rejoinder or purposeful “slip” from Ham’s inner soul precisely describes the mutual relationship between Hamlet and Claudius. Hamlet is not just his son and cousin as stated here, nor is he “the most immediate to our throne” (Shakespeare I, ii, 109) or just his “chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son” (Shakespeare I, ii, 117). Hamlet is undeniably a little more than kin to Claudius. He is his competitor for Gertrude — Hamlet’s mother, his rival in love, and his own or his father’s Super-Ego avenger for the target woman — Gertrude. Hamlet is not so kind to Claudius, on the other hand, not because Claudius is unkind to him but because he feels like a Ham-let, a little Ham with but “most weak hams”, impotent in the face of the potentate father — the Phallus. Both Hamlet and Claudius are, however, of the same kind, they have a beastly desire to possess this woman — Gertrude. The little Ham is thus plunged into melancholy (Shakespeare II, ii, 597). Robert Burton, Shakespeare’s contemporary, in the Anatomy of Melancholy argues that melancholy “embraced everything from raving lunacy to philosophical and occasional pessimism.” In this play, we at times find Hamlet lost in “philosophical and occasional pessimism” and “raving lunacy”. This over-reflection by Hamlet can be considered a symptom of his melancholy rather than a cause of it.
What then causes this madness? Superficially (consciously), the cause is as Gertrude tells Claudius, “His father’s death and our over-hasty marriage” (Shakespeare II, ii, 57). However, deeply (consciously), the cause of little Ham’s madness is his libido, which transforms itself into an “ambition” to slay the father and own the mother, or a “bad dream” where his dead (spiritual) father wants him to kill his corporeal step- father. In an exchange of words with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Hamlet defines this “ambition” or “bad dream” as “but a shadow” (Shakespeare II, ii, 260) or “a shadow’s shadow” (Shakespeare II, ii, 262). In reality, this “shadow” represents Hamlet’s unattractive, dark aspects which his impulse rejects and rather projects on someone else—his dead father. Claudius sees “shadow as “a villain” (Shakespeare III, iii, 76 & 77). It is this shadow that makes “the goodly frame the earth” (Shakespeare II, ii, 298) seem like “a sterile promontory” to Hamlet (Shakespeare II, ii, 99). And it is the same shadow, too, that eventually drives Hamlet to kill Claudius as the “incestuous, murderous, damned Dane” (Shakespeare V, ii, 330).
In Act II Scene 2, Polonius says “there is method” while referring to Hamlet’s madness (Shakespeare II, ii, 205), and in Act III scene 4, Hamlet tells his mother that “…I essentially am, not in madness, But mad in craft…” (Shakespeare III, iv, 189-90). When he hears Bernado, Marcellus and Horatio’s story on the ghost, Hamlet certainly shows no signs of madness. Instead, he is prudent enough not to tell his friends what transpired between him and the ghost. He is discreet and forces them to swear not to reveal anything about what they had seen. In the face of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Hamlet is all judicious. He suspects immediately that the two are Claudius’s spies. He goes ahead to taunt them with worldly wisdom, and eventually schemes to save himself and send them to death. Only an intelligent and scheming man can manage to do this to his adversaries.
In addition, Hamlet has the wits to orchestrate the performance of “the Murder of Gonzago”, adding in lines of his own, and instruct the players on acting techniques. For example, he asks the actors, “…You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in't, could you not?...” (Shakespeare II, ii, 565). His question is simple and direct, and so are his instructions, which the actors not only seem to understand, but are also comfortable with when Hamlet asks them. He also goes ahead and privately sets Horatio to watch how the King reacts to the play, and consequently succeeds in testing the King’s conscience. He tells Horatio, "…Give him heedful note, for I mine eyes will rivet his face, and, after, we will both our judgments join in censure of his seeming…” (Shakespeare III, ii, 87).
Later on, Hamlet weighs down the idea of killing Claudius while he is praying, with remorse. The excuse that killing him in prayer would consequently send him to heaven at such a repentant moment is definitely a sign of a sound practical mind. He can, however, be said to have been “mad with anger” when he finally runs Claudius through with a rapier, forcing him to drink the poisoned liquor. It can be argued that in this case Hamlet is in a situation that demands a righteous act of vengeance. No one can, therefore, consider him a lunatic just for this final scene.
On the other hand, Hamlet acts completely sane in circumstances where feigning insanity is unnecessary. Hamlet gets the idea of feigning insanity, after meeting his father’s ghost, from Horatio. Horatio tells him, “…What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff that beetles o'er his base into the sea, and there assume some other horrible form, Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason and draw you into madness? Think of it…” (Shakespeare I, iv, 69-74). Hamlet responds, “How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on…” (Shakespeare II, i, 170-179). From this strategy by Hamlet, one thing is certain. It is the reason why he decided to feign insanity, or put on this “antic disposition”. It has the expression of his rational personality, which has nothing to do with his mental state. This plan could only emanate from a rational, intelligent mind.
Many characters, throughout the play hint at Hamlet’s insanity, or doubt it to some extent. However, they play along with his insanity for their own reasons. In Act II scene 2, Ophelia rushes quickly to Polonius accusing Hamlet of intruding into her private quarters. However, Polonius assumes the essence of Hamlet’s madness to be his love for Ophelia, by telling her: “…This is the very ecstasy of love, whose violent property fordoes itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings as oft as any passion under heaven that does afflict our natures. I am sorry…” (Shakespeare II, ii, 203). He then declares it to the Claudius the King, your noble son is mad: Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, what is't but to be nothing else but mad?” (Shakespeare II, ii, 93-94). However, in the Fishmonger scene Polonius says to himself, "…Though this be madness, yet there is method in't…” (Shakespeare II, ii, 203-4). This evidences the fact that Polonius wants to remain close to Claudius and the royal family’s inner circle, and does not honestly believe that Hamlet is indeed mad. The King also has his doubts regarding Hamlet’s insanity. He says to Polonius, “…Love! His affections do not that way tend; nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little, Was not like madness. There's something in his soul, o’er which his melancholy sits on brood; And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose…” (Shakespeare III, i, 176-180). Despite this knowledge, for his own wicked purpose, Claudius declares Hamlet a madman, as an excuse for sending him to England. Claudius is aware that Hamlet is adored by the people of Denmark, and that if he kills him in this “brief” period of madness, the people will question him and probably turn against him.
In Act III Scene 2, Hamlet is summoned by his mother Gertrude. She urges him to let his emotions take over and to remain as non-physical as possible, considering her realization how strongly he feels about her involvement with his uncle, Claudius the King. While alone, Hamlet says to himself, “…Let me be cruel, not unnatural: I will speak daggers to her, but use none; my tongue and soul in this be hypocrites…” (Shakespeare III, ii, 387-388). In the next scene, after slaying Polonius who is hiding behind the curtains haunted by the King’s ghost, he sees no need to feign insanity anymore. To prove his sanity, he tells his mother of Claudius’ guilt. He says, in a manner truer to his own self, “…it is not madness that I have utter'd: bring me to the test, and I the matter will re-word; which madness would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,…” (Shakespeare III, iv, 143-146). He then goes ahead to ask his mother for forgiveness "…Forgive me this my virtue, for in the fatness of these pursy times virtue itself of vice must pardon beg..." (Shakespeare III, iv, 154-156). This shows that Hamlet can act as himself even in the heat of the moment. Hamlet’s mother, even after all this, does not profess his sanity. Evidently, she sees what is actually ailing her son: not a broken mind, but a broken heart.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet transcends Aristotle’s conventional demands for a tragic hero’s hamartia, but also uses the exterior influences, for instance, his father’s death. Hamlet’s tragedy is brought out by many factors, but especially by his intelligence, even though some sections of the audience might believe that his delusion is “mare madness”. So I suppose there is still “method in’t” — in this madness. Whether Hamlet’s tragedy was a tragedy of intelligence, or a simple case of melancholy, you be the judge.
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