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Hamlet's Insanity in Shakespeare's Play: Signs of Its Simulation

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In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, insanity is seen as an illness that shifts the mind into absolute madness. This ‘illness’ strips the mind of reason and awareness, creating grave disturbance for a human begin. Throughout various points during the play, Hamlet is convincingly portrayed as a madman, which leads many to believe that he is. However, the way Hamlet deals with each of the tragedies in his life, indicate otherwise. He shows rationality and level-headedness despite great distress and the manner in which he deliberately pretends to be mad in order to avenge his father’s murder and kill Claudius in return. For the duration of the play, Hamlet consistently displays reasoning and planning. This behavior indicates that Hamlet is aware of his actions. Despite what he portrays and what he says during the play, he, which becomes confusing, Hamlet manages to persistently manage these depictions to the audience. Hamlet’s apparent descent into madness is strikingly convincing. Nevertheless, his mind continues to maintain balance giving the impression that his ‘insanity’ is not present.

Hamlet gets the idea to pretend to be insane from Horatio’s warning when he meets his father’s spirit. For example, when Horatio says ‘What if it tempts 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?’ (I.4.69-74) Also, when Hamlet says, ‘How strange or odd soever I bear myself, /As I perchance hereafter shall think to meet To put an antic disposition on..’. (II.1.170-179). In the previously mentioned quotes, Hamlet has essentially said to Horatio that irrelevant of how he may be acting, he must never mention this incident in any way, even though Hamlet may find it appropriate to act erratically at moments. Even though the effectiveness of this strategy can be debated, one thing is for sure, he intends to pretend to lose his mind because, under the pretense of insanity, he will have a license to say and do unexpected or otherwise concerning things. For this reason, one is led to believe that Hamlet is a very well thought out and rational man, which can only be true of a sane man.

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Hamlets ‘antic-disposition’ allows him to express his feelings, formulate new plans, and to gain information, while keeping people from taking his actions seriously, in order to kill Claudius. Hamlet’s act of feigning madness allows him to speak his mind behind the appearance of madness so that no one may be suspicious of him. Hamlet appears insane when he blatantly makes sexual remarks towards Ophelia: ‘That’s a fair thought toile between maids’ legs (3.2.125)’. By asserting his feelings, he manages to elicit reactions from Gertrude and Claudius, and this is precisely what he wants. In the case with Polonius during the fishmonger scene, he states: ‘You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal’ (2.2.233). This scene allows Hamlet to vent some of his true feelings in relative safety without fear of suspicion or retaliation. Furthermore, Hamlet uses his madness as an excuse, a part of his apology, towards Laertes for murdering Polonius. A genuinely insane man would not be able to conceive such elaborate thoughts. In all of the instances as mentioned earlier, Hamlet’s insanity sham is to not only to detour them from the motive involving Claudius, but it also allows Hamlet to insult them all, making it seem like he has a ‘fevered brain’.

Another reason to believe Hamlet has not become insane is that in moments when he needs to act sane, he can do so, almost like a switch. When he talks to Horatio about watching Claudius for signs of guilt during the play, he says, ‘Give him a heedful note, for I mine eyes will rivet his face, and, after, we will both our judgments join in censure of his seeming’ (3.2.87). A madman would not have had the foresight, reason, or possibly even care, to think in this organized fashion, leading one once again to believe that Hamlet is, in fact, not insane. He does not have reason to act insane with Horatio since he considers him a close friend, who is intelligent enough to distinguish between when Hamlet is honestly acting himself and when he is pretending to be insane. As he is explaining to the players how to behave, one can also observe the level of organization and comfort in his speech. For example, he asks, ‘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?’ (2.2.565). His question is direct and straightforward as all his instructions are, and it seems that the player not only understands Hamlet, but he is also is comfortable with Hamlet and what he asks. It is more credible to say that a sane man could portray an insane one, rather than the other way around, and so the reason it appears would deem Hamlet sensible.

Aside from his display of intellectuality and quick wits in discussions, most importantly, he uses his intelligence exceedingly well in practical terms. When his madness blurs reality and shrouds truth, Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what ‘unknown afflicts [Hamlet] thus (II.ii.17)’. When he speaks to them, Hamlet is smart enough to realize their real purpose for visiting. In a manner that comes off as insane, he tells them that he is, in fact, not mad, ‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw. (2.2.401)’. The expression regarding how he ‘knows a hawk from a handsaw’ (II, ii, 378) can be a reference to be able to make fine distinctions, or it can represent the difference between his friends, the hawks, which are valuable companions, and handsaws, which are merely tools. This is supported by Hamlet’s change in mood from usual to erratic once he became suspicious of his former friends as potential spies. Hamlet shows divine intelligence as he can toy with his friends and camouflage his thoughts and goals with the behavior he was portraying, which in turn frees him from their questioning. In a later scene, he is even able to have them killed in his place using his father’s seal, through a method cunning even for a sane man, let alone an insane one.

Finally, further evidence of Hamlet’s sanity is shown when one compares him with someone whose behavior is genuinely maniacal, like Ophelia’s behavior after Hamlet spoke angrily towards her, and her father died. She began to sing and speak nonsensically, with only ‘half sense: her speech is nothing’ (IV, v, 7), without any of the hidden meaning that characterizes Hamlet’s seeming-nonsensicality. The outcome of the situation leads to Ophelia has become deranged, while Hamlet carries on a rational progression throughout all of his actions and words.

In conclusion, Hamlet is indeed sane but feigned his madness as part of his lucrative plan to attain vengeance for his father’s murder. Hamlet’s presumed insanity justifies destructive action. Hamlet has some tricks up his sleeve and thinks long and hard about his moves regarding the image he is portraying of madness. Exhibited in many situations, Hamlet consistently shows an intelligent and resourceful mind, carefully planning his actions and rationalizing his thoughts. For these reasons, one is led to believe that Hamlet is not genuinely insane, but rather a mere act of play.

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