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Several Interpretations of the Play "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare

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Hamlet by William Shakespeare is written about a prince named Hamlet that is seeking to find revenge over the his father’s murder. In Act 1, Scene 5 of the play Hamlet encounters his late father’s ghost, the ghost reveals that he was murdered by his brother Claudius who is now the king. The ghost requests Hamlet to avenge his death. Hamlet wants to investigate his father’s death and does so by disguising his real feelings by putting on an “antic disposition”. Hamlet’s goal is act mad to not raise suspicion that he knows the ghost’s secret in order to achieve his goal of revenge. However, The audience is left with the mystery of how much of Hamlet’s insanity is feigned.

This aspect of the play appears in several interpretations of the play such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s film, Kenneth Branagh’s film, and in the Educational theatre journal. In the original play after Hamlet encounters the ghost of his late father, he claims he will put on fits of madness in order to confuse Claudius, the king, “How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on)” (Act 1 Scene 5, L190-192).

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Hamlet makes Horatio swear that he will not tell a soul that they have encountered the ghost of his father: “ That you, at such times seeing me, never shall—With arms encumbered thus, or this headshake, Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase, As “Well, well, we know,” or “We could an if we would,” Or “If we list to speak,” or “There be an if they might,” Or such ambiguous giving out—to note that you know aught of me.” (Act 1 Scene 5, L193-200). Hamlet does not want anyone to question the madness he will possess and relies on Horatio to keep his secret. During Polonius’s conversation with the Claudius and Gertrude he states that he is convinced that Hamlet is mad: “That his mad tis’ true; ‘tis pity, and pity tis ‘tis true – a foolish figure.” (Act 2 Scene 2, L105-106). However, Claudius and Polonius later discuss their mutual suspicion towards Hamlets insanity by stating:“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” (Act 2 Scene 2, L182).

Polonius is realizing Hamlet’s madness has a tactic behind it, and that it does not appear to be disjointed insanity. Hamlet shows an act of madness when he persuades actors to put on a play for his Uncle and the Queen, reenacting the story that the Ghost has told him about his father’s death in hopes that Claudius will confess. In The Imagery in Hamlet – Acting section in the Educational Theatre Journal, Jacqueline E. M. Latham analyzes Hamlet in the way she believes Shakespeare wants the audience to interpret it. She describes how Shakespeare’s emphasis on imagery and acting characterizes Hamlet. Lathan believes Hamlet’s “antic disposition’ was a tactic he used to escape the troubles of reality by entering into his own imaginary world, to convince himself that he is eliminating real life consequences of his actions. This scholarly article discusses how Hamlet’s response to the ghost’s orders should not be surprising based on his personality shown throughout the play: “Once we perceive this aspect of of Hamlet’s character, his love for poisoning and of seeing things with a producer’s and choreographers eye, we should not be surprised by his reaction to the ghosts command” (Latham, 198).

Lathan believes that Hamlet insisting on his friends to keep his secret is melodramatic, he continues to lead his friends on but constantly asks them to swear that they will keep his secret. When Hamlet begins to apply his disguise of the “antic disposition” Lathan believes it does harm to his mission: “ The “antic disposition” protects Hamlet’s mind from from taint in accordance with the ghost’s injunction, but it does this only in so far as it releases it from the possible conjunction of the real world.” (Latham, 200). Hamlet is getting pleasure from the thought of revenge, he entered a world where he believes madness has no consequence. She claims Hamlet is escaping his problems by using madness as a coping mechanism.

Hamlet has been adapted into films such as The Royal Shakespeare Company’s version in 2009, and Kenneth Branagh’s version in 1996. Each director and actor interpreted and portrayed the story and characters in different ways. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production the scene where Hamlet encounters the ghost is set inside the castle in a hallway. Hamlet begins to act mad before he mentions he will be putting on an antic disposition, announcing his decision in an absurd and foolish manner. He used hand movements and strange facial expressions to emphasize the description of how he is going to act in the future. The way the actor portrays Hamlet in this scene shows it is not disjointed insanity. Insanity was portrayed in dramatic outbursts in this film, with a goal of installing confusion in the characters. However, Hamlet was acting mad in situations where the people he was trying to decieve were not present. This leads the audience to question how much of Hamlet’s insanity was feigned and how much was not.

In Kenneth Branagh’s production of Hamlet He is portrayed as a serious and straightforward person, and this was reflected when he was explaining to Horatio that he will put on an antic disposition. In this version of the film Hamlet approaches describing how he will act insane in a serious manner shown through facial expressions and vocal techniques. Although Branagh’s version demonstrates a more sane Hamlet, the portrayal of antic disposition is more dramatic in this film. He uses it to install fear in the other characters in attempt to persuade them into giving him more information about his father. Hamlet also was trying to fulfill his father’s orders in the film, even though he was not in the original play. The question to how much of Hamlet’s madness is feigned is still a mystery due to everyone having a different interpretation. The article by Lathan only analyzed the madness in Hamlet’s character, while The Royal Shakespeare Company’s version portrayed Hamlet as legitmentaly insane while Kenneth Branagh’s version portrayed feigned insanity.

My personal opinion is that it truly started as “antic disposition” and eventually, due to the emotional strain and sadness placed upon him, Hamlet’s mental state deteriorated and he began showing symptoms of dementia.


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