In Shakespeare's original play, Hamlet, Lord Hamlet is approached by the ghost of his late father and told that Claudius, the new king, poisoned him. Hamlet begins a crazy quest to avenge his father’s death, but does so in the most unorthodox way. He portrays to others insanity and successfully convinces his friends and remaining family that he has gone truly mad. Shakespeare’s inclusivity of insanity was intentional and while Hamlet’s plan for revenge makes him seem as though he’s insane, he is actually quite intelligent for developing it in the first place.
One must first explore the roots of revenge in order to understand Hamlet’s complex, vengeful mindset. Revenge is often difficult to define, but the easiest way to comprehend it is through the way others react in a time of personal crisis. In a study done to determine the cause and effects of revenge, “...Results indicate revenge activities are distinguished by goals reflecting an overarching desire to dominate targets. Although respondents reported experiencing anger, fearful anxiety, and remorse after enacting revenge, emotion was particularly strong following defaming the target’s reputation and removing the target’s personal resources,” (Goals and Emotional). Hamlet’s reputation was defamed and his personal resources were removed the second Claudius killed his brother, King Hamlet. It is explained further in the study that revenge is a direct effect of instigation, not a development of insanity. This proves the idea that Hamlet isn’t insane but using emotions as a cover to accomplish his goal.
Shakespeare establishes early in the play that Hamlet has a plan for revenge. When the ghost of his father arrives and tells him how he died, he immediately develops a strategy. Hamlet returns from speaking with the ghost and tells Horatio, his most trusted ally, “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on-” (Act I Scene V 191). Hamlet explains he will begin showing abnormal behavior, and they don’t need to be worried for his well-being. If Hamlet’s mental health was truly on edge, his reaction to this news would’ve been much different. An insane person would’ve seeked confrontation and went to the King almost immediately, but Hamlet’s reaction is rational and sound. This scene in specific showcases Hamlet’s intelligence because he understands that having a plan instead of instantly acting on his emotions will lead to a favorable and more productive outcome.
After the plan is completed, Hamlet begins executing it. Polonius, Ophelia’s father and trusty advisor to the King, misreads the causes of Hamlet’s forced lunacy as romantic rejection. After being refused by Ophelia, Polonius explains that Hamlet, “Fell into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watch, thence into a weakness, thence to a lightness, and by this declension, into the madness wherein he now raves,”. Polonius is incorrect, but this was Shakespeare’s intention. Shakespeare understood that rejection, just like many other emotions, can take a toll on the mind. Take Hamlet’s unforgettable soliloquy, for example. Hamlet became overwhelmed with the plan for revenge and the task he was assigned became a burden too heavy to carry. When he begins to contemplate suicide, it’s easy to assume it was due to his fabricated insanity turning legitimate. However, it is normal and a sign of intelligence to question your mental health. Someone dealing with tragedy and grief would struggle to maintain their composure in a scenario such as Hamlet’s, and he cannot be considered crazy for working through his thoughts aloud. Hamlet’s “insanity” was an intentional part of his personality, but overall a fictitious ploy to accomplish his plan of revenge. Hamlet wouldn't have been able to pull off his scheme if he wasn’t intelligent and throughout the triumphs, Hamlet used his intelligence to maintain composure and avenge his father’s death.
- “Goals and Emotional Outcomes of Revenge Activities in Interpersonal Relationships.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0265407507072592.