The theme of madness particularly that of Hamlet’s is a major theme and mystery throughout the play. Shakespeare presents Hamlet’s state of mind in such a way that it is not clear whether his disturbed symptoms of madness are a genuine ailment or if Hamlet is as he warned his friends putting on an “antic disposition” (Act one, Scene five).
From the first scene in the play, Shakespeare creates a mood of anxiety and dread. The play begins with a question, creating ambiguity, Francisco’s statement “For I am sick at heart,” (line nine,scene one, act one) is not only quite morbid but also unexplained, the way Shakespeare writes with these broken rhythms and conversations that don’t flow generates an apprehensive atmosphere.
The first suggestion of Hamlet’s madness is after he has seen the ghost; Hamlet warns his friend’s (Horatio and Marcellus) that he may:” Put on ‘an antic disposition”
and act mad in order to conceal his revenge instructed by the ghost, therefore Hamlet is already suggesting that he is going to ‘act mad’ giving doubt that his madness is genuine later on. For example in Act two, Scene one, Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s behaviour resembles play-acting:
“His knee’s knocking each other
And with a look so piteous in purport,
As if he had been loosed out of hell.”
It is almost inevitable that Ophelia would inform her Father of Hamlet’s behaviour who would then tell Claudius, which could be the reason why Hamlet used Ophelia to ‘perform’ to.
From the start of the play Hamlet’s behaviour indicates he is not afraid of being the only one in a minority of opinion he is still in mourning for his Father and wears black and stays loyal to his Father’s memory by defending himself against Claudius, who says to him: (Act one, Scene two, lines 94-97)
“Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled.”
Claudius attempts to patronize Hamlet into accepting what has happened to his family. The audience could take Claudius’ suggestion as being reasonable and that Hamlet’s “Obstinate condolement” (Line 93), is evidence of a “mind impatient,” (Line 96), especially as no one else in Elsinore seems to be mourning the King’s death. However hamlet’s mourning is justified as we learn in Act one, Scene two, that his Father’s death was only a short time ago, and that Claudius and Gertrude married with haste after his death, Horatio’s and Hamlet’s conversation verifies this:
Horatio:”My Lord I came to see your Father’s funeral,”
Hamlet: “I prithee do not mock me, fellow student. I think it was to
see my Mother’s wedding.”
Horatio: “Indeed my Lord, it followed hard upon.”
Hamlet demonstrates his bitterness of how soon his Mother and Uncle married after his Father’s death. By accusing Horatio of returning for the wedding and not the funeral shows he does feel alone in his mourning, not only that but he is also aware that Claudius had murdered his Father.
Hamlet’s isolation in being the only one moral and loyal to his Father is likely to cause madness of some kind. For example his grief in mourning for his Father in itself makes people prone to madness, as we later see from Ophelia’s reaction to Polonius’ death. However Hamlet has also got to deal with the betrayal of his Mother for marrying his Uncle, and the huge betrayal of his Uncle who not only has murdered his Father but also then hastily took his position as King and husband to Gertrude.
Hamlet is also having to keep the treacherous secret of his Father’s death to himself while he attempts to plot revenge. Overall Hamlet whether genuinely mad or not certainly has enough to be so angry and confused about that madness would certainly be warranted.
This is supported by Gertrude’s admission to her Husband in Act two, scene two, (line 57), that Hamlet’s, ‘distemper’, is most likely the result of:
“His Father’s death,
and (their) o’er hasty marriage.”
Gertrude’s clear affection for Hamlet and genuine concern for him suggests she has nothing to do with the murder of the late King Hamlet and that the whole plot is Claudius’ doing alone.
There are points in the play where Shakespeare seems to imply that Hamlet’s madness is not genuine, for example in Act five, scene five, we see Shakespeare’s presentation of ‘pure madness’ through Ophelia, which is clearly different to Hamlet’s behaviour suggesting Hamlet’s ‘madness’ is false. When Claudius sees Ophelia behaving this way he says:
‘divided from herself and her fair judgement,
Without the which we are pictures or mere
Here Claudius sees Ophelia’s madness and suggests her mind is separated from her judgement and her actions, certainly appearing a more genuine case of madness than Hamlet’s.
Similarly to Claudius’ description of madness Hamlet describes his own feelings when he describes his own madness to Laertes:
“If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong
Then Hamlet does it not. Hamlet denies it
Who does it then? His madness.”
However this confession to Laertes cannot be reliable even though it is similar to Claudius’ description of Ophelia’s behaviour. If Hamlet is genuinely mad then it is not likely he would be able to evaluate his madness in such a way, it is possible that he would be more likely to say this if he was “putting his ‘madness’ on”, as he would have to have some understanding of how madness can make people act to make his ‘false madness’ believable anyway.
In Act 2, Scene 4, Hamlet again implies he isn’t genuinely mad by demonstrating his sanity to his Mother:
“A bloody deed- almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a King and marry with his brother”
Shakespeare uses imagery to present the corruption of Gertrude’s and Claudius’ incestuous relationship:
” In the rank of an enseamï¿½d bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying
And making love, over the nasty
Hamlet appears to be in complete control of what he says, offends his Mother and tells her what he thinks of her, again showing he is not afraid of defending his morals.
The powerful language he uses really creates the image of corruption and sin, the words he uses are all imagery of disease and filth, the word ‘rank’ gives an image of a really disgusting smell revolving around sin. ‘Stewed in corruption’,’ honeying’, ‘nasty’ and ‘sty’ all create images of real dishonesty, corrupting disease. A sty is an infection and the word ‘honeying’ almost creates an image of ‘infected puss’ oozing out of a wound.
In this scene Hamlet does seem mad with anger and jealousy perhaps a more accurate description of his behaviour.
However in Act 5, scene 1, the Queen knowing it’s not true pretends her son is truly mad,
“This is mere madness,”
The Queen does this either to excuse what he did to Polonius or because she doesn’t want anyone to believe what Hamlet said about Claudius murdering her late husband, king Hamlet. Claudius also suggests Hamlet is mad in this scene:
“O, he is mad Laertes”
Claudius does this to protect himself, he knows Hamlet is a threat to him and also uses Hamlet’s behaviour as a front by insisting it is true madness.