Hamlet, written between 1599-1601, continues posing the same question is Hamlet really mad? As we know, the general speculations have left not a verse undissected. I’m, therefore, going to add nothing new to an old debate, but will include the most fundamental triggers contributing to his ‘supposed’ madness, and shall offer a summary of my personal analysis – and why not, since it is a day in which to remember The Bard, who after 400 years, still, walks the earth through the virtue of his esteemed works. And, if Hamlet who is my favourite Shakespearean character, the most famous and complex prince on the globe, had not been careful deliberating his actions he might have lingered his ‘spirit’ long after his death on earth, too. Like that of his creator’s, except for Shakespeare’s is immortalised in art but Hamlet risked an eternity of damnation.
The triggers to Hamlet’s madness are linked to a succession of events:
1. The death of his father 2. Seeing the ghost of his father 3. The ‘hasty’ marriage of his mother to his uncle (father’s brother), and 4. His uncle’s move to the throne
Hamlet’s considerations and state of mind following the visitation of his father’s ghost
Doubt – whether he saw the ghost of his father or the apparition of his own mind, which pivoted the implications on Criminality v Moral Duty – The murder of his father was suggested through his ‘perturbed spirit’. Alerting Hamlet to foul play, damnation and how it would wonder the face of the earth for eternity unless it was put to ‘rest’ by avenging its murder. As per, the religious believes of the time of Hamlet’s writing, Hamlet felt duty bound to liberate the tormented spirit by taking the life of the murderer, if and when he established the facts
Doubt – about his uncle’s possible ‘murderous’ actions, versus, Hamlet’s own possible future ‘villainy’ and the spiritual implications of killing an innocent man. If he were mistaken about the ghost then he too would be damned.
Hamlet’s state of mind was: Grief, melancholy, despair, confusion, anger, anxiety, fear and doubt
Hamlet was forced to contemplate his uncle’s criminal action, versus, the redemption of his father’s soul in the context of a spiritual framework without room for error. Lest, both souls and that of an innocent man’s be damned as well. In investigating his father’s death, he needed to establish if a murder had, indeed, taken place and if so, who was the murderer?
Spurred on by retributive duty and the reinstatement of restoration resting solely on him Hamlet’s life turned into hell on earth, engendering him in solitude and melancholy that he quickly become disenchantment with life and its beauty. His world transformed into an emotional, psychological and spiritual vacuum brilliantly personified in Denmark’s mass of ”corruption” that was wringing his heart and dominating his mind.
At the same time, Ophelia, his beloved and betrothed, had suffered Hamlet’s rejections, repeated humiliation and cruelty. He was seemingly unrequiting her love, by which shattering her mind, and dimming her heart to a world that would become absent of her beloved Hamlet’s affections. A rapid descend into madness plunged Othelia in a floral lake where she sought closure. Though Hamlet dearly loved her he was powerless to save her, from himself, or from an existence he viewed was consumed by “rankness” and “corruption” where everything was subject to the same state – “get thee to a nunnery”, he tells her.
The action of the play begins with Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost. It marks Hamlet’s turning point and the inception of his torment. For the reader, it realised his deepest apprehensions in an exclamation when pondering the matter of his father’s murder, in which he had succinctly summed up reluctance towards his subsequent actions which he, obviously, had felt were thrust upon him,
“O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!” (Act5 Sc:1)
And further described himself as being “betwixt heaven and hell”.
He was torn between the worldly and the metaphysical, existing in neither one nor the other, but in a state “betwixt” the two – could you just imagine that for a moment.
Returning his father’s spirit to grace was no small matter – suspended between ‘heaven and hell’ and compelled by Morality towards an obligatory but tragic and fateful path. The above lines illuminate the severity of Hamlet’s conflictual reality, and it is through such metaphors that one can begin to accurately understand his state and what was really going on in his mind.
It is this state, for me, which is the key to understanding the crux of his distress, which is as distant from madness as we are from the truth. Considering that Hamlet was grieving, and experiencing extreme spiritual and emotional turbulence, he still exercised acute ‘reason’. His very reactions of ‘suspicion and doubt’, instinct and behavioural control showed a rational and strong mind under the affliction of trauma.
Hamlet’s painful awareness surrounding the King’s death, was surely sufficient enough to fracture his mind, but it only fuelled his anxiety and distress, and caused his emotional and behavioural aberrations.
Hamlet had to contend with his inability to forgive his mother and the pain of her ‘hasty’ and ‘incestuous’ marriage to the late King’s brother. Who had not only usurped the throne, but in effect he stripped Denmark of its rightful kings. The gravity and enormity of these life changing events are clear and so are likely temporarily personality alterations, but not necessarily sanity.
We saw how Hamlet demonstrated sharpened wit, mental dexterity and sound faculties, as well as perceptive clarity. We saw the way in which he established whether his father–in–law was his father’s murderer – the mouse trap was a genius device needless to say. It set the stage, exposed and ensnared the villain and proceeded to the bloody denouement, the tragic peak. But prior that, Hamlet determined the truth beyond ‘reasonable’ doubt, identified the murderer before enacting his moral obligation, displaying sanity not the loss of reason, or, the madness of an extraordinary protagonist.
Of Hamlet’s death, Hamlet said, “I am dead, Horatio” – I just love this line.
What do you think?
NB: Tragedy – a distinction.
Hamlet is a Tragedy, a Revenge Tragedy, which is slightly different from the classical Greek Tragedy. Technically speaking, Hamlet’s circumstances were driven by choice, rather than destiny, which is the major difference between the two. The heros of Greek Tragedy and their circumstances, are usually determined by something larger than life, such as in the prophecy of Oedipus, where it was ordained that he would kill his father and marry his mother.