Hamlet: Man-Child or Mad Man?

The panel discussions we engaged in brought up some interesting ideas, many of which I wanted to delve further into.  Hamlet’s madness, which he himself proclaims to be a plot device, seems more central to the play than merely “he is or he is not.” Hamlet tells his friends that he will pretend to be mad. His act is extremely convincing, though. Is it really an act, or does Hamlet slip into madness during the play? In order to answer this question fully, we have to begin by operating with a functioning definition of what “madness” is. Merriam-Webster defines it two ways:

: a state of severe mental illness
: behavior or thinking that is very foolish or dangerous

In class, I asked whether Hamlet would be perceived as “guilty” of crimes or whether he should be forgiven, at least in part, because of circumstance and mental illness which could serve as a mitigating factor.  The panel was divided.  Raymond argued that Hamlet was justified while Olivia F. maintained that he was not. In my, perhaps overly empathetic view, Hamlet’s madness could have definitely served as a mitigating factor in removing charges against him in the murder of Polonius.  Under terms of law, Hamlet would fall under two mitigating factors: “Unusual Circumstance” and “Difficult Personal History.” Hamlet stabbed Polonius in frustration and believed it to be Claudius who killed his actual father.  The old saying “crime begets crime” comes to mind here.  In such unusual circumstances, madness can manifest itself in a variety of ways, either through violence or erratic behavior, and I wholeheartedly believe that Hamlet’s “madness” was more than just an act.

Hamlet’s madness, conveyed as a pseudo-mental illness, is manifest in his plans with which appear erratic and ill-conceived.  The panel mostly agreed that Hamlet was not mad, citing that he was very capable of rational thinking.  Most notabl(e)y (strumpet), they cited Act 2, scene 2 wherein Hamlet stated, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”(II.ii.591-592). To point back to the Webster definition, it specifies that “madness” is also behavior that is “very foolish or dangerous.” People who are mad or mentally ill are capable of coming up with elaborate plots; in fact, most mass-shootings appear on the surface well-organized.  However, what makes the individual and his/her plot mad is the total lack of foresight over the outcome of the plot.  In this case, Hamlet was potentially exposing to Claudius that he was aware of his father’s demise.  This sets off a whole chain of events including Claudius’s attempt to send Hamlet off to England and the poisoning of the cup.  Similarly, “madmen” conduct mass-shootings but leave the evidence all over their hands, showing lack of concern over their potential criminal conviction. A similar lack of foresight becomes obvious when Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius but resolves to find him “when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed”(III.iii.89-91). Knowing full-well that his was his prime opportunity to murder Claudius with no one else around, Hamlet clearly shows that he is unable to fully execute the murder. Although foresight brings him to the conclusion that murdering Claudius while praying would send him to heaven, he neglects what he already knows which is that Claudius is an ill-intentioned individual. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the scene is when Claudius states, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go”(III.iii.96-97).  Hamlet abandons his proper judgment regarding Claudius’s behavior.  Instead, he opts for”foolish” and “dangerous” behavior, allowing more time to pass and ultimately allowing his plot to fail.

Hamlet’s interactions with others appear to indicate legitimate mental-illness, one that seems to go beyond an act. Although the initial encounter between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Gildenstern appears the most normal in the play, there remains some elements of mental uncertainty.  Hamlet remarks that “Denmark is a prison” (II.ii.239). Here we see traces of depression from Hamlet, which would not be significant except that Hamlet has no incentive to pretend to be someone else around R & G.  In essence, Hamlet is in his truest forms around these friends, and thus gives insight into his deepest emotions.  Remarking that Denmark is a prison is a benign statement that reveals is lack of emotional-soundness that motivates him to act erratically. To contrast this initial interaction with R & G later, Hamlet makes vague statements regarding the whereabouts of Polonius; Hamlet responds to their inquiries with, “the body is with the Kind, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing—“(IV.ii.25-27). Hamlet plays into the idea kingship–articulating that Polonius is with the kingdom but not the physical King.  This bizarre phrase conveys Hamlet’s erratic thought process and his inability to properly illustrate Polonius’ whereabouts.  Hamlet had the wrong approach from the beginning.  Despite his insistence that his behavior was an act, exposing to Claudius that he knew his father’s condition unfolded his entire plan.  Had he been truly mentally sound, the decision to “act crazy” might not have been made at all.

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