Hamlet In Detail

In both Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with
two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The
madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the
contrapuntal character in each play, namely Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King
Lear, acts as a balancing argument to the other characters madness or sanity.


King Lears more decisive distinction between Lears frailty of mind and
Edgars contrived madness works to better define the relationship between
Ophelias breakdown and Hamlets “north-north-west” brand of
insanity. Both plays offer a character on each side of sanity, but in Hamlet the
distinction is not as clear as it is in King Lear. Using the more explicit
relationship in King Lear, one finds a better understanding of the relationship
in Hamlet. While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelias insanity (or
breakdown) against Hamlets madness, there is instead a clear definitiveness
in Ophelias condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlets madness.

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Obviously, Hamlets character offers more evidence, while Ophelias
breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers
clear evidence pointing to Hamlets sanity beginning with the first scene of
the play. Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give
credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his fathers ghost in private,
the argument for his madness would greatly improve. Yet, not one, but three men
together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio
says, being the only of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the
play, “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and
true avouch / Of mine own eyes. (I.i.56-8)” Horatio, who appears frequently
throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when
framing the King with his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost
alone detracts somewhat from its credibility, but all the men are witness to the
ghost demanding they speak alone. Horatio offers an insightful warning: What if
it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles oer his base into the sea, And there assume some other horrible
form Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness?
Think of it. (I.iv.69-74) Horatios comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea
to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that the
ghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King and speaks to Hamlet
rationally. There is also good reason for the ghost not to want the guards to
know what he tells Hamlet, as the play could not proceed as it does if the
guards were to hear what Hamlet did. It is the ghost of Hamlets father who
tells him, “but howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind.

(I.v.84-5)” Later, when Hamlet sees the ghost again in his mothers room,
her amazement at his madness is quite convincing. Yet one must take into
consideration the careful planning of the ghosts credibility earlier in the
play. After his first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friends
cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than the devastation it really
is. Horatio: What news, my lord? Hamlet: O, wonderful! Horatio: Good my lord,
tell it. Hamlet: No, you will reveal it. (I.v.118-21) This is the first glimpse
of Hamlets ability and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve
effect. Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets
the guards know the severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Another
instance of Hamlets behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while
his uncle and Polonius are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlets affection for
Ophelia has already been established in I.iii., and his complete rejection of
her and what has transpired between them is clearly a hoax. Hamlet somehow
suspects the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz
are sent by the King and Queen to question him and investigate the cause of his
supposed madness in II.ii. Hamlets actions in the play after meeting the
ghost lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy, yet that madness is
continuously checked by an ever-present consciousness of action which never lets
him lose control. For example, Hamlet questions his conduct in his soliloquy at
the end of II.ii, but after careful consideration decides to go with his
instinct and prove to himself without a doubt the Kings guilt before
proceeding rashly. Even after the Kings guilt is proven with Horatio as
witness, Hamlet again reflects and uses his better judgement in the soliloquy at
the end of III.ii. before seeing his mother. He recognizes his passionate
feelings, but tells himself to “speak daggers to her, but use none,”
as his fathers ghost instructed. Again, when in the Kings chamber, Hamlet
could perform the murder, but decides not to in his better judgement to ensure
that he doesnt go to heaven by dying while praying. As Hamlet tells
Guildenstern in II.ii., “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This statement reveals out-right
Hamlets intent to fool people with his odd behavior. This is after Polonius
enlightened comment earlier in the same scene, “though this be madness, yet
there is method int.” Compare the copious evidence against Hamlets
madness with the complete lack of evidence for Ophelias sanity after her
fathers murder. Her unquestionable insanity puts Hamlets very questionable
madness in a more favorable light. In IV.v. she is quite obviously mad, and
unlike Hamlet there seems to be no method to her madness. All Ophelia can do
after learning of her fathers death is sing. Indeed, Hamlets utter
rejection of her combined with this is too much for her, and she doesnt sing
a mourning song at the beginning of IV.v, but rather a happy love song. Later,
when she meets with Leartes, she says to him: Theres rosemary, thats for
remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, thats for
thoughts. Leartes: A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.


Thought and afflictions, passion, hell itself, She turns to favor and to
prettiness. (IV.v.179-89) While the Queen tells Leartes that an “envious
sliver” broke and flung Ophelia into the river wearing a headdress of
wild-flowers (compare the mad Lears crown of weeds), the clowns in V.i.

confirm the readers suspicion that she did not die so accidentally: Is she to
be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation?
(V.i.1-2) Here lies the water; good. Here stands the man; good. If the man go to
this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes, mark you that.


But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself; argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life. (15-20)
Ophelias breakdown into madness and inability to deal with her fathers
death and Hamlets rejection is dealt with neatly and punctually. There is
little evidence against her madness, compared to Hamlets intelligent plotting
and use of witnesses to his actions. Thus, by defining true madness in Ophelia,
Shakespeare subtracts from the plausibility of Hamlets supposed insanity.


Comparing the juxtaposition of insanity and questioned sanity in King Lear
reveals another use of this device by Shakespeare. In King Lear the lines are
drawn more distinctly between sanity and insanity, allowing a sharper contrast
between the plays two versions of madness. Edgars soliloquy in II.iii.

communicates his intent to act and dress as a mad beggar: … Whiles I may scape
I will preserve myself, and am bethought To take the basest and most poorest
shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast. My face
Ill grime with filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots, And with
presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. (II.iii.5-12)
There is no question of Edgars intent here, and when they see this Bedlam
beggar in action, the audience is aware that it is Edgar and that he is not
really insane. As in Hamlet, the contrived madness is more spectacular than the
true madness. Edgar changes his voice, tears his clothes, and babbles on like a
genuine lunatic seeming in contrivance more genuine than Lear, the genuine
maniac. Just as Ophelias breakdown is believable because of her fathers
death and her rejection from Hamlet, Lears old age accounts for his frailty
of mind and rash, foolish decisions. The reader is given no motive for Lear to
tear his clothes off like a raving maniac or wear a crown of weeds and babble
like a fool other than his old age and incapability to deal with his inability
to act rationally. He realizes after being told for most of the play that he is
being a fool that perhaps his advisors are right. Only at this point, it has
long been clear to the reader that his madness is due to senility. In these two
plays, Shakespeare uses the dimmer light of reality to expose the brighter light
of contrivance. Hamlet and Edgar are dynamic, animated, and absurd in their
madness, making Lears and Ophelias true madness seem realistic rather than
absurd. Hamlet and Edgar both explicitly state the contrivance of their madness,
while Lear and Ophelia do not. Further, Hamlet and Edgar both have motive behind
leading others to believe they are insane. Although both are under severe
pressure and emotional strain due to their respective situations in each play,
they both show a remarkable amount of intelligent, conscious, and rational
decision-making in efforts to resolve their situations. In this way, they are
sharply contrasted with the mad Lear and Ophelia, whose insanity is not
questioned by themselves or other characters in either play. Neither after
displaying madness make any rational decisions that would lead the reader to
believe in their sanity. Thus, the argument that Hamlet is truly mad refutes his
ability to act rationally and discounts the dramatic device of Ophelia (as Lear
is to Edgar) as a contrapuntal example of true insanity. Hamlet one of
Shakespeare’s greatest plays, where the young prince of Denmark must uncover the
truth about his fathers death. Hamlet a play that tells the story of a young
prince who’s father recently died. Hamlets uncle Claudius marries his mother the
queen and takes the throne. As the play is told Hamlet finds out his father was
murdered by the recently crowned king. The theme that remains constant
throughout the play is appearance versus reality. Things within the play appear
to be true and honest but in reality are infested with evil. Many of the
characters within the play hide behind a mask of falseness. Four of the main
characters that hid behind this mask are Polonius, Rosencrantz (Guildenstern),
the king Cluadius. From behind this mask they give the impression of a person
who is sincere and genuine, in reality they are plagued with lies and evil.


There appearance will make it very difficult for Hamlet to uncover the truth,
the characters hide behind. Polonius the kings royal assistant has a
preoccupation with appearance. He always wants to keep up the appearance of
loving and caring person. Polonius appears like a man who loves and cares about
his son, Laertes. Polonius speaks to his son with advice that sounds sincere but
in reality it is rehearsed, hollow and without feeling. Polonius gives his
advice only to appear to be the loving caring father. The reality is he only
speaks to appear sincere as a politician, to look good rather then actually be
good: “And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine
own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then
be false to any man. Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!” Act 1
Polonius gives his son Laertes his blessing to go away, he sends a spy to follow
him and keep an eye on him. This shows his lack of trust for anyone, he gives
the appearance of a confident father who trusts his son to go off on his own. In
reality he lies about his trust for his son by sending a spy to watch him. His
advice he gives his son is rehearsed and only said to give the appearance of a
loving father. Polonius further adds to the theme appearance verses reality by
ordering Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet. He lies to her telling her that Hamlet
does not love her, he only lusts for her, in truth he does love her: Ay,
springes to catch woodcocks. I do know, When the blood burns , how prodigal the
soul Through the play Polonius hids behind his mask appearing to be honest
loving parent. In reality Polonius lies, manipulates people and eavesdrops on
peoples conversation. Polonius helps contribute to the theme appearance verses
reality by showing how his appearance is not his true nature, behind the mask
there lies someone totally different. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of
Hamlets childhood friends who when asked by the king, try to find out what is
troubling the young prince. Both help to contribute to the theme by showing
there appearance of being Hamlets friends. The pair go to Hamlet pretending to
be his friends when in truth they are only there because the king asked them to
find the truth. There is some irony within the twins, they are asked by the king
to find out the truth by hiding within a lie, by pretending to be his friend: A
dream is but a shadow Act II. Hamlet knows there purpose for their visit is to
dig into his soul to find the real reason for his actions as of late. As the
play continues the twins are asked again by the king to go to Hamlet and try
again to find the real reason for Hamlets behavior. Hamlet insults them at every
chance knowing they are lying to him about there purpose of the visit: Tis as
easy as lying; govern these ventages with you finger and thumb, give it breath
with your mouth…Act III As the melodrama continues Hamlet goes with the twins
to reclaim money that another state owes Denmark. Hamlet is sent by the king to
retrieve the assets. In actuality Hamlet is sent off to wither because the king,
Claudius knows that Hamlet knows too much and must be killed. The twins show
there appearance of being Hamlets friends but in truth they have a hidden reason
for visiting with Hamlet. Both show that it will be very difficult for Hamlet to
uncover the fidelity hidden within the lies. Claudius the king of Denmark
conduct in council gives him the appearance of an Honest and honorable man. In
Act one scene two Claudius in the presence of council shows his true skill and
ease of manner at speaking. Claudius speaks well of the spent king by showing a
general love for him by all his subjects. Claudius show respect for the old
sovereign by speaking kind words of him. In reality he cares little for the old
king, he speaks kindly only to give the appearance of loving brother. Though yet
of Hamlet our dear brother’s death The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom To be contracted in one brow
of woe Act I As Claudius sends Voltimand and Cornelius off to give the king of
Norway the message of Fortibras, he thanks and gives them complete trust, in the
deliverance of the notation. This shows his trust and caring for his subjects in
front of the council, wining even more consent from the council: We doubt it
nothing: heartily farewell. Act I Claudius increases his appearance of a honest
and honorable man, in front of the council by showing his respect for Polonius.


He gives him the power to let his son Laertes stay or leave for Norway. Claudius
speaks highly of Polonius giving him thanks and saying the he was responsible
for Claudius becoming king: The head is not more native to the heart, The hand
more instrumental to the mouth, Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.


What woudlst thou have, Laertes (Act I ii, 47-50) This council would see this as
a man who greatly respects his subjects and cares for them. This adds to the
difficulty of uncovering the truth for Hamlet later. Hamlet enters the council
chamber and speaks with Claudius. The king (Claudius) speaks with Hamlet seeming
to be concerned with Hamlet. He gives advice that over grieveing is not healthy,
this shows a concern for Hamlets well being. This conduct of Claudius gives him
the appearance of being kind in front of council that accepts him even more for
his family values: How is it that the clouds still hang on you? Act I Claudius
appears to be even more caring when insulted by Hamlet he still shows love and
general care for Hamlet. A normal king would have become angry and Hamlet would
have gotten into trouble. Claudius shows the council that he is understanding of
Hamlet’s grief over his father: A little more than kin, and less than kind. Act
I . Claudius gives Hamlet advice that over grieveing can be harmful and not
healthy. Claudius tells Hamlet that he is a admirable person for grieveing for
so long over his dads death. Yet again Claudius keeps putting on the appearance
of the honorable man. Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give
these mourning duties to your father: But, you must know, you father lost a
father; That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound In filial obligation
for some term To do obsequious sorrow; but to persever In obstinate condolement
is a course Act I Claudius further makes it difficult to uncover the truth by
announcing that Hamlet is next in line for the throne of Denmark. This shows
that Claudius would let Hamlet become the next king when he is gone. This
reveals a love and care for Hamlet to the council and Gertrude making Claudius
appear to be kind, loving person: You are the most immediate to our throne; And
with no less nobility of love Act I Claudius final conduct that makes him a
difficult truth to uncover, is his care and want that Hamlet remain in Denmark.


Claudius is insulted by Hamlet, he asks Hamlet to stay only that his queen
Gertrude wants Hamlet to stay. Claudius appears to be concerned with Hamlets
well being, Gertrude and council see this ,making Claudius a more deserving
person to be king. As Claudius speaks in council he gives the appearance of
someone who is a deserving person that should be king. Claudius is voted in as
king meaning he is already approved by everyone. Claudius gives respect to his
subjects giving the council the impression that he respects them. The king shows
general concern for Hamlet, his nephew. This will make it very difficult to
prove the truth about Claudius in the future for he has not only, one the love
and respect of council (that voted him in). But also has prevented a attack on
Denmark (from Fortinbras) proving that he is good king that can protect the
state from harm. Claudius makes it very difficult for Hamlet to uncover the
truth about the true nature of Claudius in the future. Through the characters
within the play all help to show the theme, that being appearance verses
reality. Polonius, Rosencrantz (Guildenstern) and the king all appear to be good
and honest. As Hamlet finds out, all contain lies and have hidden intentions
within them. As each character is presented in the play all appear to be good
and honest making it a difficult task for Hamlet to uncover the hidden truth
about the nature of each character. As Hamlet best said it somethings is rotten
in Denmark That being the lies which have replaced or covered the true state of
each character. Madness may be “mental incapacity caused by an
unmentionable injury.” Such wounds often are not easily perceived but may
be revealed in time of stress. Hamlets question, “have you a
daughter?”(Act II. Sc2 182) Polonius about the Princes emotional state.


What is hidden will surely be told to Cloudius by his adviser. Laertes search
for revenge is sharper proof that madness in degrees of publicity causes harm to
the observers. Claudius promise “no wind of blame”(Act IV, Sc.7,66)
once Laertes kills Hamlet; perhaps this is what the uncle has sought all along
for himself. Ophelia has a unique, very powerful form of madness; she seems
caught as a “bakers daughter,”(Act IV, Sc. 5, 42) between memories
of her father and Hamlet who ought have spokedn to her of events on
“Valentines day.”(Act IV, Sc 5, 48) She is doubly hexed and the
madness she has infects the whole court. Once a persons mental state has been
studied in public, there is no telling the injuries which may affect the
viewers. Ever since the death of King Hamlet young Hamlet has been what appeared
to be in a state of madness. In a discussion between Hamlet and Polonius Hamlet
questions Polonius by asking him “have you a daughter.”(Act II, Sc.2,
182) In this discussion Hamlet shows antic behavior towards Polonius by mocking
him when Hamlet would usually show great respect for him because of he age and
heis high position in the court. This sudden question to Polonius has caused
Polonius to believe that Hamlet has a form of love-sickness and that Polonius is
sure to tell Claudius of his condition. Hamlet also accuses Polonius of being
the “Jephthah, judge of Israel,”(Act II,Sc.2, 399) meaning that
Polonius would put his country in front of his daughter. Hamlet has now
convinced Polonius that he is in a state of madness because he knows that
Polonius cares for his daughter very much and would never put her second. By
convincing Polonius that he has no consideration for the well-being of others,
Hamlet is then hoping that Polonius will tell the court of his emotional
madness. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes has developed a different kind of madness, a
madness that is controlled by revenge. When Laertes is talking to Claudius,
Laertes gets so much revenge building up inside him against Hamlet that Laertes
now wants to “cut his throat.”(Act 4,Sc.7,125) Laertes behavior is
caused by the sudden death of his father who was without a due ceremony, and his
sister who has been driven mad, has contributed to the madness that is being
built up inside Laertes. This madness grows even stronger when Claudius promises
“no wind of blame”(Act IV.Sc7,66) when Laertes kills Hamlet. With
Claudius being the puppet holder and Laertes being the puppet, Claudius turns
Laertes into a savage beast to avenge for his fathers’ death; perhaps this is
what the Claudius has planned all along. Laertes has a form of madness that is
escalating because Laertes knows that he has the capabilities and motivation to
act on what he believes on. Ophelia has a unique form of madness unlike
Hamlets and Laertes because it a mixture of love and hate. An example of
hate is when she sings about a “baker’s daughter.”(Act IV,Sc.5,42)
Ophelia is referring to the way her father used to treat her before the tragic
incident of his death. A love within her madness is when she speaks about the
events on “Valentines day.”(Act IV, Sc.5,48) When Ophelia speaks
about Valentines day she is referring to the events of romance that she was
denied. Ophelias madness is brought on by her lack of being able to
demonstrate any maturity in trying to cope with her losses and in return can
only inflict her madness on the court. By stating that Hamlet could have
controlled his fraudulent madness, he then had the capability of controlling his
conscious mind into acting traditional. Where Laertes was very influential by
others and had no real control over the mental state he was developing by the
sway of Claudius. Ophelia was the most innocent victim of all because she was
the side affect of everyone elses actions and had no idea that she was
mentally disintegrating. It can be noticed that within each of these three
people there can be no reassurance on what the affect they may have on others
due to their mental state in public. Hamlet’s Sanity Hamlet appears to be
insane, after Poloniuss death, in act IV scene II. There are indications,
though, that persuade me to think other wise. Certainly, Hamlet has plenty of
reasons to be insane at this point. His day has been hectiche finally
determined Claudius had killed his father, the chance to kill Claudius
confronted him, he comes very close to convincing Gertrude that Claudius killed
his father, he accidentally kills Polonius, and finally the ghost of his father
visits him. These situations are enough to bring Hamlet to insanity, but he
remains sharp and credible. Hamlet is able to make smart remarks to Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, comparing then to sponges, “When he (Claudius) needs what
you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry
again,” (pg 98, 20). This is random and unexpected, as many of his actions,
but the comparison makes sense; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern soak up all the
kings favors, only to become dry again after they mop up the Kings mess
(spying on Hamlet, and getting Poloniuss body). Later, with Claudius, Hamlet
tells how lowly a king can be by saying, “A man (beggar) may fish with the
worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that
worm,” (pg 99, 29). This also makes sense, and is not quite as random; when
Hamlet confronts Claudius, and the king asks where Polonius is, Hamlet
immediatly begins the comparison by telling Claudius that Polonuis is at supper
(the worms are eating him for supper, and so on). This proves that Hamlet had
some kind of planning for this degrading comment, and that his thoughts are not
scattered and he is able to stay focused. There is a question of what being
insane really is. Since it is agreeable that Ophelia was crazy, its possible
to use her as a guide to make this argument valid. Hamlet and Ophelia both
shared the trait of having calculated thoughts, Ophelias singing and
Hamlets verbal attacks. They also shared calmness before their deaths. But
was Hamlet spraying rude remarks to everyone before he died, as Ophelia had sung
floating down the river? No, in-fact Hamlet was the opposite of what he was
before. If he were crazy, like Ophelia, he would have remained hectic and random
up until the time of (and after) the duel. Hamlet, though, was nothe even
reasoned what death for him was, finishing his question of whether life was
worth living for. Hamlet can truley be seen to be sane, and not. The facts that
Hamlet was smart and swift thinking, and in such a reversal of emotions (from
after Polonius died) in the end, leads strongly to the opinion that Hamlet was
not insane.