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Because of its suspense and breadth of themes, Hamlet is regarded as one of Shakespeare's most famous and greatest works. One central problem is hysteria, which is often used to describe the dysfunctional situation in Hamlet's family and the Danish court. Several characters display insanity, with Hamlet, Ophelia, and Gertrude suffering from betrayal, anger, and dissatisfaction. Despite the fact that the psychosis in the play is dubious and impossible to comprehend, it is generally agreed that the play conveys both feigned insanity and a true psychosocial illness. Nevertheless, exploring the theme of madness has remained a controversial topic, largely because of the diverging literary tones of Freudian critics and Marxist theorists on how insanity was conceived during the Elizabethan England. A major issue has remained antic disposition, where scholars question whether Hamlet’s madness is real or not. This paper harmonizes the diverging views, with the centrality of critical research essay being representing the differing responses to the madness in Hamlet.
One of the shared elements of Hamlet’s madness in Marxist and Psychoanalysis literary theories is that Hamlet's madness arises from grief over the murder of his father. However, Marxists views focus on how Shakespearean notions are influenced by the Elizabethan sociocultural institution. Psychoanalysis literary theorists centralize on the progression of madness, where the appearance of the ghost and incestuous marriage as the source of insanity. The Prince learns from the apparition that King Hamlet was brutally murdered by his brother Claudius, a revelation that makes him grow weary of the world. The depression is evidenced by his first soliloquy, which captures the intensity of sadness and pain. Like the case of Elizabethan beliefs, he is deeply devastated and vows to seek vengeance. In his work, Where Words Prevail Not: Grief, Revenge and Language in Kyd and Shakespeare, Peter Sacks sees a similarity in the manifestation and structure of grief in Hamlet and other revenge tragedies such as Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Sacks argue that the pastoral form presented in the plays was influenced by a belief during the era, where justice was considered a personal issue rather than the obligation of the monarchy. The notions made the Elizabethan audience desire for direct administration of justice and retribution.
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Sacks’ idea of madness is largely based on the language of mourning and comparative exploration of the play with other Elizabethan revenge tragedies, where he notes that Hamlet does not mourn effectively because of the complications in the familial relations. The argument is echoed in Thiher, where he suggests that Hamlet madness typifies his inability to express his inner anguish (82). Upon returning home, he learns of his father death and remarriage of his mother, Gertrude. He is asked by his stepfather and mother to remain in Denmark, which is contrary to his wish of going back to Wittenberg to resume his studies. However, Sacks suggest that the Prince gains verbal power as the play progresses (Sacks 600). While Sacks’ Marxist view that the structures of an Elizabethan era shaped Hamlet's characterization as evidenced by other plays, the argument has loopholes, which are addressed by Arthur Kirsch. He builds on Sacks' proposition by suggesting that the Prince’s first soliloquy is typical to early stages of grief. However, he does not undergo the emotional trajectory popularized by Freud because he cannot mourn publicly. An underlying aspect in failing to receive the support to aid his recovery is his father's position as well as the status of the family in the Danish society. Kirsch notes that he does not receive sympathy to allow him to overcome the loss.
While he upholds that the oedipal conflict is critical in the plot development where it gives the play its forward thrust, Kirsch links Hamlet madness to the Freudian notions of mourning and melancholy. Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius aggravates Hamlet's functional loss, where he is unable to overcome bereavement. The psychoanalysis views are also evident in Ophelia's insanity, where Kirsch notes that she picks up the scepter of grief laid down by Hamlet. However, Kirsch view that Hamlet's grief has run its course when he is returning from Wittenberg exhibits inconsistencies, as the Prince recovery following the loss seems to have totally stalled, and that why he pursues vengeance as requested by his father's ghost. Anna K. Nardo’s Hamlet, 'A Man to Double Business Bound’ also builds on the psychological criticism, where he employs double bind theory in postulating that the madness of Hamlet and Ophelia arises from mutually exclusive demand from family members. The argument notes that the only way to escape the situation is to realize the problem with the demand or take another double-blind situation.
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Nardo contends that both the deceased father and Gertrude are a source of double bind situation. His mother double-situation arises from his marriage to King Claudius. While marrying his uncle should lead to detachment between the two, she demands Hamlet's love and approval. His father also exerts the same pressure, where he asks him to seek revenge but not hurt his mother. According to Nardo, Hamlet feigns madness to escape from the double bind situations (Nardo 323). While he expresses his crazy feelings, he has kept his mental capacity in control (Jaeger, Stephen, and Ingrid 272). Like Hamlet, Ophelia is also faced with the double situation. While Polonius tell her that she should win Hamlet using her body, he advises her to uphold her chastity. Nardo points that the advice is so influential in Ophelia's life that when both Laertes and Polonius are gone, she is unable to make any decision by herself, and thus goes mad (Jaeger, Stephen, and Ingrid 276).
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Nardo’s views of madness are one of the most accepted views on insanity, as the play is typically about a boy who is yet to make up his mind. The arguments go beyond the Oedipal conflict as Hamlet is faced with multiple and mutually exclusive demands throughout the play. The double bind situations force Hamlet to feign insanity. His first incidents where insanity is expressed is when he is evaluating the information he received from the ghost of his father when he claims ‘The spirit that I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power t’ assume a pleasing shape…’ (Act II, Scene II, lines 627-629). Prince Hamlet is not yet convinced that the spirit he conversed with was his father’s message to him. He thinks of it as a devil’s spirit but acknowledges that the apparition was the only way his father could reach him. He is happy for the information that will help him build his case against Claudius.
In exploring the perception about madness during the Elizabethan England, Carol Thomas Neely moves away from the psychoanalysis literary criticism to Marxism, where he points out that insanity was a socially recognized disorder with no medical description. Neely's conclusion is mainly influenced by Robert Napier, an Elizabethan pseudo-physician best known for diagnosing madness in Southern England and Bedlam Hospital (Neely (a) 123). The conception of madness in Neely first work is complemented by his second critical literary essay, where he confirms the Marxists concept that all pieces of art are influenced by the environment they are set in. According to Neely, Shakespeare imagery of madness in Hamlet and other works such as King Lear and Macbeth have roots in Elizabethan notions of the condition. She notes that Ophelia's songs help her carry on, a solution she suggests was widely accepted when the play was written. The gender lens of madness is evident in Neely’s work, where she points out that the melancholy defining Hamlet was an expression of the condition in men (Neely (b) 788). She contends that Ophelia's insanity is a hysterical reflection of Hamlet's madness, the same way self-murder was a mirror image of his contemplation.
The feigned insanity contributes to losing touch with all friends. He murdered Polonius and blamed it on his insanity, and this made his daughter Ophelia commit suicide. His madness leads to the death of his mother Gertrude, his uncle King Claudius and his death. He is unable to control his antic disposition, resulting to the tragic end of the play. While Hamlet focus is on unearthing what killed his father, it becomes clear to the reader that he has dark forces that are pressing him to seek revenge. While he expresses insanity to pursue the justice per the Elizabethan beliefs, his cowardice and religion hold him back. He embarks on the journey of building evidence that Claudius killed King Hamlet, a view that is influenced by the punishment on cases of treachery. He understands impacts than can befall him by accusing the king with no evidence. In his state of feigned insanity, he believes he will keep on building his case without his acts being questioned. However, he slips to depression, which leads to the famous soliloquy ‘to be, or not to be’. He says “tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them…” (Act III, Scene I, lines 58-59).
The prince enters into his antic disposition by changing from an aggressive man to an ill-looking boy. In his initials stages, he in love with Ophelia, but the girl’s father is working to end the relationship. Ophelia describes her lover as a scholar and a soldier who has a noble mind, but because of his insanity, she does not recognize him. Hamlet becomes rude to her, and when she confronts him, he calls her a whore and brands her father a fool. The feigned madness becomes the self-destruction button after the death of Ophelia (Jaeger, Stephen, and Ingrid 276). In upholding Nardo’s view of the double-blind situation, Thiher notes that Hamlet's feign madness culminate to real insanity. The observation arises from the argument by Renaissance scholar Garzoni that the stupore cracks the brain through an excess of an impression. The Neoplatonist’s theory of Eros also supports how the death of Ophelia contributes to Hamlet's madness, with Thiher noting that the enigmatic behavior is an 'ecstasy of love" (82). The stoic identity of love was popular during the 17th century
In conclusion, Hamlet’s feigned insanity has remained an area of extensive exploration from both psychoanalysis and Marxists literary theorists. While scholars have different treatment of Hamlet's madness, their views are equally important in understanding the Shakespearean themes. The combination of the two bodies of knowledge offers an invaluable way of understanding the influence of Renaissance pseudo-physical ideas and well as sociocultural elements.
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Jaeger, C. Stephen, and Ingrid Kasten, eds. Emotions and Sensibilities in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1. Walter de Gruyter, 2003.
Kirsch, Arthur. "Hamlet's Grief." ELH 48.1 (1981): 17-36.
Nardo, Anna K. "Hamlet," A Man to Double Business Bound"." Shakespeare Quarterly 34.2 (1983): 181-199.
Neely (a), Carol Thomas. "" Documents in Madness": Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture." Shakespeare Quarterly 42.3 (1991): 315-338.
Neely (b), Carol Thomas. "Recent Work in Renaissance Studies: Psychology Did Madness Have a Renaissance?." Renaissance Quarterly 44.4 (1991): 776-791.
Sacks, Peter. "Where Words Prevail Not: Grief, Revenge, and Language in Kyd and Shakespeare." ELH 49.3 (1982): 576-601.
Thiher, Allen. Revels in madness: insanity in medicine and literature. University of Michigan Press, 2009.
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