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There is ample evidence in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet that Hamlet purposefully feigned fits of insanity in order to confuse and disconcert the king and his attendants. His affirmed assertion to behave strangely and to have "an antic temperament" demonstrates that his insanity is feigned. The irony of the play, which is riddled with many interpretations, is often exposed by the characters' insanity in the play. Although Hamlet and Ophelia are the only characters in the play who are seen to be insane, the reactions of the other characters to their insanity reveal their own preoccupations (Lidz 32). When one talks about madness in Hamlet, most would refer to the madness of Hamlet, or at least it is a feigned one. Even though Ophelia also goes mad and eventually commits suicide, the main lunacy of the play is premised on Hamlet himself. This paper seeks to analyze the theme of madness as use by Shakespeare by investigating whether Hamlet’s madness is real or feigned. The paper has further analyzed the madness as shown in Ophelia.
The madness of Ophelia and Hamlet acts to show the disillusioned situations that they have both experienced in life. Both Hamlet and Ophelia have had a bad experience of the death of their fathers and to a larger extent they show similar reaction to the deaths. Significantly, it can be mentioned that Ophelia’s death is a premonition to Hamlet’s death which comes at the final scene of the play. Hence, it can be concluded that the theme of the madness in Hamlet shows that Hamlet is a complimentary character of Ophelia.
Hamlet has received information about the truth that underlies his father s death from the ghost. He is told that it is his uncle who is responsible for his father death and he has to do something about it lest he remains stuck in purgatory. “Revenge his foul and most unnatural death” (Shakespeare IV.iv. 68-71) Hamlet is determined to seek revenge on those who have murdered his father. He initiates a scheme of playing as a mad person so that he can gain an ideal opportunity to Kill Claudius, the murderer of his father. His despiteful remark on Gertrude is a clear demonstration that he is determined to kill the murder of his father. “Ears without feeling, feeling without sight/Ears without hands or eyes, smellings sans all/Or but a sickly part of one true sense/Could not so mope” (Shakespeare III.iv.78-81). However, from his remarks on his mother and Ophelia, one can conclude that his madness is a trick.
Hamlet feigns his madness to make the Claudius believe that he is mad and therefore he is not a threat to his life and his leadership. However, everybody except Claudius is aware that Hamlet’s madness is a trick. In Act two, Hamlet says that he is putting on his antic disposition for his own good. Everybody is aware that Hamlet is a bright man, who is a master’s graduate. Besides, other critics have posited that Hamlet’s playing a mad man helps him to achieve two roles. First, is to tell Ophelia how he loves her, and second is to protect his new identity (Neely 317). In order to prove the he is mad, he forces himself in Ophelia’s room and behaves weirdly so as to appear mad. His intention is to have everyone convinced that his madness is clearly as a result of love and not any other thing. Hamlet is much aware that through his action, the king will receive information about his madness. He knows that Ophelia will tell his father about the incident and the father will later on give a report to the king.
The only people in the play who regard Hamlet’s madness as somehow real are the king and his followers; however they still cast some doubts. Polonius is among the people who fall for Hamlet’s ploy. Polonius proudly says that Hamlet’s madness is purely because of his barren love for Ophelia. "Your noble son is mad" (II. ii. 92), and records the various stages leading to his so-called madness (Shakespeare II. ii. 145-150)… "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (II. ii.203-4.). To some extent, the king is convinced with the pronouncement that Hamlet is mad, he is not sure about the truth. This is his instruction to his followers “Get from him why he puts on this confusion" (II. i. 2) this statement implies that he understands that his action is a pretence but not a real lunacy.
Shakespeare’s play presents a society where common man is suppressed to the extent that when ones dare insult the ruling class in a sane mind then he is likely to face severe consequences. Hamlet being an intellectual person observes this and decides to manipulate a means of expressing his concern to the ruling class and the upper class in the society. He opts to feign madness.
Hamlet disguises madness but also an indication of real madness after the death of his father and his mother’s overhasty. Similarly Ophelia runs mad after the death of her father at Hamlet’s hands. For the two characters, madness is like a premonition to freedom– a license that enables them to speak the truth about what goes in their minds.
To some extent, Hamlet has succeeded in his mission. His madness takes a brilliant form where he uses his madness as an opportunity to make all the statements that he feels like making. Still, Hamlet’s achievement is that he does not actually get mad, rather he only plays to be mad in order to disguise his strengths. The role that he plays as a mad man gives him an opportunity to make fun of Polonius calling him abusive names, and expressing all that he feels about him. Besides, Hamlet uses his madness as an excuse of bad behavior, for instance he asks Ophelia to join a brothel.
Ophelia develops a different kind of madness from that of Hamlet created by her lover and hate towards people in life, which is developed after her father has died.
The madness of Ophelia is contrasted to the feigned lunacy of the prince. She is a victim of life in Elsinore. Basically, Ophelia is a girl who depends on the advice from various men before she does anything. She is helpless and constantly a victim of bully from men. Furthermore, she doesn’t have a mother figure who can direct her when she is helpless. Shakespeare places a lot of pressure for Ophelia expecting her to become better that her mother, yet she doesn’t have a hand of a mother in her upbringing. While her father uses her as bait, her brothers press her so much to stop the relationship that she is having with Hamlet. However, the author uses madness to reveal to the audience the fate of a woman in the society. Furthermore, Shakespeare tells us the truth about Ophelia using the theme of madness.
Shakespeare uses Ophelia’s madness to show the audiences the intimate relationship that she has towards Hamlet. Critics suggest that when Ophelia commits suicide she is pregnant for Hamlet and that is probably the reason as to why she kills herself (Camden 278). Ophelia’s mad scene helps the audience to see the inconsistency with Ophelia’s self when she includes lamentation in pieces of old songs, suggesting that the death of her father and the love that she has for Hamlet are linked in her mind. The madness of Ophelia is as a result of the love that she has for Hamlet and the disillusionment that she has for her father. Ophelia refers to the harsh treatment of her father through a song prior to her death. Similarly, the contribution of love in her madness is evident when she talks about Valentine day. “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day/All in the morning betime/And I a maid at your window/To be your Valentine” (Shakespeare IV.v.46-49) She bitterly refers to the romance that she needed so much but was denied.
Unlike Hamlet, madness is the last resort for Ophelia. Her unconsciousness is freed in her madness. Madness gives Ophelia an opportunity to realize her true identity. Madness liberates Ophelia from enforced repression of respect, patience and predetermined role of a daughter, subject, sister and a lover. Through the madness of Ophelia, Shakespeare foregrounds the filthy secret of the throne. She becomes the first woman who undermines and talks ill of the authority through songs, riddle, puns and illusions. “Well, Gold ‘ild you! They say the owl was a baker’s daughter; Lord, we know that we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table” (Shakespeare IV.v.40-42). This is a reference to the love that Ophelia has for Hamlet. Ophelia’s madness shows how she cannot adjust to the losses that she experiences in her life. In summary, Ophelia cannot control her disillusionments and grief that lapses to madness and ultimately to a muddy death.
In summary, there is no doubt that Hamlet has feigned his madness. He finds so much to be gained from feigning it. He maintained that his action was just to confuse and throw them of the track. Among the character is the play who are infected by madness, it is only Ophelia who is infected by true madness. However, the characters that go mad in the play have their madness driven by devastating deaths in their lives. Shakespeare has brought out the prevalence of the theme of madness as a mean that various characters use to succeed in their mission.
Camden, Carroll. "On Ophelia's madness." Shakespeare Quarterly 15.2 (1964): 247-255.
Crawford, Alexander Wellington. Hamlet, an Ideal Prince: And Other Essays in Shakespearean Interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston: RG Badger; Toronto: Copp Clark, 1916.
Lidz, Theodore. Hamlet's enemy: madness and myth in Hamlet. Basic Books (AZ), 1975.
Neely, Carol Thomas. "" Documents in Madness": Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture." Shakespeare Quarterly 42.3 (1991): 315-338.
Shakespeare, William. Tragedy of Hamlet, the. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1909.
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