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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

madder than mad: identity crisis in hamlet


Hamlet is one complex man. His manner in dealing with himself and with people is very inconsistent. By analyzing four given attitudes that could be considered reasonable explanations for Hamlet’s odd behavior, we could make the intricacy of his disposition more unpretentious.
First, we need to consider the possibility that perhaps, Hamlet is truly insane. After all, it is a plausible explanation for Hamlet’s flimsy and surreal ways. This is evidently seen in Act 3, Scene 4 when Hamlet pays a visit to Gertrude to reprimand her for her treachery. In the middle of his discourse, he stops because he sees a ghostly apparition, “ A king of shreds and patches --- Enter Ghost --- Save me and hover o’er me with your wings, you heavenly guards! --- What would your gracious figure? [Ophelia] Alas, he’s mad.” (Shakespeare, lines 117-121). At this point, we know that it is only Hamlet who sees this ghost. Gertrude does not. This kind of circumstance is not very common. His misery and longing for his father may have led him to conjure up the ghostly apparition. With all the astounding affairs and fallouts happening around him at such a fast pace in a short span of time, it could be logical that he couldn’t handle it and that the depression has taken its toll, driving him to invoke bizarre phantoms that may insinuate madness in his part. Also, his insanity is evidently seen in Act 2, Scene 1 when Ophelia told Polonius that Hamlet has visited her in her room, “He took me by the wrist and held me hard … He falls to such perusal of my face as he would draw it. Long stayed he so…” (Shakespeare, lines 98-103). Any decent man would find this act so surreal. With a look so intense and so tormenting, Hamlet lovingly strokes Ophelia’s face as if he bids farewell. Behind such a calm exterior, Hamlet’s blank expression seems to be full of meaning. Ophelia, being the naïve girl she is, got scared and fled to speak to her father. Polonius, just as shallow and gullible as his daughter, rightfully concluded that Hamlet has gone mad because of love. Polonius’ assumption can be considered logical. After all, unrequited love can drive any man to a state of depression. This could have driven him to insanity.
Second, we have to consider that perhaps Hamlet is just feigning insanity. Ever since the late King Hamlet revealed the reason behind his death, Hamlet resolves to think of nothing besides avenging his father’s unjust death. Thus, he decided to adopt a disguise of mental insanity. By acting like a madman, he will be able to conceal his bloody motives. This is evident in Act 1, Scene 5 when Hamlet reveals his plan to Horatio, “How strange or odd some’er I hear myself (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on)… That you know aught of me --- this do swear, so grace and mercy at your most need help you.” (Shakespeare, 190-202). During this time, he has decided that his crazy and extraordinary cover would be disguise his intention of killing Claudius. Hopefully, he can go about with planning his methods without any suspicions from Claudius’ camp and he will do this by feigning insanity. He also feigned insanity right before the play he organized. In Act 3, Scene 2, he talks boldly and ambiguously to Ohelia as if he shows genuine affection to her when in fact, he almost denounced Ophelia days before, calling her a “breeder of sins.” This radical change of attitude may have been purposefully done by Hamlet to emphasize his supposed “state of insanity.” By portraying himself as a rather vicious man one minute and a gentle man the next, he lets other people think that he’s somewhat unstable and dangerous.
Third, Hamlet may have been feigning insanity at times and is actually insane at other times. This could be seen in Act 3, Scene 1 when Hamlet unexpectedly bashed Ophelia and criticized her for being a flawed woman. At this point, Hamlet has an inkling that he and Ophelia were not alone --- that somewhere in the distance, the presence of Claudius and Polonius are lurking and listening intently to their conversation. Perhaps Hamlet deemed this situation as an opportunity to carry out his plan of befitting a state of madness. By suddenly hurting someone he openly loves, it would rather be convincing that he indeed has gone mad. By saying “get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sins? …” (Shakespeare, lines 131-141), he has also showed an insane side of him that may not have been done purposefully. While it is possible that the whole scenario is mostly a ploy on Hamlet’s part to dupe Claudius and Polonius, he did hurt Ophelia too --- someone he dearly loves --- and this makes him insane.
Lastly, Hamlet may be perfectly sane all throughout the play. In Act 4, Scene 4, we see a logical side of Hamlet. After a brief encounter with Fortinbras’ army, Hamlet realizes that he has done little to avenge his father’s death, “ How stand I, then, that have a father killed, a mother stained, excitements of my reason and my blood, and let all sleep, while to my shame I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men that for a fantasy and trick of fame go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain? O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (Shakespeare, lines 59-69). In the whole soliloquy, we catch Hamlet reasoning as to why he has to plot such a lowly and cruel plan in order to seek revenge for his father. He compares his fight with that of Fortinbras’ army who are fighting for the mere illusion of honor. As Hamlet reasons, we see a logical side of him based on his arguments. We sense that he isn’t mad because after all, an insane man does not reason.
These four attitudes are logical and very conceivable but I think the third characterization is the most applicable one. After resolving that he would avenge his father’s death, he took this state of madness as a plan. However, since he has been in a state of depression because of the traumas he underwent, it is likely that he has partly gone insane. Thus, hamlet can be considered a very complex man --- a man in the middle of an identity crisis.

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