To What Extent Is Hamlet’s Madness Feigned? Essay

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One of the central issues in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is madness. The

focus of my essay revolves around Young Hamlet and the questions posed by

this character in respect of his sanity. Firstly, is Hamlet’s madness

entirely feigned, as he initially leads us, the audience, to believe? To

what extent is Hamlet’s madness an act? Does Hamlet’s feigned madness

shield him from actually going mad? Or, an opposing proposition would be,

does Hamlet’s feigned madness result in him becoming mad? My essay is an

exploration of these key queries. I will conduct almost an enquiry into the

sanity of Young Hamlet. Furthermore, I intend to incorporate into my study

a psychological perspective.

Primarily, I must put this investigation into historical context.

“Hamlet” was written, and first performed, in the Elizabethan/Jacobean

period, around the 1600’s. We are aware Shakespeare’s writing was

influenced immensely by his audience. He knew, as all great writers do,

that his play would only be a success if he could capture their attention.

This is clearly depicted by the introduction of the play. Set in the gloom

on a spooky battlement of a Danish Castle, Shakespeare certainly introduces

the play with a bang so to speak, or, more to the point, a ghost! Having

attracted the attention of his audience Shakespeare’s following challenge

was to retain it. This is where the theme of madness plays its part. The

Elizabethans were fascinated by madness.

During the 1600’s the mentally ill were tortured and chained in

dungeons. “Mad” persons were publicly beaten and tortured for entertainment

of visitors of London, at the hospital of Saint Mary’s of Bethlehem, later

known as Bedlam. Those who carried out the flogging were exempt from legal


Harsh as this may seem, the Elizabethans knew little better. In fact

the common belief of the time, reflected in Shakespeare’s plays was derived

from the doctrines of Hippocrates and Galen which stated illnesses were

caused by an excess or deficiency of one of the 4 humours within the body:

blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, a 13th

century monk, suggested that excessive amounts of choler could give rise to

madness. However, others suggested excess melancholy was the cause. I think

in respect to Hamlet there is undoubtedly an excess of melancholy to

account for any apparent madness!

There are several texts thought to have influenced Shakespeare in his

creation of Hamlet. The most obvious is The Spanish Tragedy (1589) by

Thomas Kydd, which was still being performed during the Elizabethan period,

incorporating the themes of revenge, murder and feigned madness to avoid

suspicion. A 12th century Danish chronicler, collecting information about

his country’s past, wrote down the story of Amleth, this too includes the

themes of revenge, treacherous murder, and the marriage of a mother to the


Shakespeare’ s plays include a great deal of psychological accuracy.

In fact it could be said that, in relation to Sigmund Freud, Shakespeare

figured out the human mind before the father of psychology was even born!

Freud’s vision of psychology is derived, not altogether unconsciously, from

his reading of Shakespeare’s plays. Freud developed the concept of how

unconscious forces could disrupt a person’s mental health. Emil Krapelin in

the 1890’s later classified this as Schizophrenia, which is a common type

of psychosis, characterised by hallucinations, delusions, personality

changes, withdrawal and serious thought and speech disturbances; linked to

depression, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, thoughts of suicide and

concentration problems. Typically it develops between late teens to early


Freud’s suggestion leads on to the concept that Hamlet’s mind has both

a conscious and sub-conscious level. Freud understood dreams, like jokes

and slips of the tongue, concealed conflicting desires. An example of an

indication of these secret urges is when Hamlet says to the king in his

final rage, Act 5 sc.ii 318-19, “Here thou incestuous, murd’rous, damnd

Dane, drink off this potion”. He mentions incest, which has nothing to do

with the King and Queen, but does relate to him and his mother.

From this I make an exceptionally provocative proposition. The Oedipus

complex is according to Freud and later Earnest Jones (1949) the boy fated

to kill his father and marry his mother. This controversial point is echoed

by one raised by Thomas Hanmer, 1736, who drew attention to Hamlet’s delay

in carrying out his revenge. How can he murder Claudius when his uncle

carried out the deed he himself subconsciously wanted to carry out? Another

suggestion to raise, based again on work of Freud’s, relates to Hamlet’s

love of his mother. Every son loves his mother and tries to please her.

Subconsciously, Hamlet is motivated by an oedipal urge to sleep with his

mother, for various reasons. First, Hamlet had lost the love of his life

Ophelia; her father and brother who instruct her to distance herself from

Hamlet have in effect taken her from him. This sends him into anger mode

that has to be exerted somehow, which happens to be desire for his mother,

the next love in his life. Secondly, Freud’s theory that Hamlet’s mind has

a conscious level and a subconscious level helps us to understand Hamlet’s

motivations and actions towards his mother, such as apparently going to her

for support. Hamlet might have really been going to his mother for reasons

more intricate than that.

To fully analyse Hamlet’s character I must study him throughout the

entire play. From the very beginning Hamlet makes rash decisions. For

example in Act1sc.iv he goes alone with the ghost even though Horatio tells

him not to. L.81.

“Be ruled you shall not go.”

Hamlet does not know if the ghost is in fact an honest or good ghost.

This shows that from the very start we see Hamlet has little respect for

his life. In fact Horatio’s speech here is of equal importance as Hamlet’s

in revealing Hamlet’s current state of mind. L.69-78.

“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff…”

We see that Hamlet’s best friend, obviously a character who knows him

well, is worried about how easily Hamlet may be tempted to his death. He

carries on to say:

“The very place puts toys of desperation…”

He refers here to fanciful impulses, which result in despair and even

suicide. It seems that Horatio believes Hamlet to be emotionally

vulnerable. This is shown within the lines 73-74:

“Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason

And draw you into madness?…”

Such analysis would in fact lead one to believe Hamlet is actually on

the brink of madness from the start.

Hamlet first directly reveals to the audience the turmoil he feels

within his first soliloquy, Act1sc.v L.92-112. Here Hamlet darts from one

topic to another, using fragmented phrases and rhetorical questions. This

language depicts his confused emotional state.

It is at the end of Act 1 L.172. that we learn, as he tells Horatio

and Marcellus, of Hamlet’s ploy to, “To put an antic disposition on -…”

Could this encourage us to believe that throughout Hamlet is feigning

insanity? Even in such crazy situations Hamlet can keep mental stability,

shielded from true madness by his feigned insanity.

The next we hear of Hamlet’s behaviour is from Ophelia, Act2sc.i.

Ophelia tells her father, Polonius, that Hamlet has been to see her in a

terrible physical and mental state with his clothing all dishevelled.

Polonius believes that it is due to Ophelia’s rejection, which he and

Laertes insisted upon, that Hamlet has gone mad, he’s sexually frustrated.

However later, in an aside, Polonius recognises that Hamlet’s strange

comments may superficially appear mad but there is an underlying meaning to

them. Act2 scii. L.205-206.

“Though this be madness, yet there

is method in’t’.

This shows that Polonius is suspicious of Hamlet’s madness, which

would urge one to believe Hamlet’s madness is feigned.

To obtain a balanced view of Hamlet I must study a range of

perspectives and sources. Doing so it is crucial that I recognise that my

perception of Hamlet differs immensely from that of your average

Elizabethan. This is a consequence of several factors.

Firstly, the majority of the Elizabethan/Jacobean audience would have

perceived the plot, and more importantly Hamlet, as they appear on the

surface. Hamlet would seem, to the preponderance, as if his madness was

entirely feigned and as he himself would lead one to believe. One reason

for this simple perception was due to the limited education available at

the time. The play may have also appeared a little more believable to an

Elizabethan audience; it would have more relevance to their lives. Even

though it was set in Denmark, a country that the minority of the population

would knew about, there is frequent reference to disease, illness and the

plague, all which were far more common then than they currently are,

thankfully. This is a point raised by Clemen who argued that there is ” a

strong vein of imagery suggesting a process of infection and decay in the

play”. This statement echoes my suspicion that Hamlet’s mental stability

deteriorates throughout the play.

Unlike the majority of the modern day audience the Elizabethans could

sympathise with the plot of revenge, during the 1600’s the primeval stance

of “an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth” would have been more commonly

accepted. The biblically correct attitude, found in Genesis, would be more

inclined towards a lack of action or even forgiveness “Vengeance is mine, I

will repay saith the Lord”, the attitude that we are, today, encouraged to


The soliloquies are key components of the analysis of Hamlet. However,

whilst studying them I must bear in mind the variation of production and

perception over the eras. It has been suggested that soliloquies performed

in the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre were not necessarily performed as if

the speaker was in direct communion with his/herself but spoken directly to

the audience as an attempt to persuade them to see the play from their

perspective. However, nowadays there are many more ways of portraying the

soliloquies, which in turn have varying effects on audiences. For example,

in Laurence Olivier’s production Hamlet’s soliloquies are done in a voice

over to give the effect of the audience hearing Hamlet’s inner most

thoughts. This has a different effect than if a modern day production were

to have the soliloquies recited, as they appeared to be intended a direct

communion with himself, allowing the audience the opportunity to overhear

his thoughts. Due to modern stage conditions, such as artificial lighting,

the actor can’t really see the audience so the soliloquy is forced back

onto his/herself. This results in Hamlet apparently talking to himself

which has, inarguably, a far more dramatic effect, consequently the

audience are more inclined to perceive Hamlet as mad. Another essential

component, greatly influenced by the director’s interpretation, is the

ghost. We assume that in Shakespeare’s production the ghost is always

visible when the script suggests. Infact it is said that Shakespeare

himself often took up the role. However, modern day productions have

varying ways of portraying the ghost. The Laurence Olivier production stays

true to the script projecting the ghost as a shadowy human figure dressed

in armour. The Royal Shakespeare Company 1965 added a little original flair

including the ghost as a 10ft.puppet like creation, whereas the Tony

Richardson production creates a slightly spookier effect by implying the

ghost’s presence with a bright light shone on the faces of the actors in

attendance. However, the most persuasive production, and arguably least

true to the script, is Richard Eyre’s 1980. Here, Jonathon Pryce, the actor

playing the Hamlet, spoke the lines of the ghost as if possessed. The 1st

scene was cut to support this reading. Controversial as this may seem the

idea of Hamlet being possessed by the ghost echoes the perception that mad

persons were in fact possessed by spirits, which may still have been upheld

by some members of the Elizabethan audience so, it does infact have a

historical edge.

These differing ways of directing the play have drastic effects on our

perception of Hamlets sanity. For instance, some productions show the ghost

in Act1 yet don’t include any physical representation when he reappears to

Hamlet in Act 3 sc.iv. Such a production would imply Hamlet’s madness was

progressive, his sanity deteriorates. Different productions have other

persuasive techniques. For example, in Act 3 sc.iv, which features gross

sexual imagery such as “Live in the rank sweat of an enseamd bed,” L.94

and “making love over the nasty sty” L.95-96. Hamlet has been shown to be

raping his mother. This would be supported by Freud’s suggestion of

Hamlet’s subconscious desires. In such a production one would question

whether Hamlet’s subconscious and conscious minds have become confused, has

the former temporarily displaced the latter? Here the illusion of the

ghost, as it comes to remind him of his vengeful intention, portrays what

his conscious mind usually represents. In contrast a production such as

Richard Eyre’s would lead the audience to believe Hamlet was mad from the


Therefore the conclusion I make is Hamlet’s sanity can only be

measured for each individual performance and production. Hamlet could well

be sane, shielded from madness or arguably he could be defined as a

schizophrenic. I can’t even conclude how Shakespeare intended Hamlet’s

madness to be perceived, only that he made his play simple enough for the

poorly-read to follow, yet complicated enough for the father of psychology

to derive his work from. All I can conclude is the extent of which Hamlet’s

madness is feigned is an individual’s interpretation.

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