To What Extent Is Hamlet’s Madness Feigned? Essay
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
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.