Hamlet: A Method To His Madness Essay, Research Paper
Hamlet: A Method to His Madness
In Hamlet, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character in the play, namely Ophelia, acts as a balancing argument to Hamlet’s madness or sanity. Ophelia’s breakdown and Hamlet’s “north-north-west” brand of insanity argue for Hamlet having a method to his seeming insanity.
The play offers a character on each side of sanity. While Shakespeare does not directly put Ophelia’s insanity, or breakdown, against Hamlet’s own madness, there is indeed a clear definitiveness in Ophelia’s condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet’s madness. Obviously, Hamlet’s character offers more evidence, while Ophelia’s breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision.
Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet’s sanity beginning with the first scene of the play. Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father’s ghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatly improve. Yet, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Hamlet says, “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt…” we can see that he is depressed and appalled, but it does not mean he is insane. As Horatio says, being the only one of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the play, “Before my God, I might not this believe/ Without the sensible and true avouch/ Of mine own eyes.” Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the King with his reaction to the play.
That Hamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts somewhat from its credibility, but all the men were witness to the ghost demanding they speak alone. Horatio offers an insightful warning, “What if it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o’er his base into the sea, And there assume some other horrible form. Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness? Think of it.” Horatio’s comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that the ghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King and speaks to Hamlet rationally. There is also good reason for the ghost not to want the guards to know what he tells Hamlet, as the play could not proceed as it does if the guards were to hear what Hamlet did. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father who tells him, “but how so ever thou pursues this act,/ Taint not thy mind.” Later, when Hamlet sees the ghost again in his mother’s room, her amazement at his madness is quite convincing. Yet, one must take into consideration the careful planning of the ghost’s credibility earlier in the play.
After his first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friends cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than the devastation it really is. This is the first glimpse of Hamlet’s ability and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve effect. Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets the guards know the severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Another instance of Hamlet’s behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while his uncle and Polonious are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlet’s affection for Ophelia has already been established, and his complete rejection of her and what has transpired between them is clearly a hoax. Hamlet somehow suspects the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are sent by the King and Queen to question him and investigate the cause of his supposed madness.
Hamlet’s actions in the play, after meeting the ghost, lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy. Yet, that madness is continuously checked by an ever-present consciousness of action that never lets him lose control. For example, Hamlet questions his conduct in his soliloquy, but after careful consideration decides to go with his instinct and prove to himself without a doubt the King’s guilt before proceeding rashly. Even after the King’s guilt is proven with Horatio as a witness, Hamlet again reflects and uses his better judgement in the soliloquy before seeing his mother. He recognizes his passionate feelings, but tells himself to “speak daggers to her, but use none,” as his father’s ghost instructed. Again, when in the King’s chambers, Hamlet could perform the murder, but decides not to in his better judgement to ensure that the King doesn’t go to heaven by dying while praying.
As Hamlet tells Guildenstern, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This statement reveals out-right Hamlet’s attempt to fool people with his odd behavior. This is after Polonious’ enlightened comment earlier in the same scene, “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
Compare the copious evidence against Hamlet’s madness with the complete lack of evidence for Ophelia’s sanity after her father’s murder. Her unquestionable insanity puts Hamlet’s very questionable madness in a more favorable light. She is quite obviously mad, and, unlike Hamlet, there seems to be no method to her madness. All Ophelia can do after learning of her father’s death is sing. Indeed, Hamlet’s utter rejection of her combined with this is too much for her, and she doesn’t sing a mourning song at the beginning, but rather a happy love song. Ophelia’s breakdown into madness and inability to deal with her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection is dealt with neatly and punctually. There is little evidence against her madness, compared to Hamlet’s intelligent plotting and use of witnesses to his actions. Thus, by defining true madness in Ophelia, Shakespeare subtracts from the plausibility of Hamlet’s supposed insanity.
In the play, Shakespeare uses the dimmer light of reality to expose the brighter light of contrivance. Hamlet is dynamic, animated, and absurd in his madness, making Ophelia’s true madness seem realistic rather than absurd. Hamlet explicitly states the contrivance of his madness, while Ophelia does not. To prove more of Hamlet’s sanity, he questions his actions. “To be or not to be” proves that Hamlet still thinks before he performs his actions. Further, Hamlet has a motive behind leading others to believe that he is insane. Although Hamlet is under severe pressure and emotional strain due to the high situation in the play, he shows a remarkable amount of intelligent, conscious, and rational decision-making in efforts to resolve his situation. Thus we can see that Hamlet is not insane, but actually does have a method and can make intelligent decisions.