Observations of Madness
Over the centuries, many famous, and infamous writers, thinkers and individuals have analyzed, re-analyzed, and interpreted Shakespeare s works. One of the most analyzed plays in existence today is the tragedy Hamlet, with its recurring question: “Is Hamlet s ‘antic disposition’ feigned or real?” In truth, this question can only be answered by observing the thoughts of the main characters in relation to the cause of Hamlet real or feigned madness. In the tragedy Hamlet, each of the main characters explains Hamlets madness in their own unique way. To discover the cause behind the madness of Hamlet, each character used their own ambitions, emotions and interpretations of past events. Characters tried to explain Hamlet’s “antic disposition” by means of association to thwarted ambition, heart breaking anguish, and denied love. In the workings of their thoughts, the characters inadvertently reveal something about their own desires, emotions and experiences to the reader.
The thoughts of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz present the reader with one possible factor for the cause of Hamlets supposed madness. The two men believe that the cause for Hamlets madness is his lack of advancement or thwarted ambition. In a conversation with Hamlet in Act II scene II, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz come upon this idea:
Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.
Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it
so: to me it is a prison.
When the heir apparent calls his heritage a prison, something must be seriously wrong, and it is not difficult for them to guess what that something is. As prince of Denmark, Hamlet was next in line to become king. Unfortunately, his mother s marriage to his uncle removed the short-term possibility for Hamlet to become king. Continuing on,
Rosencrantz: Why then, your ambition makes it one;
’tis too narrow for your mind.
Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.
Guildenstern: Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
Hamlet: A dream itself is but a shadow.
Rosencrantz: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a
quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.
(Act II scene II)
From the start of the discussion, Rosencrantz believes that it is Hamlet s denied ambitions that creates Hamlet s negative view of everything around him, including his soon to be kingdom, Denmark. Guildenstern soon jumps onto this bandwagon, and joins Rosencrantz in explaining to Hamlet that it is denied ambition that is the cause of all his troubles. For their efforts, Hamlet latter uses the same cause to dismiss Rosencrantz s questions:
Rosencrantz: Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? You
do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if
you deny your griefs to your friend.
Hamlet: Sir, I lack advancement.
Rosencrantz: How can that be, when you have the voice of the king
himself for your succession in Denmark?
By telling Rosencrantz what he has already discovered, Hamlet keeps the true reason for his feigned madness to himself, helping everyone around him to find his or her own explanation for it, and hiding the shocking truth from everyone. Rosencrantz s and Guildenstern s need to discover the cause of Hamlet s madness arises out of their desire to please the king and gain favor in his eye. However, their decision on lack of advancement as the cause shows something about the characters themselves. The two men obviously care a great deal about their own personal success. This can be seen by their actions of spying on Hamlet in the above scene, and later, their betrayal of Hamlet. Hamlet himself latter tells Horatio of their wrong doings and his own feelings towards them:
Hamlet: Why, man, they did make love to this employment;
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow:
‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.
(Act V scene II)
Guildenstern and Rosencrantz in their attempt to make the kings favor, escort Hamlet to England. In return for their dutiful service and heightened ambitions, the rewards for both men are the same, death without trial or question. Hamlet also comments that he feels no guilt for friends that betrayed him, and that men who betray others deserve their fruits in life, in this case, death.
Rosencrantz: Take you me for a sponge, my lord?
Hamlet: Ay, sir, that soaks up the king’s countenance, his
rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the
king best service in the end: he keeps them, like
an ape, in the corner of his jaw; first mouthed, to
be last swallowed: when he needs what you have
gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you
shall be dry again.
(Act IV scene II)
Hamlet knows well that he cannot trust his old countrymen because of their own grandeur ambitions, and, in a discussion with Rosencrantz frees his mind and reveals his true opinion of them and their actions of late. In the discussion, he tells Rosencrantz that he believes that he is a sponge who soaks up the kings rewards, and that he believes that they would do whatever they can to move themselves into his favor for their own advancement. At this point in the play, the reader fully knows that Hamlet would preferably have nothing to do with the two men.
The two men develop their theory on Hamlet s madness through utilizing their own grand ambitions, and applying the same desires to Hamlet. However, as the reader knows, this is not the true reason for Hamlet s antic disposition, but only a ploy to busy the king and other characters while Hamlet decides what action to take on behalf of his dead father.
In the tragedy Hamlet, the saying Mother knows best can be taken at face value. One of the least discussed causes in the play for Hamlet s supposed madness is one that Gertrude believes in from the start of the play.
Gertrude: Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die
Gertrude seems to understand that it is normal for her son to mourn for her late husband, even though she does not morn. Though she accepts his continuing mourning, she tries to convince Hamlet that the time for morning is over, and that he should resume his life as everyone else has done. As the play goes on, she begins to realize that the problem is more than just his fathers death, and acquires the aid of Hamlet s countrymen to discover the reason for his odd behavior.
Gertrude: Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz:
And I beseech you instantly to visit
My too much changed son. Go, some of you,
And bring these gentlemen where Hamlet is.
However, Gertrude soon realizes that she has known the true reason for his unusual behavior all along and reveals her own guilt through her examination of his madness:
Claudius: He tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found
The head and source of all your son’s distemper.
Gertrude: I doubt it is no other but the main;
His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage.
(Act II scene II)
Gertrude is the expression of what most modern observers, and some Elizabethan audiences, would have seen as the natural reason for Hamlet s antic disposition, and would have expected that the characters would all come to see this, and take some steps to solve the problem. However, the idea is given no other serious consideration. Other main characters ponder the idea, but no serious action is ever taken to prove or dismiss the theory. It is as if the characters, especially Claudius, pretend that it was never mentioned, as if it were a taboo topic. Gertrude s admission of the true cause severs two purposes. The first is to get the idea into the open, and the second, is to reveal her own guilty feeling about her own actions. In the bedroom scene (Act IV scene II) Hamlet chastises his mother for her actions, and she shows her remorse:
Hamlet: A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
Gertrude: As kill a king!
Hamlet: Ay, lady, ’twas my word.
And later in the scene:
Gertrude: O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn’st mine eyes into
my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
In the abouve scene it becomes apparent that Gertrude had little to do with the actual death of Old King Hamlet, she does realize her guilt in incest. Hamlet helps her to realize this, in perhaps not the most sonly way, and makes her promise to repent and reform. As previously mentioned this one on of the least discussed reasons for Hamlets madness. Though the characters might have misjudged the truth, Hamlet would not mind, because it only served to further his own goals, keeping the truth secret, and making other character further open to mistakes and to Hamlet s analysis.
Initially one of the most accepted causes for Hamlets instability is that of denied love, conjured by the self fulfilling Polonius. In the very first scene of the second act, Ophelia rushes to tell her father, Polonius, disturbing news:
Ophelia: My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac’d,
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul’d,
Ungart’red, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors- he comes before me.
Polonius: Mad for thy love?
Ophelia: My lord, I do not know, But truly I do fear it.
(Act II scene I)
It is interesting to note that Ophelia does not tell her father that Hamlet is mad because of Ophelia denied love, but that Polonius automatically assumes this.
Polonius: This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures.
What, have you given him any hard words of late?
Ophelia: No, my good lord; but, as you did command,
I did repel his letters and denied
His access to me.
The obedient Ophelia has followed her father s injunctions and repelled Hamlets letters and denied him access to her. Polonius is certain that these rebuffs have driven Hamlet mad. His only action is to inform the king and queen, and to let them decide what the next move will be. In Polonius lengthy discussion with the king and queen he explain the situation:
Polonius: Your noble son is mad.
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?
Polonius: I went round to work
And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
‘Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star.
This must not be.’ And then I prescripts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice,
And he, repulsed, a short tale to make,
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension, I
note the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for.
King. Do you think ’tis this?
Queen. it may be, very like
At this point, it seems that Polonius has convinces both the King and the Queen that the true reason of hamlets madness is in fact Ophelia denial to Hamlet s affections. Even though we as the reader know that Polonius is not completely right, nor completely wrong, we develop a very clear understanding of the type of character that Polonius is.
From what Polonius says, we can tell that he is a man who highly regard is honor, his states and his reputation, and his willing to do anything to maintain that, even if it includes spying on his own son. The play also shows that he can be insensitive to his own family members, if it can help advance his own image, as can be seen when the looses is daughter upon Hamlet, not thinking of how she will feel about the meeting. He is also very loyal to the king:
Polonius: Assure you, m y good liege,
I hold my duty as I hold my soul,
Both to my god as to my gracious king
Polonius is the complacent wiseacre, infatuated in opinion, precipitated in action, and usually wrong. He is not wholly or obviously a fool, nor externally ridiculous at all, as can be testified by his high rank in the king s court. He is also a man who does not like to be proven wrong, and in this instant about his theory of Hamlet s madness, as he continues to insist that it is denied love that causes Hamlet to go mad. Even after the nunnery scene, Polonius still believes in his theory, even though it has just been proven wrong:
King: Love? his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack’d form a little,
Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood;
Polonius: It shall do well. But yet do I believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love.-
Polonius is a seemingly foolish old man, persistent in his idea that it is denial to Ophelia s love that drives Hamlet to madness. His noisiness and instance in being correct, in the end, unfortunately, or fortunately to those who dislike him, costs him his life and further complicates the tragedy Hamlet.
Hamlets observed madness was the source of much deliberation by many of the characters. As a result, each character had his own unique insight to this madness and believed that each had found the true cause for madness. Polonius believed that it was denied love, Gertrude; heart breaking anguish and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz: thwarted ambition. Whether Hamlet was mad or not is not in question in this writing, but what the characters though is. Did people believe that he was crazy? I believe I ll leave the answer to Polonius whom said, Your noble son is mad. Does this mean that people thought he was mad? What else could it mean? Whether he really was mad, or whether it was all an elaborate hoax, is a question for philosopher to answer, and I wish them luck, for they have a task ahead of them greater than any other.