Madness and Insanity in Shakespeare's Hamlet Essay

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Hamlet and Insanity

William Shakespeare’s creation of the character of Hamlet within the tragedy of that name left open the question of whether the madness of the protagonist is entirely feigned or not. This essay will treat this aspect of the drama.

George Lyman Kittredge in the Introduction to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, explains the lack of success with Hamlet’s pretended insanity, and in so doing he implies that the madness is entirely feigned and not real:

The necessity for some device like the play within the play is due to the failure of Hamlet’s assumed madness to achieve its purpose. [. . .] In Shakespeare’s drama, however, Hamlet’s motive for acting the madman is obvious. We speak
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Hamlet feigns madness but also shows signs of true madness) after his father’s death and his mother’s overhasty remarriage; Ophelia actually does go mad after her father’s death at the hands of Hamlet. For both, madness is a kind of freedom – a license to speak truth. Those who hear them listen carefully, expecting to find something of substance in their speech. Is it they, the audience, who make something out of nothing, or is it the mad who make something out of the nothing of ordinary experience? (90)

Hamlet’s first words in the play say that Claudius is "A little more than kin and less than kind," indicating a dissimilarity in values between the new king and himself – introducing into the story a psychological problem, a refusal to conform, which lays the groundwork for, or previews, the upcoming pretended madness. As the future king of Denmark, the hero is expected to maintain a good working relationship with the present king, Claudius. But this is not so. Even before the apparition of the ghost, Hamlet has a very sour relationship with his uncle and stepfather, Claudius.

Hamlet’s first soliloquy deepens the psychological rift between the prince and the world at large, but especially women; it emphasizes the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his
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