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Literary Essay: Is Hamlet Really Insane?
William Shakespeare’s is renowned for his works and is known as the world’s greatest dramatist to this day. He is dubbed the Bard of Avon because of his great skill in writing poems and playwrights. William Shakespeare, when compared to other great writers, did not produce as many works. During his lifetime, he has only written about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 5 long poems. Among the most outstanding of his works as a playwright are Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tragedy of Hamlet. This essay will focus on Shakespeare’s longest play, The Tragedy of Hamlet. Particularly the sanity of Hamlet, the main character of the play.
The Tragedy of Hamlet
The Tragedy of Hamlet revolves around Hamlet, the protagonist of the play. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and the son of Queen Gertrude and the late King Hamlet. Hamlet, the prince, is also nephew to King Claudius, the current king, who also happens to be his stepfather as Queen Gertrude had married her late husband’s brother. Hamlet has an intended, Ophelia, who is the daughter of Polonius whom King Claudius sees as the perfect courtier. Hamlet used to love Ophelia very much until the day he seemed to have really fallen into madness. Throughout the play, Hamlet displayed his eccentricity highlighted by his being melancholic, hatred, cynicism, and bigotry.
Although Hamlet seems to be quite insane at some parts, his wit and cunning could not escape the eyes of the reader (or the watcher) which ultimately led to everybody’s confusion. His insanity – which he planned to pretend to be – only reveals itself when he is being looked upon by certain personalities. Hamlet plans ever so carefully but also displays that he is prone to being impulsive and rash. Even though Hamlet feels his pain deeply, he is unable to sense the pain of others. Much of his suffering escalated after the death of his father.
The death of Hamlet’s father probably triggered his underlying emotional and mental problems that have been buried deep inside him. However, it is also possible that Hamlet’s father’s death is the root cause of his supposed insanity. It is still unclear to those who know of The Tragedy of Hamlet which is real: did Hamlet feign insanity for revenge or is he legitimately insane? Hamlet’s act of insanity is questionable at times as he is able to make witty remarks at exactly the perfect timing. Almost as if he has planned when he will say the words that will sound eccentric but is actually hiding a statement interlaced with dark humor.
Hamlet is deeply devoted to avenging his father for he believes that King Claudius is the one who murdered him. The Ghost that he had seen in the beginning of the story, which is probably of his father or just a trick played on him by the devil, had told him to kill King Claudius for he is the one responsible for the previous king’s death. As Hamlet can be incredibly reckless, he kills the man he sees behind the arras of his mother’s chamber believing that it is King Claudius. He did not care to check before he stabbed the man behind the tapestry and it was revealed that it is Ophelia’s father whom he had killed.
Because King Claudius fears for his life because he is witnessing the bizarre change in Hamlet’s personality and actions, he takes countermeasures to protect himself from Hamlet and even plans to kill him. For this, he takes Laertes’ – Ophelia’s brother and Polonius’ father – rage as a device to be used for his plan. They have planned to poison Hamlet by poisoning the rapier that Laertes will use for his duel with Hamlet. Another plan is to put poison in the wine that Hamlet is supposed to drink. Only, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, mistakenly drank the poisoned wine and died. And in the duel, Laertes wounded himself too and died. In the end, Hamlet succeeds in killing King Claudius before he himself lost his life.
Hamlet is such an enigmatic character that even after hundreds of years after it was first released, people still could not quite figure him out. The main question with regards to Hamlet is whether he is indeed insane or was it all just for show. However, he has blatantly said to himself a couple of times in the play that he is only pretending to be mad. There is no clear proof of his sanity and that is why Hamlet continues to be the most mysterious character in a play of all time. Up until today, all of Shakespeare’s fans could do it to formulate theories and find further evidence to strengthen their argument of whether Hamlet is only pretending to be mad or if his supposed insanity is legitimate.
Themes in the Tragedy of Hamlet
The pervading themes in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet are grief, madness, and death. Throughout the play, these three themes are concentrated in Hamlet’s character alone but are also repeatedly manifested in other major characters. Hamlet, being the one consumed by grief due to his father’s death, led to his being vulnerable and weak. His interaction with the Ghost gave way to his madness. Death seems to be the central point of The Tragedy of Hamlet as each and every choice that the characters made boils down to their deaths.
Grief is not witnessed in Hamlet alone. However, it must be emphasized that the grief he felt because of his father’s death seemed to be unbearable for him for he showed serious signs of melancholy – which doctors of the old era believe to be a step closer to being consumed by madness. Grief is also present in Ophelia – Hamlet’s intended – and is seen in the way she reacted in the instance of her father’s death. Knowing that the man she wanted to marry had killed her father, albeit accidentally, had driven her to madness and caused her to drown. In Laertes’ case, due to the death of his father and sister, which he blames on Hamlet, he had experienced quite a different grief from his sister. His grief fueled his rage and caused him to want to take revenge on Hamlet – which is very similar to Hamlet’s situation with King Claudius. Like his sister, Laertes’ grief ultimately led to his death during his duel with Hamlet.
Madness, the second prevalent theme in The Tragedy of Hamlet, is seen in the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia, the former lovers. Madness has manifested itself in those two in very different ways although its cause is similar. In Hamlet’s case, it is possible that he had gone mad after his father’s death, but the possibility of him having been insane prior to the event is also highly likely – or that he is not mad at all. Hamlet has displayed incredulous acts of insulting characters in the play right from the way he speaks up to the way he orchestrated to have a play depicting his father’s death to be watched by King Claudius.
Many have suspected that Hamlet had indeed gone mad for they have noticed an extreme change in his behavior. Hamlet is naturally a weak and indecisive person but the event of his father’s death triggered Hamlet’s unexpected bouts of insanity. He went around insulting people by giving vague statements. However, he had told his best friend from university, Horatio, and the Guard Marcellus that he is only pretending to be insane. His agenda for feigning insanity is to gather information to prove the Ghosts’ claims of whether King Claudius did indeed kill his father or not.
Hamlet’s madness is purely out of revenge for his father’s death. If he had not been told that King Claudius is the cause of his father’s death, then he may not have pretended to be insane or fallen into insanity. For Ophelia, madness took a different course. Ophelia, like Hamlet, has a weak personality. Ophelia is not able to make her own decisions and just relies on both her father and brother telling her what to do. Their order to stay away from Hamlet and even to spy on him had started to addle Ophelia’s mind for she had loved Hamlet.
In addition to that order, Hamlet had mistakenly killed her father. Knowing that the man she loves killed the man on whom she relies on have furthered her fall into madness. Furthermore, Hamlet has rejected her love. Losing both the men who defined her identity has caused her to fall into insanity. Although, she did not lose her air of innocence and even walked along the river, singing songs about flowers. She attempted to climb the willow tree in order to adorn it with flower garlands. Unfortunately, this choice of hers is the reason why she had fallen to her death – quite literally – as she died in the midst of her flower garlands in the river.
Death is obviously the most prevalent theme in The Tragedy of Hamlet. All of the major characters in this story have ultimately died and the roots of their deaths can be traced back to Hamlet putting up an act of insanity, or even further back, to his uncle King Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet showed just how much he is contemplating the matter of death as his thoughts went as far as thinking about the consequences of suicide and the afterlife.
As can be recalled, Hamlet pulled back from killing King Claudius when he was praying because he believes that if he kills his uncle while he is praying, his soul will undoubtedly ascend to heaven. And so, Hamlet decided to wait for a better time to seek his revenge and use the time he has to plot how he is to execute King Claudius. The time has caused him to ponder even more and he has even wondered if people just tolerated their situation in life due to the fear of what comes after death. Hamlet believes that this uncertainty made cowards of humans as they are not able to take their life for fear has taken hold of them.
Hamlet’s decisions also led to the death of his intended, Ophelia, for he had rejected her and caused her to believe that her father is right about Hamlet never having loved her at all. Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, did not escape the bigotry that Hamlet showed Ophelia. He had also said harsh words to his own mother, attacking mainly her incestuous marriage to his father’s brother. Both women have shown genuine affection and love for Hamlet – which Hamlet refused outright – but he has treated them rather inhumanely. Before the story ended, Gertrude died by drinking the poisoned wine that was intended for her son.
To be blamed for Hamlet’s impulsiveness, he killed Ophelia’s father. He had thought that the person behind the arras is indeed King Claudius and so he did not bother to check if he was right and just stabbed the man on the opposite side of the tapestry. He had mistakenly killed another man in place of the king. Hamlet did however manage to kill King Claudius before he died. Every major character in The Tragedy of Hamlet came to know of death and its inevitability.
The question of Hamlet’s insanity has been the talk of many who have seen or read The Tragedy of Hamlet. The common theories being formulated and expanded by the people are: that there was no question as to Hamlet’s sanity as he only pretended to be mad, that his audience with his supposed father’s ghost triggered underlying issues, and that he still has some amount of sanity left despite being quite deranged at times, and that he was fully sane but also did not fake his insanity.
Nowadays, madness can be equated to a mental illness that has the possibility to be cured and has symptoms indicative of what a person is experiencing. As for Hamlet, he is naturally detached and is a loner. His personality of being bitter and hateful only manifested itself after the event of his father’s death. His erratic behavior can be connected to the deep melancholy that he feels over the recent events in his life: the death of his father and the quick remarrying of his mother to his father’s brother.
His deep melancholy has been worsened by his father’s death and is indicative of the mental illness depression. Depression lets a person have very pessimistic thoughts and be unable to cope with life-altering events. This paved the way for him to be obsessed with having revenge for his father’s untimely death. As Hamlet has also claimed that he is only pretending to be insane, this is indicative that he at least knows the difference between normal behavior and that of a madman.
Hamlet’s insanity and his act of revenge all boil down to his having suffered from depression that has been worsened by the passing of his father. It is possible that Hamlet was not truly insane, but rather is a mentally ill person suffering from melancholy or depression. His claims to only have been pretending as an insane person is possibly true as he knows when to act insane and he only manifests his insanity in the audience of Ophelia, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Polonius.
All the characters in The Tragedy of Hamlet are not immune to pain and suffering. Just like Hamlet, they have fallen prey to their own emotions and lack of mental stability. They all know what it feels like to be vulnerable and so have acted out of revenge or defense. Shakespeare did a great job in redeeming his characters through their deaths as this is possibly the only way to end their suffering in life. The ending was crafted to turn a new page and start a new story in regard to the throne of Denmark. Effectively leaving all the past pain and suffering of the characters behind as all those who have extremely negative reactions or personalities have been purged.
An interesting character analysis may be written for The Tragedy of Hamlet. This work of Shakespeare truly is a masterpiece for even 400 years after it has been written, it is still widely talked about and is still managing to spark new theories, especially about the character of Hamlet. Even today, articles are being written in the name of Hamlet. If you are one of the students who have been assigned to write an analysis of Shakespeare’s work, then why not reach out to CustomEssayMeister to help you create a unique high-quality custom essay? Old English may be hard to understand for some, much less analyze. Don’t hesitate and send us a message now so we can help you write your assignment for you!
Brenner, Manuel. “Hamlet and a Short History of Madness.” Medium, 11 May 2020, manuel-brenner.medium.com/hamlet-and-a-short-history-of-madness-36a475db2b92.
“Hamlet.” Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/shakespeares-plays/hamlet.
Sheys, Gwendolyn. “Analysis of Hamlet’s Death.” Owlcation - Education , 22 Feb. 2018, owlcation.com/humanities/HamletsDeathAnalysis.
Wilber, Jennifer. “The Madness of Hamlet and Ophelia: Mental Illness in Shakespeare.” Owlcation - Education , 12 July 2018, owlcation.com/humanities/The-Madness-of-Hamlet-and-Ophelia-Mental-Illness-in-Shakespeare.