Many criminal suspects today divert guilt from themselves by attributing their actions to some sort of insanity. Prince Hamlet, of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, puts on a similar fake lunacy that eventually takes over Hamlet, controls him, and leads to his downfall.
Hamlet returns to his home, Denmark’s palace, one day to find King Hamlet, his father, dead. While still mourning his father’s death, his mother marries, of all people, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Then, Hamlet meets a ghost whose appearance is like that of the dead King Hamlet. To confuse Hamlet’s situation even more, this ghost explains to Hamlet that Claudius murdered King Hamlet while he was sleeping. Hamlet’s responds to the confusion, sadness, and anger he feels by putting on what he terms an “antic disposition” (1.5.192).
Shakespeare uses Ophelia, among other characters, to describe Hamlet’s “antic disposition” – changes in both his appearance and behavior. Shortly after expressing his plan to put on his “antic disposition,” Hamlet changes his appearance from that of a presumably attractive young man to that of a sickly figure. After Hamlet shows up in her chamber, Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend, explains that Hamlet appears “with his doublet all unbraced, No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, Ungartered, 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” (2.1.88-93). Hamlet’s new behavior, too, varies greatly. Hamlet, at one time, represented the young man many desired to become. Ophelia explains he possessed at one time a “noble mind” and was a “soldier,” and a “scholar” – all the terms by which any young man at that time would like to be known (3.1.64). Now, though, Hamlet lashes out at others, speaks harshly with those to whom he is supposedly close, and even thoughtlessly kills a man.
Though Hamlet fails to disclose his reasoning behind displaying the “antic disposition,” his words and actions point to a few possible motives. When Hamlet first puts on his insanity appearance, it is possible that he does so in order to determine the validity of the ghost’s words. He explains in one of his soliloquies, “The spirit that I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power T’ assume a pleasing shape” (2.2.627-629). Hamlet has a seemingly valid fear at this point in the tragedy; Hamlet has no other source besides the ghost from which he can gather evidence against Claudius. If Hamlet were to take revenge on Claudius without having first acquired evidence that Claudius actually did something to offend Hamlet, his actions would be worse than those he thinks Claudius carried out – not only would Hamlet commit murder, he would also falsely accuse another man. Therefore, Hamlet’s plan to put on a false madness is clever, as it will allow him to unobtrusively find out more information. If all the members of the court deem Hamlet insane, they will put up with any strange actions on his part, rather than becoming suspicious.
Though Hamlet’s “antic disposition” comes across as a clever method by which he can gather information, his motive appears to consist of more than simply discovering the truth regarding what happened to his father. Shortly before stating his doubts revolving around the validity of the ghost’s account of recent happenings, Hamlet explains, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (2.2.577-578). He then continues to question how an actor with whom he speaks can show so much emotion in response to a fictional story, while he, himself cannot take revenge in reply to Claudius’ real-life actions against Hamlet’s father. This seems like a more plausible motive for Hamlet’s cover – he wants revenge but has no desire to face the consequences of such an action. Using his reasoning, if nearly all the characters believe he is crazy, they will attribute his poor choices and shameful actions to the insanity rather than to Hamlet himself, and they will exonerate him.
Hamlet’s madness begins as a false appearance that he displays intentionally. After the ghost gives Hamlet a detailed account of what supposedly happened to King Hamlet, Hamlet explains to his friends Horatio and Marcellus, “I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on” (1.5.191-192). From the reader’s perspective, no doubt should exist as to the artificiality of Hamlet’s insanity. Hamlet clearly shows his intent to act in such a manner; no reason exists to believe otherwise. Additionally, in the Act 2 discussion between Hamlet and Polonius, an assistant to Claudius, even Polonius recognizes Hamlet’s wit – a trait frequently non-existent in a madman. Polonius explains in an aside, “though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t” (2.2.223-224). A truly mad person does not have a method to his madness, as it has come as a result of a force other than his will.
Though Hamlet has control over his insanity when he first displays it, as the play progresses, Hamlet loses that power over it. He puts a constantly decreasing quantity of thought into his actions, thoughts, and words. Alongside his loss of control over his “antic disposition,” Hamlet becomes more and more distraught over his fear of killing Claudius. In one of his soliloquies, Hamlet explains, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (3.1.91-93). Indeed, Hamlet’s conscience holds him back from taking revenge, but his obsession with killing Claudius only pulls Hamlet away from the direction of his conscience. His fixation with getting revenge for his father’s death only serves to fuel his madness and give it a foothold in controlling Hamlet.
As his madness controls more and more of his life, Hamlet treats those whom he should treat with dignity and respect as if they were trash. When Hamlet talks to Ophelia in Act 3, he fails to treat her the way any woman, or any person for that matter, deserves to be treated. He threatens Ophelia that if she marries, he will “give [her] this plague for [her] dowry: be [she] as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, [she] shalt not escape calumny” (3.1.146-148). In other words, Hamlet vows to slander Ophelia. If Hamlet still possessed control over his madness at this point, he would not go around speaking such harsh words to a woman he loved. On the other hand, one could explain Hamlet’s actions by arguing that he never truly loved Ophelia. If that were the case, though, it would make no sense for Hamlet to fight with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, over who loved her more and then say, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum” (5.1.285-287). Hamlet does love Ophelia, but his failure to exercise self-control, to keep his anger to a minimum and to respond in an appropriate manner to his father’s murder leads him to act in such an ill-mannered way toward Ophelia.
Hamlet treats his mother in a similar manner to the way he treats Ophelia – with disrespect and dishonor. His mother, Queen Gertrude, recognizes his insolence and questions, “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue In noise so rude against me?” (3.4.47-48). Since Hamlet does not treat his own mother with respect, it comes as no surprise that he treats his girlfriend poorly.
During his discussion with his mother, Hamlet hears a person behind the arras and kills him on impulse, without a second thought. Such an action reveals a considerable change in Hamlet from the beginning of the play to the end. In the beginning of the play, Hamlet carefully avoids carrying forth actions until he knows their consequences. On the other hand, by the end, he rashly fails to consider the outcome of an action before responding.
Whether using the “antic disposition” for avoiding blame, or for simply finding out the truth about events revolving around King Hamlet’s death, Prince Hamlet’s madness fails its purpose. Rather than simply getting rid of Claudius, Hamlet’s antic disposition has, in essence, a domino effect on the plot. Hamlet has his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed because they become a nuisance to him. Shortly before their deaths, Hamlet murders Polonius, which upsets Ophelia even more. Ophelia falls in a brook and gives up and dies. Hamlet’s slaughter of Polonius also upsets Laertes, who plots with Claudius against Hamlet. Laertes’ plot gets Hamlet, Laertes, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius killed. If Hamlet had never put on the “antic disposition,” he may not have gotten revenge, but the play would not have ended in tragedy – Hamlet, himself, as well as those he loved, would not have died.
Hamlet’s situation with his madness has reversed completely. That which Hamlet created and controlled from the start now possesses power over him. This, though, does not excuse Hamlet’s actions. Though Hamlet’s “antic disposition” and his rage may have eased the carrying forth of his actions, both are creations of Hamlet – both are things over which he initially has control, but which he gradually allows to take control over him.
If we are to take his own statement of the case at face value, Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is a disguise for real feelings and intentions, a mere act, something to be assumed and cast off at will, or so he tells Horatio and Marcellus:
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on….(I, v, 170)
Every audience is bound to be taken aback by this, in the light of all that Hamlet has stood for up to now. He has made a point of asserting his truth, his anxiety to be what he looks like, to embody the perfect equation of appearance and reality: ‘Seems, madam! Nay it is; I know not seems’ (I, ii, 76). Now, only a few scenes later, he is preparing to employ the same ‘ambiguous giving out’ as he has so lucidly deplored in his mother and uncle.
There are various ways of looking at his assumption of the ‘antic disposition’. One may regard it as a useful weapon in the coming struggle with Claudius and his associates; this, apparently, is why Hamlet assumes it in the first place. It may also be explained as a legacy from the sources used by Shakespeare: in these sources (e.g. Thomas Kyd) the central figure feigned madness in order to allay the suspicions of his enemies while he plotted and executed his revenge. Again, we may regard the assumption of a mask as evidence that Hamlet has begun to succumb to the general contamination which the fateful crime of Claudius has spread like a poison through the realm (‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’). This interpretation is in tune with the idea, found in all the tragedies, that overwhelming evil, engulfing most of the participants, issues from the initial breach in nature (in this case a brother’s murder).
Once Hamlet has begun to make use of his ‘antic disposition’, we find a pronounced disintegration in his character. It is possible to speak after this of three Hamlets, or at least of three selves in the one Hamlet, one quite normal, the other two abnormal. The ‘normal’ Hamlet is found in conversation with Horatio, with the gravediggers or with the players, and in the soliloquies. Hamlet’s two ‘abnormal’ personalities are fairly easily distinguishable. The first one is, in keeping with his declaration to Horatio and Marcellus, put on and taken off as the occasion requires. Polonius is the most obvious victim. Most of his conversations with Polonius are attempts to make the old man as ridiculous as possible; he uses apparently nonsensical statements to fool and embarrass Polonius and to comment on his dubious behaviour. When he calls him a fishmonger (11, ii, 174) he is using a slang term for a pander (pimp), and thus describing the reprehensible use being made of Ophelia. We find the same kind of thing later when Hamlet pretends not to recognise Polonius, but pointedly refers to a daughter, that of ‘old Jephtah’ (11, ii, 406), the name he calls Polonius. This clowning reference embodies one of the grimmer ironies of the play. Jephtah was a Hebrew judge who rashly sacrificed his only daughter. Polonius will, in his own words, ‘loose his daughter’ to Hamlet, and she, too, will be sacrificed, the victim of the machinations of guilty men. Hamlet also makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bear the weight of his ’antic disposition’ after the Play Scene, to the extent that Guildenstern has to call him to order: ‘Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame, and start not so wildly from my affair’ (111, iii, 297).
The other ‘abnormal’ Hamlet is a much more disturbed, disturbing and menacing figure. The explosive irrational side of his nature is exposed and provoked by contrast with those with whom he is involved emotionally. Here there is no question of an antic disposition easily assumed and as easily discarded. The passion is genuine, the behaviour unselfconscious and beyond control. When he is engaged with Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia or Laertes, for example, or reflects on their dealings with him, he is frequently moved to passionate, raging outbursts of feeling, as in the scene with Ophelia (the ‘Nunnery Scene’- 111, i), and in the fight with Laertes over Ophelia’s grave, which draws the comment, ‘O, he is mad, Laertes’ (V, i, 269) from the King. It is Gertrude who most powerfully affects his emotional stability from the start of the play. What he sees as her criminal marriage to Claudius is the obsession that destroys his balance and which is liable to turn him into a slave of passion, whatever the prompting of his rational self may suggest; another is his rage against Gertrude in the Closet Scene (111, iv.). This is not, as he points out to her, the result of madness (‘My pulse as yours doth temperately beat time’), but of righteous anger at what he sees as her degenerate behaviour with Claudius, and her infidelity to the memory of his father.
It must be said that there are times when Hamlet himself realises how readily he can slide into an unpremeditated and unpredictable rage. On his way to his mother’s closet he asks himself for self-control (‘O heart, lose not thy nature’). His comment to Horatio explaining his behaviour towards Laertes tells a good deal about his mercurial temperament: ‘But sure the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a towering passion’ (V, ii, 79). One of his acts (the killing of Polonius) during a spell of abnormal passion is destined to have fatal consequences for him. It leaves him open to the same treatment at Laertes’ hands as he is in honour required to mete out to Claudius. He recognises the logic of this position when he says of Laertes that, ‘by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his’ (V, ii 77).
If Hamlet’s basic purpose in assuming his ‘antic disposition’ is to divert suspicion while he plots his uncle’s downfall, it must be said that it is not particularly successful stratagem. Indeed, his pranks and clowning make Claudius extremely suspicious. Even before such things become obvious, the King asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet in order, as he puts it, to, ‘glean whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus’ (11, ii, 17). Until the climax, much of the King’s attention is focused on attempts to fathom the meaning of the ‘antic disposition’. Polonius proposed Ophelia as a reason, but after the ‘Nunnery Scene’, Claudius is satisfied that Hamlet’s condition does not originate with her. Indeed, he wonders whether what he has witnessed has been a display of madness at all: ‘Love / His affections do not that way tend / Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little / Was not like madness’ (111, i, 165). Another odd feature of Hamlet’s assumption of his ‘antic disposition’ is that having decided to use it as a stratagem, he does not seem particularly concerned whether Claudius sees through it or not. He knows well that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to spy on him, and that they will accurately report his remarks and responses to Claudius, yet he assures them he is ‘but mad north-north-west’ (11, ii 375), meaning that he is quite sane except on one point. He also assures Gertrude, whom he can scarcely trust to keep his disclosure from Claudius, that ‘I essentially am not in madness / But mad in craft’ (111, iv, 187).
Madness is frequently ascribed to Hamlet in the course of the play, from the offer of Polonius to reveal the cause of his ‘lunacy’ to Claudius, to the latter’s various expressions of determination to deal with it: ‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go’ (III, i, 189); ‘Not stands it safe with us / To let his madness range’ (III, iii, 1). We find the dangers of madness stressed by Horatio in his warnings to Hamlet against the Ghost, ‘Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness’ (I, iv, 73) and by Hamlet himself, rather implausibly, when he excuses himself to Laertes by declaring that ‘His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy’ (V, ii, 231). A man who can discuss his own ‘madness’ as objectively as Hamlet can here is not a lunatic, nor is the man who can tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that his ‘wit’s diseased’ (III, ii, 310).
Harry Levin proposes a useful formula when he suggests that Hamlet is ‘thoughtsick rather than brainsick – neurotic rather than psychotic, to state the matter in more clinical terms’ (The Question of Hamlet, p. 113). Levin’s distinction is useful. In the neurotic, his emotional or intellectual disorders do not deprive him of contact with reality; the psychotic, on the other hand, is divorced from objective reality. The psychotic lives in a world of fantasy; the neurotic still lives in the real world. Most neurotics suffer from some deep-rooted obsession. Levin takes Hamlet’s confession that he is ‘mad north-north-west’ to mean that his ‘madness’ is liable to come upon him only in response to a particular issue. He can speak as normally as the next man on almost any theme but one; he is so obsessed with his mother’s remarriage and his hatred of her new husband that he cannot think or speak rationally on these subjects. This explains much of his odd behaviour towards Ophelia. Gertrude’s conduct has given him an extreme sense of female frailty: when he denounces this in the Nunnery Scene he has before him not his real and appropriate target, Gertrude, but an innocent victim, Ophelia, to whose ears his torrent of abuse sounds quite mad. There is irony in the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship here. The soliloquy he has spoken a few moments before (‘To be or not to be’) shows his rational powers at their highest. Ophelia’s comment on his behaviour (‘O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown – 111, i, 50) will soon prove appropriate to her own condition, not to his, since it is she who will lose her reason after her father’s death at Hamlet’s hands.
An interesting and plausible explanation of the ‘antic disposition’ is that it is a safety-valve for Hamlet’s melancholy, hysteria and seething, pent-up emotions. One editor has pointed out that just before he assumes his feigned madness he is ’in a state of extreme emotional instability, and with an intellect tottering on its seat’. The great critic A. C. Bradley suggested that the ‘antic disposition’ is the means Hamlet employs ‘to give some utterance to the load that presses on his heart and brain’. His mother’s sudden remarriage has plunged him into a profound melancholy, which causes him to see life and the world as absurd and disgusting, possessed only by things ‘rank and gross in nature’ (1, ii, 136). Then come the startling revelations of the Ghost and the command to revenge. He must in some way communicate his sense of shocked horror and disillusionment. Feigning madness gives him a freedom and scope in this direction which would otherwise be denied to him.
No account of Hamlet’s behaviour can be compete without some reference to a central Elizabethan and Jacobean term: melancholy. Shakespeare was familiar with some of the contemporary literature on this subject, and there is evidence that he made use of this in Hamlet. Claudius makes explicit reference to the condition: ‘There’s something in his soul/O’er which his melancholy sits on brood’ (111, i, 167). One of the obvious symptoms of the melancholy man was his mercurial temperament, ‘some times furious and sometimes merry’. Hamlet certainly embodies these extremes; his astonishing and sudden changes of mood are a marked feature of his character. Gertrude accurately defines this feature: ‘And thus awhile the fit will work on him/Anon as patient as the female dove’ (V, i, 283). She speaks from first-hand experience of her son’s unstable nature, which finds its most extended outlet in his tremendous performance in the ‘Closet Scene’. Contemporary audiences would not have been surprised at such behaviour; they would have known from many sources, learned and popular, that ‘melancholy is the nurse of frenzy’.
Essay Preparation: The Case For and Against
You might use the following points for an essay on ‘Hamlet’s madness’ or ‘antic-disposition’. Back up your arguments with suitable quotation from the text.
Yes, he was mad:
- Hamlet appears to act mad when he hears of his father’s murder. At the time he speaks ‘wild and whirling words’. Later on in Act V, Horatio had warned him about losing ‘his sovereignty of reason’.
- Hamlet’s behaviour throughout towards Ophelia is very erratic. He professes to be the only one who truly loves her in Act V, Scene I, during the fight with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave, but in the Nunnery scene he had told her that he never loved her, when she returns his letters and gifts (signs of when he did).
- His mood changes abruptly throughout the play e.g. Act I Scene ii and Act II Scene ii.
- He plays hide and seek with the corpse of a courtier he murdered.
- He jumps aboard a pirate ship without anyone to back him up.
- He jumps into Ophelia’s grave, and fights with Laertes.
- He has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, even though they were not part of his revenge-against-his-father’s-murder plan.
- He alone sees his father’s ghost in his mother’s chamber. Every other time the ghost appeared someone else has seen it. During this scene he finally shows his madness, because his mother does not see the ghost (Act III scene iv – line 105).
- He has violent outbursts towards his mother.
- Hamlet tells Laertes that he killed Polonius in a ‘fit of madness’. (Act V Scene ii – lines 236 – 250).
- He kills Polonius and immediately turns to addressing his mother’s sex life.
No, he was sane:
- Hamlet tells Horatio that he is going to feign madness, and that if Horatio notices any strange behaviour from Hamlet, it is because he is putting on ‘an antic disposition’. (Act I Scene v – lines 166 – 180).
- Hamlet’s madness only manifests itself when he is in the presence of certain characters. When Hamlet is around Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he behaves irrationally. When Hamlet is around Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, The Players and the Gravediggers, he behaves rationally.
- Claudius confesses that Hamlet’s ‘actions although strange, do not appear to stem from madness’ (Act III Scene I – lines 165-167), and there are other quotes about his ‘transformation’.
- Polonius admits that Hamlet’s actions and words have a ‘method’ to them; there appears to be a reason behind them, ‘pregnant’, they are logical in nature (Act II, Scene ii, lines 206-207).
- Hamlet’s madness in no way reflects Ophelia’s true madness, he doesn’t become a singer!
- He informs the spies that he is ‘mad, north-northwest’ – a controlled insanity! He tells his mother that he is not mad, ‘but mad in craft’ (Act III, Scene iv, lines 188-199).
- Hamlet believes in his sanity at all times. He never doubts his control over his psyche. He speaks maturely of a ‘divinity that shapes our ends’ in Act V, shows physical composure at the fencing bout, and has enough self-possession when dying to name a successor.