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“My wit’s diseased”, Prince Hamlet tells Guildenstern in 3.2. But is the prince really insane? If so, is it because of some psychological defect in his personality? Or has Hamlet lost his reason as a result of being “benetted round with villainies” (5.2)?
And if Hamlet is not as “Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend / Which is the mightier” (4.1), why is the prince pretending to be? As for Ophelia, no one can doubt her poignant descent into very real trauma.
Hamlet is a tragic portrayal of the older generation destroying the younger—first, by driving them into maddening circumstances (“he shall not choose but fall”, 4.7; “I cannot choose but weep”, 4.5), and, then, into the grave. It may even be argued that Hamlet and Ophelia are the two sanest characters in the play.
#Hamlet dies naming as king a prince who is more like his father Old King Hamlet than he ever was.
With his trusted colleagues Horatio and the guard Marcellus (“your fingers on your lips, I pray”), Hamlet shares his plan to put on an “antic disposition” (1.5) — but never reveals his motive.
Is the prince hoping to disguise a real mental fragility (“my weakness and my melancholy”, 2.2) that might disqualify him from ever succeeding to the throne? We have Gertrude’s words that her son is prone to manic episodes (“a while the fit will work on him”, 5.1).
Or is Hamlet setting in place a defense of temporary insanity should he assassinate King Claudius and face a trial before Denmark’s nobles? This is the excuse he later offers to Laertes for Polonius’ murder: “Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet … Who does it, then? His madness” (5.2).
"How came he mad?" - #Hamlet asks about himself to the grave-digger.
The prince is never less like his ‘melancholy Dane’ caricature than when with the Players. Their arrival to Elsinore is his happiest moment in the play (“there did seem in him a kind of joy / To hear of it”, 3.1). Indeed, the prince fancies he would find success as a playwright and actor: “Would not this … get me a fellowship in a cry of players?”
Was Hamlet’s loss in childhood of the court jester and his surrogate parent Yorick a traumatic moment when the aged-seven only child was “from himself be ta’en away” (5.2)? And did he afterward find a refuge from painful reality in the make-believe world of theater? For there “the adventurous knight / shall use his foil and target; the lover shall not / sigh gratis” and “the humourous man shall end his part / in peace” (2.2).
King Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed. Prince #Hamlet by the murder he hasn't.
“With most wicked speed to incestuous sheets” (1.2)—does Hamlet’s reaction to Queen Gertrude’s speedy remarriage reveal a perverse obsession with his mother’s sexuality? Or is it evidence of an entirely practical concern by the prince for his future safety?
The birth of a rival heir to Hamlet’s “uncle-father and aunt-mother” (2.2) would make permanent the prince’s exclusion from Denmark’s throne. A wish to protect his already-thwarted inheritance is sufficient reason for Hamlet to urge Queen Gertrude: “go not to mine uncle’s bed” (3.4).
Moreover, there is no ‘bedroom scene‘ in Hamlet. Why would the queen have a second “royal bed of Denmark” (1.5) in her closet? And Hamlet’s only directions to Gertrude in the 3.4 text of “Sit you down” and “You shall not budge” contain little hint of erotic interaction.
Laertes, the avenger #Hamlet created, is also the man who pardons the prince.
After Hamlet’s “doublet all unbraced” visit to her closet, Ophelia worries that Polonius’ interpretation of Hamlet’s behavior (“Mad for thy love?”) may be correct: “My lord, … truly, I do fear it” (2.1). Following her father’s murder and Hamlet’s exile, the uncertain and distressed Ophelia of the first three acts collapses into the traumatized Ophelia of act four.
Ophelia’s madness is also for her a form of liberation. In her trauma, she has not so much lost her powers of reason but is using them for the first time. But, for so long unaccustomed to communicating her true feelings, she must borrow from the symbolic language of flowers and popular ballads to express her clear understanding of her bleak situation in a world of corruption and betrayal.
#Hamlet through theater and Ophelia through flowers each expose the dark secrets of the Danish court.
The tormented grappling of Hamlet and Ophelia with their dilemmas is mirrored in Guildenstern’s report of disputes between theater companies: “O, there has been much throwing about of brains” (2.2).
On seeing nothing in her future but disappointment, Ophelia makes the one decision about her life that is within her power: she ends it. Her “self-slaughter” (1.2) in the “weeping brook” (4.7) echoes Hamlet’s earlier wish that his “flesh would resolve itself into a dew” (1.2).
At his end, Hamlet follows the advice given to his assistant by the grave-digger: “cudgel thy brains no more about it” (5.1). The prince now accepts that the “divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2) will provide the circumstances for him to complete the task he has been fated to perform: “To quit (Claudius) with this arm” (5.2).
#Hamlet grants his father not the revenge he demanded but the atonement his suffering soul needed more.
The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in.
His “ambition” for Denmark’s throne leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father murdered” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
Uncle and nephew are two men at war with each other—and themselves. Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”); Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”).
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she, to the water; he, to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
“Those friends thou hast … Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted confidant in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.
A marriage of mutual self-interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the status of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.
Hamlet and Laertes journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on King Claudius becomes the revenge of Old King Fortinbras on Old King Hamlet.
“Who’s there?” The characters struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to behave deceitfully, and to perform in theater.