THE THEME OF MADNESS IN HAMLET: SAMPLE ESSAYS

“Your noble son is mad”, Polonius tells Denmark’s king and queen.

But is Hamlet ever really insane? If he is not, why is he pretending to be?

And is the prince’s behavior the cause of Ophelia’s traumatic breakdown?

In six parts — your free sample essay on the theme of madness in Hamlet. From Hamlet: Model Essays for Students by Brendan Munnelly.

Introduction

“My wit’s diseased”, 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.

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#Hamlet dies naming as king a prince who is more like his father King Hamlet than he ever was.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Although Hamlet and Ophelia respond in opposite ways to their dilemmas, there is nothing in either’s behavior that differs significantly from how a mentally well, ‘normal’ person would react had they been subjected to similar stresses.
  • Hamlet’s put on “antic disposition” (1.5) provides him with an outlet to vent his rage and enables the prince to cling to his sanity amidst the “sea of troubles” (3.1) that engulf him.
  • In contrast, the submissive and isolated Ophelia carries the pain of her continual silencing and humiliation inside her until her sanity collapses under its weight.

Key Supporting Quotes

13
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Hamlet’s performance: “An antic disposition“

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).

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"How came he mad?" - #Hamlet asks about himself to the grave-digger.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet’s motive for his put-on “antic disposition” (1.5) cannot be to protect his life from Claudius, for the king has no reason to suspect the prince knows the truth about his father’s death.
  • If anything, what the king calls Hamlet’s “turbulent and dangerous lunacy” (2.1) makes him more rather than less suspicious of his nephew.
  • Hamlet comes to be regarded not as an entirely sane man who could call on Horatio and Marcellus to prove he was only occasionally pretending to be otherwise; but as a complete lunatic (“he that is mad”, 5.1) who was banished from Denmark in the hope he might “recover his wits” (5.1).

Key Supporting Quotes

28
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Hamlet’s psychology: “A kind of joy”

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).

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King Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed. Prince #Hamlet by the murder he hasn't.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet’s speech to his two old school friends in 2.2 (“I have of late … lost all my mirth”) is often cited as evidence that the prince depressed. But Hamlet speaks these words only after discovering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were “sent for” to spy on him.
  • The prince’s claim to have “forgone all / custom of exercises” is contradicted by his later remark to Horatio in 5.2: “since (Laertes) went into France, / I have been in continual (fencing) practise.”
  • To suggest Hamlet is impaired by aboulomania (a paralyzing inability to make decisions) is to believe a ‘cured’ prince or other mentally sane person would, immediately without delay, murder his country’s elected leader on the word of a ghost.

Key Supporting Quotes

23
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Oedipal complex?: “Incestuous sheets”

“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.

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Laertes, the avenger #Hamlet created, is also the man who pardons the prince.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet’s fantasy about his parents’ marriage is less perverse than poignant. It is not to imagine himself as an incestuous interloper between father and mother; quite the contrary.
  • His quest is to rescue his mother’s soul (“Confess yourself to heaven”, 3.4) and condemn his uncle’s (“as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes”, 3.3).
  • This suggests a son’s longing to reunite in the afterlife the fractured-by-Claudius parental relationship he cherishes in his memory (“so loving to my mother … Why, she would hang on him”, 1.2).
  • Even Sigmund Freud would admit that nothing could be less incestuous or ‘oedipal’ than a son wishing he could restore his father to his mother’s side.

Key Supporting Quotes

27
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Ophelia’s trauma: “Divided from herself”

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 declines 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.

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#Hamlet through theater and Ophelia through flowers each expose the dark secrets of the Danish court.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet is in part sustained through his trials by his sense of self-worth; as he reminds Rosencrantz, he is “the son of a king” (4.2). Also, he has the friendship of Horatio and the loyalty of the palace guards.
  • In contrast, Ophelia is entirely alone. Her brother is absent in Paris and father murdered by her former lover. Even Gertrude, the play’s only other female character, will later refuse to offer her comfort in her distress: “I will not speak with her … What would she have?” (4.5).
  • Through the ballad of a naive girl who is seduced by the promise of marriage only to be abandoned because she is no longer a virgin, Ophelia conveys the maddening contradictions of her situation and impossibility of anything but failure: “I cannot choose but weep” (4.7).

Key Supporting Quotes

18
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion: “Cudgel thy brains no more”

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).

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#Hamlet grants his father not the revenge he demanded but the atonement his suffering soul needed more.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • When Claudius’ remarks about Hamlet that “th’exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was” (2.2), we are reminded that Elsinore is a place where there may be two possible answers to the question posed in the play’s opening line: “Who’s there?”
  • As with any totalitarian regime, Claudius’ kingdom is an incubator of what psychologists call dissociative identity disorder (DID): a condition that leaves sufferers with split personalities.
  • In the rigged fencing duel, Laertes answers the call issued to the Ghost in the very first scene: “stand, and unfold yourself.”
  • Laertes shows his true, honorable character by heeding the advice offered to him earler: “This above all: to thine ownself be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man” (1.3).

Key Supporting Quotes

27
quotations from the play to support your statements.