Hamlet tells his friends that he will pretend to be mad. His act is extremely convincing, though. Is it really an act, or does Hamlet slip into madness during the play?
In order to discuss whether Hamlet ever truly falls into madness, we must first define what constitutes it. For the sake of this discussion, I will consider these following behaviors as characteristic of madness:
- Unpredictability or unclear motives to others; extreme irrationality
- Negative behavior that does not serve a greater purpose (violent or otherwise)
- Disregard for personal wellbeing or that of one’s family/friends
- Lack of adherence to social norms or rules
I believe that Hamlet’s behavior absolutely satisfies these criteria, thereby making him “mad”. Firstly, he lies to practically every character in the play at some point, including his closest friends. He does not trust anyone except for Horatio, and actively schemes against his own family and friends. Furthermore, his erratic behavior leads to the death of several important characters, including Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia. Though he does not intend to kill Polonius, Hamlet’s severe lack of judgment renders this irrelevant; he wildly stabbed behind a curtain when he detected movement, and expressed no remorse while dragging the old man’s corpse away in front of his own mother. All in all, Hamlet absolutely can be considered “mad” to the outside world.
But, within his own mind, has Hamlet truly gone mad? Though there is no way to be certain, I would argue that Hamlet does, in fact, lose his grip on his sanity. One can speculate as to whether Hamlet’s initial decision to feign madness as a cover for his strange behavior is triggered by his stress and desire to lash out at others, and not as part of an elaborate scheme. After all, for the majority of the play, Hamlet has no plan. He is pondering whether he should act, not how. To me, this indicates that his behavior is not following a path, and Hamlet is simply using his grief as an excuse to seek revenge. Furthermore, Hamlet’s behavior clearly becomes more difficult to explain as the play goes on: by Act V, Hamlet is wrestling with Laertes over Ophelia’s corpse in order to prove that he loved her more. This is simply indefensible. Hamlet has entirely abandoned his sense of right and wrong, succumbing to his “Id” in the Freudian sense. Though his behavior may not appear to meet the traditional medical criteria for psychosis, Hamlet is certainly mad for all practical intents and purposes.
Note: Unfortunately, since I already turned in my copy of Hamlet to you, I was not able to cite specific lines of the text. However, I believe that I made it clear that I did, in fact, read the play, and that I grasp the events and ideas contained within it well enough to discuss this nuanced question.