Is Hamlet Sane or Insane?
The question of whether Hamlet is actually insane or not is one which has plagued people since Shakespeare first wrote the play, with as many arguments for the latter as for the former. The reason for such a split is the life which Shakespeare gives to many of his characters – there are valid arguments for either side of the debate. Hamlet’s character is such that he could very well be acting – or he could simply be mad. He could even have gone insane but still be acting insane, which gives more weight to both sides at once. Shakespeare has managed to create a character who seamlessly weaves together sanity and insanity in all its forms, and has gone on to create surroundings which only add to the confusion. The court which surrounds Hamlet is confused as to whether Hamlet is sane or not, and so this is quite often taken as our lead on the subject, as Shakespeare’s characters share the same universe. This paper aims to explain why Hamlet is in fact insane, with reference to both his own actions, and the play as a whole.
The Reason for the Divide between the Camps
The facility which Shakespeare has shown with the creation of his various characters is in part the reason for the divide between people who think Hamlet is sane, and those who think he is insane. The character of Hamlet is real enough that some people might relate to him as though he were real, and would react to situations and events as though he were real. Other people who see him purely as a fictitious character of the stage are able to approach him as such, and so can attach less reality to both his character and his actions throughout the play. Both groups of people therefore react differently to Hamlet as he moves through his own world.
O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. (Hamlet)
When it comes to Hamlet himself, this melding of reality and unreality may have been a more meta- approach of Shakespeare’s, as he sought to extend the madness of Hamlet by making it unreal even from outside the play. If no one is quite sure to react to Hamlet, then there is an additional layer of insecurity when it comes to answering to his sanity or lack thereof. There are of course problems with either approach – by definition, if Hamlet were real he would then need to be mad, as our conception of reality is such that only a mad person can be insane. If he is a character, then he must at all times be acting, as sanity is not something which can be removed or acted upon freely.
The Insanity Plea
Medical professionals who have studied Hamlet have said that he is definitely suffering from some form of dementia, though possibly in the early stages, as shown by some of his actions being reasonable by any definition. Shakespeare, as has been pointed out, is a very talented creator – we can therefore assume that, if Shakespeare wanted his characters to be seen as insane, then he would make them insane. Ophelia, herself a character in Hamlet, is proof enough of that. It is true that Ophelia is insane in a much equivocal way than Hamlet is, but she is proof enough of the idea that if Shakespeare has given us the idea that a character is insane, then that should be taken as proof that the character is indeed insane, and should be treated accordingly.
And now, good friends,
As you are friends, scholars and soldiers,
Give me one poor request. (Hamlet)
Ophelia has been sent mad explicitly due to the events of the play – we see that Hamlet’s actions concerning her father, and her own insecurities regarding Hamlet’s affection for her, have pushed her over the edge. She contrasts with Hamlet in that she, in her madness, flits around the stage saying nonsensical things. They are related to the plot, but the impression of her words is that this is purely by accident, and not by design, contrasting with Hamlet, who uses his madness (or people’s reactions to it) to his own benefit. This is not to say that Hamlet is not someone who is truly mad; as above, it has been postulated that Hamlet was still in control of his own faculties for the most part, and from what we know of his personality, it does seem in-character for him to use madness to his own advantage.
Another strike for the theory of Hamlet’s insanity is that Hamlet is insane in the original story that Shakespeare worked from. Shakespeare does make changes as seem appropriate to him, as we can see most clearly in Macbeth, but the plot and the events which occur only make sense if we assume that Hamlet is insane. Yes, the circumstances in which he finds himself are a little extreme, but how many people would act like Hamlet if they found themselves in the same position? His actions are cruel and nonsensical to the extreme, whether it be tormenting Ophelia, or dashing upon a concealed Polonius because of the assumption that he was the king. No one in their right minds would act like that, and it is that phrase which allows us to pinpoint Hamlet’s likely mental state – he is not in his right mind.
Hamlet as a play is one which has polarised many people over the issue of whether or not Hamlet as a character is truly insane or sane. There are many arguments on either side of the debate, and this paper aimed to make a case for Hamlet being insane, using evidence from Hamlet himself and from the play itself. Many people think that Hamlet is entirely sane because they make the mistake of trying to relate to the play as though the characters were real. Of course, we are meant to suspend our disbelief and accept the characters as real, but only within the context of the play itself; to treat the characters as real is to muddle our perceptions. Hamlet is insane because the play requires him to be so, his actions and reactions would otherwise make no sense on a logical scale. It is true that his insanity manifests in a manner different to that of Ophelia, but it is possible that Hamlet is simply still at the edge of his insanity, and able to control it to some degree.