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Themes of Madness in Hamlet

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3107 words Published: 12th Jul 2017

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“To be or not to be” begins one of the most famous soliloquies of all time by an author that has stood the test of time, William Shakespeare in his play, Hamlet. There are several different themes that are relayed within Hamlet’s story. These themes include death, obsession, and betrayal, all of which contribute in some manner to encourage Hamlet’s madness. In every theme, the audience can relate on a universal level both back in the day and in contemporary times as death, obsession and betrayal are common entities, well known today and will continue to be known and understood until the end of time. There are many overlapping themes that all relate back to Hamlet’s madness, specifically including death, obsession, and betrayal.

Nature of Hamlet

The underlying theme of madness is represented quite often in the play. In the play, Hamlet exhibits a puzzling nature. Hamlet contradicts himself throughout out the play. He endorses both of the virtues of acting a role and being true to one’s self. He further supports both of these conflicting endorsements with his actions. This ambiguity is demonstrated by his alleged madness, for he does behave madly, only to become perfectly calm and rational an instant later. These inconsistencies are related with the internal dilemmas he faces. He struggles with the issue of revenging his father’s death, vowing to kill Claudius and then backing out, several times.

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In the first act Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions and inner state. When questioned by Gertrude about his melancholy appearance Hamlet says, “Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not seems” (1.2.76). This is to say “I am what I appear to be.” Later he makes a clear statement about his state when he commits himself to revenge. In this statement the play makes an easy to follow shift. This shift consists of Hamlet giving up the role of a student and mourning son. Hamlet says,”I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain (1.5.99‑103) Hamlet is declaring that he will be committed to nothing else but the revenge of his fathers death.


When Hamlet appears again in act two, it seems that he has lost the conviction that was present earlier. He has yet to take up the part assigned to him by the ghost. He spends the act walking around, reading, talking with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players. It is not until the very end of the act that he even mentions vengeance. If he had any of the conviction shown earlier he would be presently working on his vengeance. So instead of playing the part of vengeful son, or dropping the issue entirely, he hangs out in the middle, pretending to be mad. This is shown when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “I know not‑lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercise” (2.2.298‑299). Later he tells them that he is just feigning madness when he says, “I am but mad north‑north‑west, when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.380‑381). Admitting so blatantly that he is only feigning madness would imply that he is comfortable with it. He also seems to be generally comfortable with acting. This is evidenced when he says, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.251‑252). Hamlet is saying that behavior shapes reality. Hamlet is prompted to vengeance, again, by the moving speech that is given by one of the players. About this speech he says,

“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do Had he motive and cue for passion, That I have? (2.2.561‑564) In this praise of this players ability to act, Hamlet is saying that if he were such an actor he would have killed Claudius by now. This link between vengeance and acting that is present here is what Hamlet struggles with until very near the end.

When Hamlet is advising the player on how his lines should be read he says, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (3.2.17‑18). If Hamlet would follow his own advice he would not have a conflict. This shows that he is not consistent within himself. Hamlet is saying one should not distinguish between word and actions, but he does maintain this separation. Yet when Hamlet speaks with Horatio he praises him for being objective, levelheaded, and for having a consistent character. He is praising Horatio for being true to himself, not being an actor. Hamlet says,”Give me that man, That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him, In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee. (3.2.69‑72)

Hamlet is saying this because he wants Horatio to watch the King at the play. He is unsure of his uncle’s guilt, and he wants proof. He wants it from someone who he thinks is honest throughout. It comes back to acting and vengeance or in this case he has failed in his vengeance and needs Horatio to agree with him. Hamlet says to Horatio,” Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt, Do not itself unkernnel in one speech, It is a dammed ghost we have seen, (3.2.77‑80) Proof, however, does not have any thing to do with the role Hamlet is supposed to play, but there is more to it than that. The interesting thing is that his uncle will be judged by how he acts during the play. If the King is a good actor, and does not show his guilt, he will most likely not be killed. However, the King is not a good actor and when he rises Hamlet responds with, “What, frighten with false fire?” (3.2.254). It’s as if Hamlet is saying it’s only a play, it’s not real. He does say something to this effect a few lines before. “Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not” (3.2.229‑230). This new proof drives Hamlet to use more words. He is again to talk of killing, and he says, “Now I could drink hot blood” (3.2.379). He again associates this with a role, that of Nero. “The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom” (3.2.383). Later Hamlet again talks himself out of character and does not kill the King. He puts it off until later and says,” When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, At gaming, swearing, or about some act, That has no relish of salvation in it, Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be dammed and black (3.3.89‑94)


Hamlet frequently thinks about suicide throughout the course of the play. Hamlet’s perspective on his life can be seen in his “To be or not to be” speech. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep- No more, and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks” is only the beginning of his verse (3.1.59-64). By mentioning the thoughts of suffering the “slings” and “arrows” that are naturally life’s tribulations, followed by the consideration of facing a “sea of troubles” by living, it is apparent that he desires to experience death. Hamlet hopes to avoid and not to be subjected to inevitable “heartache” that is simply part of life, and by wishing to not have to tolerate pain, exhibits his wish to die. At the end, Hamlet has apparently made the decision that he would rather die, but if, and only if he were not afraid of what would come after death. In a manner of speaking, this also reflected Hamlet’s depression in that he would constantly think about death. He was melancholy to say the least. The question remains as to whether or not this is madness. In truth, it is possible that because he contemplates suicide in a very real way, it could possibly be thought of as madness as it is not a thought that any normal person would ever have. Instead, a normal individual may see issues in life that need to be dealt with instead of run away from which may have been what Hamlet was doing. Madness surrounds this possibility of death because most individuals will never truly contemplate taking their own life in any normal circumstances. In any event, Hamlet’s uncertainty is also what drives Hamlet’s obsessions, which revolve around the betrayal leading to the death of his father.

Obsession and Betrayal

Hamlet’s obsession revolves around the betrayal his family has faced at the hands of his uncle. Despite the fact that Hamlet appears to have been given evidence that his uncle did, as a matter of fact, murder his father, it seems as though this so-called evidence is simply not enough for Hamlet to be absolutely certain. “Where wilt though lead me? Speak; I’ll go no further” Hamlet begins in Scene V (Shakespeare) Although this statement may be perceived as Hamlet attempting to stand his ground in search for answers as to what is happening, the other side of this could also be that he is somewhat afraid of the specter that is standing in front of him. During Shakespeare’s time period, fear of ghosts was not unusual because it was believed that ghosts did indeed exist as a way of explaining sometimes what seemed to be supernatural things. The ghost of Shakespeare’s Hamlet first appears in Act I and reveals truths to Hamlet, one of which is admitting that he is Hamlet’s murdered father. A conversation takes place between Hamlet and the ghost of his dead father where the ghost openly accuses Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, of having been the murderer by stating that “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown” (1.5.39-40). If the ghost is indeed Hamlet’s father and is to be believed, theoretically, the ghost’s accusation should be all of the proof that Hamlet needs, yet he continually searches for proof, all the while replacing normal joys with his obsession to know the absolute truth behind the betrayal the resulted in the death of his beloved father. Eventually, his obsession with his father’s death gets reinforced by an increase in separation from his family as well as his loved ones.

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Simply seeing a ghost raises questions of madness because reality says that there are no such things as ghosts, but yet, people still claim to see ghosts. In this particular case, it can be thought that Hamlet descended into madness even further as he attempted to come to terms with several factors that surrounded this particular event in the play. The first factor that really stands out is the fact that Hamlet sees a ghost period. Not too many people will see such things unless they are perhaps clinically and mentally disturbed. That is the first implication that signals Hamlet’s madness. It continues even as others see what Hamlet sees. Even Hamlet’s friends, Horatio and Marcellus, see him after Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost. Hamlet truly wants closure for the loss of his father and as such, urgently wants assurances as to what has been witnessed from his friends’ perspectives. While his friends fear the ghost, Hamlet feels as though he must go in order for the ghost to talk to him. Is it madness that drives him to go forth and attempt to communicate with the ghost? Honestly, it can be looked at from either perspective. Simply believing that an individual can even talk to a ghost is somewhat disturbing. There would have to be some sort of mental illness or blockage there to believe that he truly was talking to his father’s ghost. At the same time, maybe it was not madness as it could have been because there are many different ways that an individual learns to cope with what they are dealing with. In this case, Hamlet must learn to deal with the loss of his father and perhaps seeing something like a specter is in fact his coping mechanism. That cannot possibly be healthy, but for lack of better explanation, at least it is a way to cope. On the other hand, it can even be questioned as to whether or not he may instead be experiencing a true mental illness like schizophrenia. The only reason that can be tossed out the window as an option is because his friends also see the ghost even if they are unaware as to who or what it is supposed to stand for. Also considering the fact that the only person that the ghost talks to is Hamlet, it would seem that perhaps this was also because Hamlet was the only one willing to see and talk to the ghost. Perhaps that is also a sign of madness as he allowed himself to communicate with someone that really should not exist in any real scientific manner. Since Hamlet seemed to be far past the idea true sanity, it would further seem that his talking to a ghost would simply add to the madness that is Hamlet.

As the play progresses, Hamlet has become separate emotionally from his family and the woman he once proclaimed to love, Ophelia. He would rather push Ophelia away and encourage her to go to a nunnery because of the way he has come to view women in general. He goes on to tell her that he loved her once, only to say that Ophelia “should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not” (3.1.119-121). How hurtful that was to the fair Ophelia and did nothing but make her wish for the Hamlet she once knew. Clinical depression exhibits withdrawal from loved ones, as Hamlet has done here with Ophelia. Hamlet even finds it necessary to be vulgar towards Ophelia as it would have been impossible for him to continue to love her while simultaneously attempting to avenge Hamlet pulled away from the woman he had once proclaimed to love and still continued to contemplate his father’s death as well as his own.

The death of Hamlet’s father is also reflective of the types of plays that were written of the time which were morality plays. The play contains many elements that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages such as the idea of the nation being diseased like a physical being which reminds the audience of the plague that had run rampant during medieval times. It is interesting that the health of the country and the well-being of the family are so closely related in such a manner that the country actually reflects the family. This brings forth the dark ages to the audience because the people held the royal family largely responsible for the plague and felt as though the royal family could have done more for the people as opposed to simply getting away. Denmark is constantly described as a physical person that has been made ill by the moral corruption within the family. In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote what was common for that time which was a morality play. Clearly, morality played a significant part in the entire piece as Hamlet struggled with the idea of death. After the king’s death, Hamlet is obsessed with death and looks at death from several different points of view. Then again, death was a common component of life during the dark ages what with the plague having run its course through Europe. With all of the surrounding destruction, contemplating death was normal, but for Hamlet, it took a slightly different twist.

Real Madness or Not?

Some might argue that Hamlet’s madness was real or not, but in truth, it was a truly disastrous time in Hamlet’s life. His father had passed away and his uncle had just married his widowed mother. This was then followed by the appearance of the ghost of his dead father with instructions for revenge, and then as if that were not enough, Ophelia’s father had made it impossible for Hamlet to see her. It is no wonder that Hamlet had episodes of madness throughout the play and appeared to lose touch with reality a number of times. In all reality, Hamlet never fully lost touch with reality and as such did eventually stop exhibiting his insanity after his argument with Laertes in the graveyard. Even in considering the revenge that was plotted against Claudius required some sort of reality hold in order to plan something effectively for it to really work. Once Hamlet saw his ghost of a father, his sole purpose in life was to uncover the truth about the matter and avenge his father should it be deemed necessary. From that perspective, madness seemed to be the perfect vessel to manipulate the way that the people worked around him. In fact, madness allowed him to confuse Polonius into believing that Ophelia was the root of his madness so much in fact that Polonius went to the king and queen who also seem inclined to believe that Ophelia could in fact be the cause of Hamlet’s madness. For Hamlet to carry this on effectively, he would have had to retain some sort of connection to reality in order to manipulate those that would otherwise doubt whether or not he actually knew what he was talking about. Hamlet was a brilliant man indeed!

Final Thoughts

It would seem that being a good actor is paramount to survival in this play. Polonius could not stick to the role of adviser and was trying to convince the King that Hamlet was in love with his daughter. This leads him to spy on Hamlet, and because he could not do that right either, is killed. Ophelia could not handle the role of mourning for her father, goes mad and dies as a result. The King could not cover up his guilt, so Hamlet has the proof he needs to spur him on. Overall, Hamlet, who if he would have acted as the ghost instructed him to in the first place, instead of flip flopping around, would have killed Claudius outright. Had Hamlet been truly comfortable with acting, Claudius would have been the only causality.

Depending on how Hamlet is examined, it would appear that there are both real and not quite so real bouts of madness. Given the time in his life, it would be more likely that Hamlet would in fact be a victim of madness while still retaining some of his ability to keep in touch with reality to some extent. This attachment is what kept Hamlet from going entirely over the edge, but ultimately, his madness is what caused the story to take the path that it did because his madness led to his obsession which bled over into several different other themes within the play.


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