365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

289. Hamlet’s sanity

with one comment

Any interpretation of “Hamlet” is bound to include the question of the title character’s sanity: has he kept it or not? He states that he will “put on an antic disposition”, that he will feign madness to throw everyone off his scent while he investigates the murder of his father…but by the end of the play, it can be hard to determine whether the mask has become the man or not.

There is evidence that will lead the scholar both ways, both in language and in staging, but it is the ghost that is the single most telling item up for debate. If the ghost is indeed real, then Hamlet is sane, and if the ghost is not, then Hamlet is insane.

To delve into that oversimplified argument:

It is established that others can see the ghost – even Horatio, who doubted the ghost’s existence, believes in it. So Hamlet is taking instructions from something that is real and is antic disposition really is part of his plan. Though later Gertrude cannot see the ghost, it can be argued that the ghost can choose who it appears to and knows that it would harm Gertrude to see him.

Hamlet’s friends may have been imagining the ghost – after all, this is a time in which people truly believed in ghosts and perhaps could have been frightened into thinking they saw something which they did not – and his own imagination, combined with a fragile emotional state, overtook him. If this is the case, then Hamlet may be justifying the breakdown of his mind by claiming his madness isn’t real, when in fact it has already begun to take hold.

It all depends on staging, of course. One very brave production chose to make it clear that the ghost was an imagined thing – trees and the wind, mainly – and the fact that only Hamlet could hear it speak was proof that he was mad indeed. Another would have the ghost actually enter the scenes from time to time, sometimes even crossing right across the stage, as though keeping an eye on Hamlet’s progress, and every now and then Horatio would see it as well (as one of the people who was in on the plot from the beginning). This proved that Hamlet was not mad.

The question of Hamlet’s madness may never be settled, and it will be a debate raging for students and scholars for years to come.


Written by Caroline Mincks

July 17, 2010 at 12:08 AM

One Response

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  1. One quote that i heard awhile ago by a friend explained Hamlets saneness quite well.

    “In the beggining Hamlet is feigning madness, but at the end, Madness is feigning Hamlet.”
    Or more simply put Hamlet is the character, Madness is the Actor.


    February 14, 2012 at 4:08 AM

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