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The Question of Hamlet's Sanity

From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.

On this question there are four different hypotheses: (1) That Hamlet was throughout perfectly sane, but feigned insanity; (2) that Hamlet was after his interview with the Ghost more or less insane; (3) that in Hamlet insanity was latent, but was only fully developed after the Court-play; (4) that Hamlet was neither insane, nor feigned to be so.

From the outline already given it will be seen that the first of these hypotheses is assumed. But before stating reasons in support of this assumption, it will be convenient to consider the views of those who hold that Hamlet was more or less insane from the time at which the Ghost appeared to him. On this point the experts, the "mad-doctors", as they are sometimes called, are tolerably unanimous. Thus Dr. Ray asserts that "the integrity of every train of reason is marred by some intrusion of disease: the smooth, deep current of his feelings is turned into eddies and whirlpools under its influence, and his most solemn undertakings conducted to an abortive issue" ... that "in all Hamlet's interviews with Polonius the style of his discourse is indicative of the utmost contempt for the old courtier, and he exhibits it in a manner quite characteristic of the insane ... Nothing is more so than a fondness of annoying those whom they dislike by ridicule, raillery, satire, vulgarity, and every other species of shame."

Dr. Ray goes on to note Hamlet's "bad dreams" as one of the symptoms of impending insanity; his behaviour to Ophelia he says "discloses an interesting feature in mental pathology, — the change which insanity brings over the warmest affections of the heart, whereby the golden chains wrought by love and kindness are utterly dissolved, and the forsaken and desolate spirit, though it continues among men, is no longer of them." Dr. Bucknill notes in regard to the same matter that Hamlet's conduct here "is a mixture of feigned madness, of the selfishness of passion blasted by the cursed blight of fate, of harshness which he assumes to protect himself from an affection which he feels hostile to the present purpose of his life, and of that degree of real unsoundness, his unfeigned 'weakness and melancholy,' which is the subsoil of his mind."

Further he draws attention to Hamlet's confession of melancholy, another peculiarity of the melancholiac, to the vehemence inconsistent with a sound mind which Hamlet betrays after killing Polonius; he asserts that the tests of his sanity which he offers to his mother are not in the least inconsistent with madness; and concludes that though a reasoning melancholiac, he is not a veritable lunatic.

Dr. Conolly adverts, among other things, to Hamlet's exhortations to secrecy as among the symptoms of madness recognisable as such by all physicians intimately acquainted with the beginnings of insanity; to the flightiness and cynical disdain by which on almost all occasions his conversation is marred; to the gradual progress of the disease as described by Polonius; to his conversations with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exhibiting the acuteness which an insane man will for a short time display; to his extravagance of behaviour at Ophelia's funeral, etc., etc. Dr. Kellogg notices Hamlet's restlessness, imperfect sleep, bad dreams; the successive steps in the progress of his disease; Ophelia's conviction of his madness, in which she would not likely be deceived; the readiness with which the genuine manifestations burst forth upon occasions of unusual excitement, etc., etc.

Now I am not of course going to set my ignorance against the profound knowledge of these experts; I readily accept all the statements set out as to the symptoms of madness; and yet I deny the conclusion at which the experts have arrived. Hamlet's declared intention of assuming "an antic disposition," his assurance to his mother that he is only "mad in craft," the test he proposes in proof of his assertion, may all be conceded as valueless in determining the question. But the fact that Shakespeare has deceived even the elect into a belief of Hamlet's madness is nothing more than the very highest testimony to his consummate art. If he could acquire a knowledge so intimate, so accurate, so profound, of madness in its various phases, what is there to hinder his endowing one of his characters with the power of assuming those phases?

"If a dramatist," observes Cardinal Wiseman, "wished to represent one of his persons as feigning madness, that assumed condition would be naturally desired by the writer to be as like as possible to the real affliction. If the other persons associated with him could at once discover that the madness was put on, of course the entire action would be marred, and the object for which the pretended madness would be designed would be defeated by the discovery." But the proof, to my mind, that Hamlet was merely feigning madness lies in the fact of his entire consistency of action in regard to that disguise from the moment in which he conceived the idea of assuming it. To show this consistency, it will be necessary to follow his behaviour step by step.

The first show of eccentricity, then, is immediately after the revelation made to him by the Ghost, and this is closely followed by the warning to Horatio and Marcellus that he may hereafter find it expedient "to put an antic disposition on." Why he should at first have behaved towards Horatio and Marcellus in a mysterious manner, I shall endeavour to explain when I come to the last of the four hypotheses mentioned.

It is upon Polonius that we first see the effect of Hamlet's experiment in acting the madman; an experiment producing exactly the desired impression, viz., that intense love for Ophelia is at the bottom of the sudden transformation. Hamlet knows well enough that a father's vanity will lie tickled by the belief that his daughter is loved to such distraction by one so much above her in station, and that the garrulous old courtier will not only at once carry the news to the king, but will do his best to instill into him the same faith. No more crafty design could have been conceived for hoodwinking Polonius, and through him the king, by whom he was held in so high esteem for his penetration.

The next manifestation we have of Hamlet's insanity is in his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Their sudden return to Elsinore strikes Hamlet as something strange, and he quickly guesses that the king is at the bottom of it. With them, however, it is necessary for him to play a somewhat different role.

His first object is to ascertain whether they have been set as spies upon him, and without much difficulty he turns them completely inside out, while the apparently irrelevant observations he makes from time to time, together with the confidence he pretends to repose in them as to his state of mind, impresses them with the idea of his insanity; none the less firmly that he deprecates such an idea by declaring that he is "but mad north-north-west."

Upon the entrance of Polonius and the players, Hamlet keeps up a sufficient show of insanity to deceive the old man, though at the same time behaving rationally enough to make his wishes known to the players regarding the piece he has determined they perform. That the strain upon him has been great in keeping up appearances is plain enough from the relief he expresses when left alone; and the soliloquy which follows betrays nothing of incoherence or mental derangement. His want of resolution to act immediately is indeed manifest, but it is as manifest to himself as to us.

We next see him just before his interview with Ophelia, and to his despairing monologue no one has ever imputed the smallest taint of diseased intellect, though it has been argued that a madman in a lucid interval might reason with equal force and clearness.

Ophelia's entry cuts short his reflections, and Hamlet has now doubly to be on his guard. He no doubt suspects that Ophelia, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has been sent to probe his malady. He probably further suspects that he is being secretly watched, and he can be quite certain that his words and actions will be reported to Polonius, that is, to the king. But over and above all this his feelings towards Ophelia place him in a perilous position. Against the fond dictates of a love which bid him take her to his heart, he has to wage a terrible struggle. One moment's lapse into tenderness will undo everything. To give her the slightest opportunity of exercising her magic influence will be to sacrifice his oath to the spirit of his father.

Short, sharp, questions to herself, bitter invectives against the fickleness of her sex, mingled with cynical accusations of himself and his sex, alone will serve his turn; and if it is urged that his stern resolve passes into cruelty, it may be answered that beneath the ice of seeming heartlessness are raging the fierce fires of well-nigh overpowering love.

For awhile after this torturing scene Hamlet has no need to assume his disguise. For we next find him with the players, to whom he is giving directions as to the manner of their acting. With them it matters nothing that he should appear in his sound senses; they are not likely to have either the opportunity or the wish to betray him. In his instructions to them, therefore, there is no admixture of "wild and whirling words"; nothing in fact that is not eminently judicious and to the point. So, too, when Horatio joins him, his intellect is as calm and clear, his reasoning as sound, the expression of his feelings as sober, and the plan of action he announces as practical, as the most exacting judge could desire.

Contrast his demeanour then with the instantaneous change upon the entry of the king; contrast it with his behaviour to Polonius while the play is preparing, and to Ophelia during the action of the play; note his irrepressible exultation, when alone with Horatio, at the success of his stratagem, and again the immediate resumption of his "antic disposition" upon the re-entry of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Passing over his reflections when watching the king at prayer with the remark that, passionate as they are, they betray nothing of an impaired intellect, we come to the interview to which his mother has summoned him. And here, if his reproaches are vehement, if his taunts are armed with the fiercest stings, there is nothing in them which a sense of terrible wrong to himself and deep disgrace to her might not prompt. Throwing off his disguise, he plainly declares that his seeming madness is but craft. Such a declaration I have already admitted is in itself no absolute proof; yet, as Stearns observes, Hamlet had special reasons for disabusing his mother of her belief in his insanity. Such a belief would act as a "flattering unction" to her soul, and thus frustrate his purpose of driving home to her conscience that recognition of her guilt which it is his aim to awaken.

Instead, then, of waiting to learn his mother's object in sending for him, Hamlet plunges at once into the lesson he intends to teach her; and when she, frightened at his manner of address, would put an end to the interview he tells her "You go not till I set you up a glass Where you may see the in-most part of you." Fearing that he is about to murder her, the queen shrieks for help, and when her words are echoed by Polonius behind the arras, Hamlet drawing his rapier makes a pass through the hangings and kills the intrusive courtier. For the moment, anger at the trick sought to be put upon him evokes nothing but contempt for his victim, though later on contrition succeeds to his passionate outburst.

Turning from the dead body, he reproaches his mother with having blurred the grace of all womanly modesty, with having made marriage vows a hideous mockery, and religion a mere rhapsody of words. Then comparing his father and his uncle, he dwells on the noble nature of the one, and the vileness of the other; anticipates any excuses she might make by telling her that at her time of life a plea of having been carried away by love would be an absurdity, and that if passion dominated her it was all the more shameful in a matron. His words at length penetrate to her soul, and she confesses her guilt.

Hamlet, not yet satisfied, is enforcing his lesson when suddenly the Ghost appears, and while rebuking him for his delay in taking vengeance upon the king, enjoins greater tenderness to the queen. The colloquy with the Ghost, who to the queen is invisible, leads her to imagine that her son is subject to some hallucination. Hamlet quickly dispels this idea and, though in less vehement language, eloquently calls upon her to manifest contrition by a change of life, and exacts a solemn promise that she will not reveal to the king what had passed between them. His mother thus sworn to amendment of life, and to secrecy as regards himself, Hamlet has effected his purpose with her.

But to all else, Horatio excepted, he has still to maintain his disguise; and when shortly afterwards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come upon him, he instantly relapses into irrelevant language. So, when summoned by the king, he befools him as before with witty extravagance, though when left alone again abandoning all incoherency of thought. For a while we hear nothing more of him, for he is on his voyage to England.

But suddenly two letters arrive from him, one to Horatio, calm, practical, and exact; the other to the king, fantastic and exaggerated. The letters are shortly followed by his appearance in the churchyard where Ophelia's grave is being dug. There, as neither the sexton nor the clown knows him, he is free to talk without disguise, and the most critical disputants of his sanity would be at a loss to find anything in his remarks which savours of a disordered mind.

While yet in conversation with Horatio, he is interrupted by the funeral procession bearing to her grave his fondly loved Ophelia, of whose death he is so far unaware. When the coffin is lowered into the earth, Laertes in a passion of extravagant grief leaps into the grave, and Hamlet rushing forward in equal frenzy leaps after him, declaring that "forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum." A struggle follows between Hamlet and Laertes; but they are at length parted, and the former, accompanied by Horatio, leaves the scene.

Later on, alone with his one friend, Hamlet relates in minute detail the circumstances of his escape from being carried into England, and plainly announces his intention of killing the king. To them at this point comes a fantastic courtier, Osric, with a challenge from Laertes to a bout at fencing, the king having laid a wager that Hamlet, with certain odds given, will prove himself more than a match for his opponent.

Osric is too great a fool for it to be necessary that Hamlet should assume the cloak of insanity; but answering him with a witty imitation of his own affected jargon, he dismisses him with an acceptance of the challenge; and shortly afterwards engages in the combat which, as we have seen, ends fatally to both Laertes and himself.

Thus it appears that in every single instance in which Hamlet's madness is manifested, he has good reason for assuming that disguise; while, on the other hand, wherever there was no necessity to hoodwink any one, his thought, language, and actions bear no resemblance to unsoundness of intellect. Two further facts have to be borne in mind. The one is that Hamlet's single friend, in whom he placed a thorough trust, neither by word nor act shows the slightest sign of a belief in his insanity. On the contrary, he at once accepts the idea of the personation, pledges himself to secrecy, takes an active part in the discovery of the king's guilt, and encourages Hamlet to execute his vengeance. The other fact is that, in the story from which Shakespeare takes his plot, the insanity of the hero is avowedly a disguise; and that while in the earlier quarto Shakespeare gives the imitation a much closer resemblance to reality, in the later quarto he softens down the picture, apparently in order that with his audience there may arise no misconception of the truth.

Incidentally, I have now considered the question whether Hamlet, though not mad at the outset, becomes so after the acting of the Court-play; and there remains only the theory that he was neither mad at any period nor pretended to be mad. This is Furness's position, and "in view of the fact that he has faithfully read and reported all the arguments on that side," he "begs the advocates of the theory of feigned insanity to allow him, out of reciprocal courtesy, to ask how they account for Hamlet's being able, in the flash of time between the vanishing of the Ghost and the coming of Horatio and Marcellus, to form, horror-struck as he was, a plan for the whole conduct of his future life?"

To this I would reply by asking, does Hamlet form such plan in this moment of time? I think not. His first assumption of eccentricity or mysterious reserve is when to the shouts of Horatio and Marcellus, "Illo, ho, ho, my lord!", he answers with the cry used by falconers to reclaim their hawks, which those shouts have suggested. Now, this is not immediately after the Ghost has left him, for he has had time for considerable reflection, and for writing down a memorandum as to the oath he has given to the Ghost. If during that interval he also comes to the decision that it will not be advisable to communicate to Horatio and Marcellus what had passed since he left them, there is nothing to be wondered at. To Horatio alone he would probably not have hesitated to tell the whole story, but with Marcellus, a mere acquaintance, it is different.

He has therefore to plan some way of getting out of the difficulty, and the accidental form of the shouts to which he replies suggests, I think, the idea of baffling inquiry by the use of incoherent, or at least irrelevant, answers. His stratagem succeeds, and for a time he holds Horatio and Marcellus at arms' length. But before separating from them he determines to bind his companions by an oath not to reveal what they have seen. As the oath is being administered, the Ghost from beneath three several times calls upon them to swear, and thus greatly emphasizes the sanctity of their pledge. Possibly under temptation they might, or at least Marcellus might, break an oath made to Hamlet alone; but an oath fortified by terrors of the supernatural is something too dread for any such treachery.

Hamlet therefore now feels secure on this point. But he has baffled his companions by an appearance of strangeness, and it probably now occurs to him that a like simulation may be useful in the difficulties before him. Such simulation, however, would be of no avail if Marcellus and Horatio were free to speak of the manner in which he had met their inquiries, and therefore he anticipates all risk by a confession that he may perchance hereafter think meet to put on a disposition similar to that already assumed towards them; while by a second oath of equal solemnity to the former one he binds them not so much as to give the faintest hint that if they chose they could explain his strangeness, and to this pledge as before the Ghost from beneath adjures them.

It therefore seems to me that Hamlet's resolution, so far only a "perchance," is not formed in the sudden way that Furness supposes; and it is to be further observed that we have no proof of that resolution being put into immediate action. Between the first and second Acts a considerable time has elapsed, for Polonius's conversation with his servant shows that Laertes must have been in Paris for some weeks at all events [See iii.2.135]. That Hamlet's lunacy has for some time past been observed is, indeed, clear; but we have nothing to show that he has not had an ample interval to mature into a distinct and consistent plan an idea which at first shadowed itself out to him in a vague indeterminate shape.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. <>


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