To Be or Not To Be. . . Mad

An Analysis of Hamlet by William Shakespeare

With a lot of time to digest the play Hamlet, I was drawn to the internal struggle within the characters. I took Hamlet as an example of realism, when the ethical choices of characters are more important than the plot; for instance it’s not as important that the King had been seen or Hamlet’s elaborate plan to avenge his father to then die himself, but it is the uncertainty of the human mind that causes said impulsive action. The forefront of the Hamlet debate is whether or not he’s truly ‘mad’. To give my two cents, the ghost of the King was seen initially in Scene I, but the continuous stressors of Hamlet’s reality manifested what he thought to be his destiny. Many other characters too such as Laertes, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Horatio, even Polonius and the Ghost discuss the abstractness of the mind. Tracking the usage of the word ‘mind’ throughout the play can provide an answer to whether or not Hamlet is mad, though internal struggles are what should be recognized.

While disability is never mentioned directly in the text, several characters experience madness that seemingly has the same qualities as anxiety or mental drawbacks. Jay Dolmage, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, published his first book “Disability Rhetorics,” ‘An Archive and Anatomy of Disability Myths’ to expound on representational stereotypes that coincide with disability. In his explanation of disabilities he uses the term ‘myths’ connoting the misplacement of its meaning: 

 “These are stereotypes because they are often narrow and inflexible and render simple understandings. They are tropes because they shape stories and emplot. They are rhetorical because they provide material for a wide range of expressions, whether through compressed analogies or longer narratives. Regardless, these figures shape both stories and lives.”

Dolmage acknowledges the flaws in representation; how they only further the distortion of what is perceived as ‘normal’, and obscures the vastness of the disabled experience. While Hemingway coined the Iceberg theory, omitting certain information to leave for interpretation, Shakespeare birthed the concept centuries before. The omission of disability reflects a time that did not yet understand, nor accept mental instabilities. The mere inclusion of ‘madness’ fills the storyline with insecurity, obscurity, and doubt. Dolmage explains the relationship between disability and negative response by saying “The fact that disability is so naturally and habitually associated with negativity in our society means that we cannot neglect to question these natural habits, and we cannot forget that the pause, reflection, and reconsideration we might engender will themselves be critical and creative opportunities.” Whether defected or gifted, there comes a sense of alienation that either makes or breaks the character of the individual. Contemplation and mourning is a part of human nature and remains to be an effective way for literature to communicate the human condition as a mental process. 

Instead of proving the existence of madness, the value lies in character development; Hamlet is bombarded with conflict and torn between priorities. Dolmage breaks down several stereotypes/theories which can be related to Hamlet such as the explanation for The ‘Kill-or-Cure’ theory, when “a disabled character will either have to be “killed or cured” by the end of any movie or novel in which they appear.” It was also proposed that Hamlet had a “Disability Drop; the idea that people with disabilities are ‘faking’ or embellishing their disabilities. Characters with disabilities ‘drop’ the act of being disabled as part of the climax of a narrative” and do so to exclude themselves from social services and or responsibility. That being said we would then have to decipher when Hamlet had ‘dropped the act’ and decide whether death is considered a cure or eternal damage. Insanity is caused by trying to find the meaning of life which is not meant to be discovered but accepted as true, yet does not mean the exclusion of emotional, spiritual or physical depth. 

As much as art imitates life and vice versa, literature imitates life and life imitates literature. Context behind the story and or author can provide indirect insight to texts. The exploration of the mind has been a fascination since the sixteenth century, first known as “Renaissance humanism; the idea that all of the capabilities and virtues peculiar to human beings should be studied and developed to their furthest extent.” Inspiration for Hamlet is also assumed to be through Shakespeare’s own experiences in England that like Denmark, was under political uncertainty. In Shakespeare’s England, the ruler of the country was also the literal embodiment of the country itself.  There is a natural and habitual association between mind and madness that affects action and environment. While I am arguing the interchangeability of the word madness and the concept of the mind, the recurrences are twenty-two and sixteen respectfully. The first quote referring to the “mind” is Horatio referencing the body of Denmark as a whole:

Horatio

A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,

A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,

The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,

Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,

Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,

Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.

And even the like precurse of feared events,

As harbingers preceding still the fates

And prologue to the omen coming on,

Horatio, who seems to be the voice of reason, uses the history of Rome in order to apply meaning to the sudden appearance of the King. With a dooming atmosphere growing it had influenced the compulsive undoing of Hamlet’s mental state, which is then being affected by the state of Denmark and his family dynamic. The language of foreshadowing begins with immediate inevitable doom and throughout the poem represents increased anxiety in not knowing the motive for other’s actions or reactions. To define the mind’s eye in this time is to say “the hypothetical site of visual recollection or imagination” yet the meaning could differ in the 16th century with the same amount of infatuation. 

Hamlet is and has been struggling with the moral dilemma of internal acceptance and the impending demise of his country. He had never coped with the death of his father, and the remarriage of his mother to a corrupted tyrant, he feels that his emotions are out of place. The natural undermining of these obstacles by others, impedes the individual from recuperating. Such as in Act 1 Scene 2; the dialogue with his mother and Claudius is pivotal to how Hamlet begins to perceive himself, his situation and the people around him:

QUEEN 

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,

And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.

Do not forever with thy vailèd lids

Seek for thy noble father in the dust.

Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,

Passing through nature to eternity.

HAMLET 

Ay, madam, it is common.

QUEEN If it be,

Why seems it so particular with thee?

HAMLET 

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”

’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected havior of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”

For they are actions that a man might play;

But I have that within which passes show,

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

KING 

’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,

Hamlet,

To give these mourning duties to your father.

But you must know your father lost a father,

That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness. ’Tis unmanly grief.

It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,

A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,

An understanding simple and unschooled.

For what we know must be and is as common

As any the most vulgar thing to sense,

Why should we in our peevish opposition

Take it to heart? Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,

A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,

To reason most absurd, whose common theme

Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,

From the first corse till he that died today,

“This must be so.” We pray you, throw to earth

This unprevailing woe and think of us

As of a father; for let the world take note,

You are the most immediate to our throne,

And with no less nobility of love

Than that which dearest father bears his son

Do I impart toward you. For your intent

In going back to school in Wittenberg,

It is most retrograde to our desire,

And we beseech you, bend you to remain

Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,

Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

The effect of this quote is how Hamlet is last seen as a son and only primarily an heir to the throne to keep power within the family. The queen lacks the empathy of a mother who lost a husband and a father to her child. Hamlet is not seen as an individual but an expected extension of their own priorities. This is also the second source of the word ‘mind’ defined by Claudius as “impatient”,  more or less calling Hamlet’s grief “cute” as if an infant lost their stuffed animal. He argues that Hamlet is simple minded:

. . .to persever

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness. ’Tis unmanly grief.

It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,

A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,

An understanding simple and unschooled.

 yet juxtaposes himself in saying that death is bigger than us so it isn’t worth thinking about proving that ignorance is also being simple minded:

Why should we in our peevish opposition

Take it to heart? Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,

A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,

To reason most absurd, whose common theme

Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,

From the first corse till he that died today,

“This must be so.”

Every character is aware of the power of the mind yet the process of working through emotions is considered mad, unmanly, and a waste of time. Hamlet is faced with the difficult task of correcting an injustice that he can never have sufficient knowledge of—a dilemma that is by no means uncommon. There is no right way to go about life yet we spend our lives listening to people tell us how to live as if their authority denotes omnipotence. Claudius’ intentions are left for interpretation but his paternal absence and disregard for trauma is apparent in removing Hamlet’s individuality. Hamlet is constantly picked apart by others showing parallel nature to Dolmage’s theory that there exists “constant descriptions of a disabled person’s proper role as either an object of pity or a source of inspiration.” The only source of inspiration within the play was the Ghost, advising Hamlet to avenge his death but not let it consume him:

GHOST

But, howsomever thou pursues this act,

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive

Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven

And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge

To prick and sting her.

This message from his father was presumably meant for closure; a new motivation and accepting the inability to control the repercussions of others wrongdoings. Hamlet overlooks the latter, immediately defining his mother as a villain. The negative connotation of the mind is consistent throughout the play and always put into question whether personally or socially. Hamlet is not of power but yet marked the Prince of Denmark, destined to be a product of his environment and in need of guidance and stability he has yet to experience as a person. Laertes is concerned with Hamlet’s ‘disability’ or madness to love his sister Ophelia and therefore inability to sustain the kingdom:

LAERTES

The inward service of the mind and soul

Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now,

And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch

The virtue of his will; but you must fear,

His greatness weighed, his will is not his own,

For he himself is subject to his birth.

He may not, as unvalued persons do,

Carve for himself, for on his choice depends

The safety and the health of this whole state.

Here we begin to see the alienation bound to the disabled mind. The line has been erased between Hamlet, son to a noble family and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He is trapped physically by the refusal to leave for Wittenberg, spiritually with the experience of his father’s ghost, and mentally, for not having self-worth or emotional security himself and with his family. As he goes on to describe in every way Hamlet is imprisoned by his oppressing destiny:

HAMLET

Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ

Then is the world one.

HAMLET 

A goodly one, in which there are many confines,

wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’

th’ worst.

ROSENCRANTZ 

We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET 

Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is

nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it

so. To me, it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ 

Why, then, your ambition makes it one.

’Tis too narrow for your mind.

The aspect of this play gives the sense of deep internal anxieties of life’s uncertainty and masking it with the idea that we can never comprehend why. Hamlet asking unanswerable questions concerning metaphysical matters, demonstrates the complexity of the human condition, the difficulty of knowing the truth about other people—their guilt or innocence, their motivations, their feelings, their relative states of sanity or insanity, certainty or madness. The “Kill or Cure” theory comes most fiercely in his famous soliloquy, settling that death or everlasting sleep is the noblest way to cleanse the suffering mind:

HAMLET

To be or not to be—that is the question:

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—

Hamlet truly is told in tragedies. With the death of our Hamlet we are still left with the uncertainty of the events; such as whether Cornelius truly murdered his brother, if the mother even knew, and whether or not it was all worth it. Dissecting Hamlet as a twenty first century issue like disability and its meaning in our society, madness is just as common as losing a loved one, and it is the very thing that defines “normalcy”. Realism employs the human condition outside of rising action and climax, evolving Renaissance humanism to show the extent of how continuous stressors of reality infect what could have been and what will be. Hamlet is a life lesson to be learned but best through the words of Horatio:

Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more

mischance

On plots and errors happen.

Horatio; hamlet; ACt v scene ii lines 438-440

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