The topic of madness is one of the central issues in the play entitled Hamlet. Its presence adds a dramatic effect to the general impression. The Shakespearian play depicts two kinds of insanity: the one experienced by a woman, and the other one of a man. However, these two mental problems have different roots and consequences. Ophelia’s madness is real. The young woman loses common sense because her mind and soul are being torn apart between the voice of love and the voice of obedience. Having experienced the tragic refusal from her beloved one and the death of her father, she is no longer able to live in the world of cruelty and hypocrisy. However, the truthfulness of Hamlet’s madness is still greatly doubtful. The mask of both real and feigned madness enables the characters to freely express their minds and follow the call of their hearts.
Ophelia, one of the female protagonists in Hamlet, is the heroine who displays the real mental and emotional disorder. Her character embodies the characteristic features typical of the sixteenth-century woman. In those times, women were raised to be housewives, caregivers, and servants to the male population and their children, according to their class. As for Ophelia, she is from the middle class and has to learn how to become a wife. In the play, Ophelia is a simple-minded woman who is dependent on men, especially on her father Polonius and her brother Laertes. Such dependence restrains her inner individual development. Ophelia appears to be a person who cannot make her own decisions, express personal opinion, and defend her beliefs. Ophelia’s weakness of mind eventually leads her to true madness and death.
Throughout the play until her death, Ophelia is manipulated and deceived by the male characters. Three of them play a crucial role in her life: her brother Laertes, her father Polonius, and her beloved Hamlet. The relations with these men determine the phases of her inner development:
Ophelia displays a three-phased transformation from Polonius’ timid daughter who lacks the will of her own, to the seducer on mission who suddenly reveals the bawdy part of her nature and, finally to the mad woman who liberally expresses her oppressed feelings and sorrow with lyrics and songs (Chen, 1).
During the play, the intensification of her disease coincides with the change in the degree of her deliverance from their impact.
The first character with a strong and oppressive influence is Polonius. He is the head advisor of the king. Such a position presupposes him to have a big estate that requires permanent care. This mission was entrusted to his daughter. Having been raised to be obedient, Ophelia has to sacrifice her own happiness in order to please her father: she abandons her feelings and follows her duty. Polonius joins King Claudius and places demands on Ophelia which requires her to disregard her own self to fulfill their wishes of deceiving Hamlet into revealing the cause of his erratic behavior. It is Ophelia’s duty to be obedient to her father and this time to the king as well. Disobedience to the king and his advisor is not an option. Polonius wants the king to regard him with favor, and he is willing to use his daughter to get this admiration. He neglects Ophelia’s feelings by not even thinking of how his requests will affect her. He feels at liberty to request whatever he would like. He is purely worried about himself. Polonius holds a position of unquestionable authority over his daughter. He treats her as though she is not intelligent enough to make her own decisions, and he knows that she will inherently obey him. To him, her feelings are irrelevant and immature, which he states when saying “Affection, puh, you speak like a green girl”. Following her father’s instructions, she loses her lover and a piece of her happiness.
Laertes acts much like his father in taking a position of authority over Ophelia. He feels free to tell Ophelia what she has to do with her love life and expects that she will fulfill his demands. Following the example of the father, he also advises his sister to stop her relationship with Hamlet. Nevertheless, he is guided by the sincere anxiety about his sister, namely her purity and reputation. He is genuinely concerned about the probability of Hamlet crushing the expectations of his poor sister. Laertes is her confidant: he gives and receives advice openly with her. His character plays an affectionate and tender role in Ophelia’s life. It is upon his leaving for France that he gives his last bit of brotherly advice to Ophelia regarding her life. Once he is in France, Ophelia no longer has genuine support or anyone which she can confide in or seek answers from. This loss is an important element in Ophelia’s life, especially after the death of her father, because she has no one to turn to with her deep sorrow.
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Hamlet generates emotional torture for Ophelia by professing his love for her one day, and verbally humiliating her the other day. He plays mind games with her by denying that he has written love letters to her during her attempt to return them. Meanwhile, her father and his uncle watch this unfold by watching in secret, yet the main character knows that she is their pawn. Hamlet knows Ophelia is an honorable girl; and to purposefully and deeply hurt her, he begins shouting hurtful insinuations and humiliating insults about her character stating “if thou wilt needs to marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them: to a nunnery go, and quickly too, farewell”(Shakespeare). His actions discredit his love for Ophelia and hearing him say that he never loved her devastates her. His true concern with Ophelia’s well-being is reduced as the play develops from here on to him feigning his own madness. In this feigned madness, he accidentally kills Polonius, which is the definitive loss for Ophelia. He is solely and unquestionably responsible for thrusting Ophelia off the edge of sanity when he murders her father.
The madness of one of the female protagonists occurs due to the fact that Ophelia is too dependent on the representatives of the strong gender and cannot cope with her life when they leave her. All men in her life refuse to stay with her: Hamlet leaves for England, Laertes leaves for France, and Polonius leaves for the after-life. And she was raised to be the person who should complete someone’s existence but not to be a single individual. Ophelia does not realize that her lover killed her father. Moreover, people do not share any information about the death of her father. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, this leads to Ophelia’s break with sanity and probably causes eventual suicide.
Drawing the pitiful fate of the young girl, Shakespeare demonstrates the hostility of the world ruled by the men such as Claudius and Polonius to the pure and sincere feelings. Ophelia manages to withstand its oppressions for quite a long time; and from this perspective, the play presents the insight of the strong side of her personality. The image of Ophelia, naïve and honest, serves as the confirmation of the idea that any simple-minded and open-hearted person will become a victim of the world of crimes and lies, intrigues and deceit.
The madness of another character, Hamlet, also occurs due to the loss of an important person. Various sources, including the article written by Kirsch, claim that this mental disorder is merely an attribute to grief. Hamlet is unable to mourn his father’s death in a proper way because of his position and historical circumstances. So, the emotional turmoil serves as the manifestation of the feelings that were tearing the hero’s soul.
The deep feeling of grief gave birth to paranoid ideas regarding the reasons for the father’s death and revenge. Hamlet has a premonition that his uncle, also known as King Claudius, had something to do with Hamlet’s biological father. Hamlet is not positive that King Claudius actually committed the murder of his father, but he will deal with the situation with his clever remarks and intelligent sayings, which none of the other characters will understand that Hamlet intends the lines to be actually mean. Hamlet also has to keep the presence of the ghost in secret because he is the only one who can see and hear it; so, it is understandable that his insanity is greatly argued upon.
Some will argue that Hamlet’s madness was feigned from the beginning or that in various parts throughout the play he truly became mad. It is obvious that Hamlet is feigning his madness from the start because when Hamlet and the Ghost meet, there are hints that Hamlet has already been considering his first move of revenge against King Claudius. When Horatio and the guards ask him what the ghost told him, Hamlet tells them “there’s ne’er a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he’s an arrant knave” (Shakespeare). That specific quote was used to cover the murder of Hamlet’s father, which Claudius had committed, from the guards and Horatio. Hamlet’s telling the guards and Horatio something that only he would understand foreshadows how Hamlet will cover his clever revenge tactics throughout the play.
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Nevertheless, Hamlet says many things that can indicate that he is crazy. Perhaps the best example of this is his conversation with Gertrude, his mother, the queen. He goes to her room one night when she requests that he visits her. Polonius, fearing for the queen’s safety, hides behind the arras to secretly spy on them. When Hamlet arrives, he gets very angry with his mother, even drawing his sword at her. “Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge./ You go not till I set you up a glass/ Where you may see the inmost part of you” (Shakespeare). When Gertrude calls for help, Polonius intends to answer her call; however, Hamlet kills him, claiming that he was a rat. Rats do not talk. One cannot justify killing someone just because they were spying on oneself; Hamlet has committed a serious crime. If he had any sanity left, he would have recognized that there would be great consequences for murdering a man, but he shows no regrets. “Hamlet goes to some lengths to convince Gertrude he’s not crazy” (Roth). However, the conversation that he has with her simply convinces her otherwise. “Alas, he’s mad” (Shakespeare). Gertrude believes that he has gone crazy, something which Hamlet himself denies but has shown to be true.
The clearest way to show that he is mad is his many monologues about life and death, suicide, and the worth of men, the most famous of these being the “To Be or Not to Be” speech. In this particular speech, he debates the merits of living and death, considering suicide. Thoughts of suicide are an example of depression, something that can indeed be considered madness, a mental illness. “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” (Shakespeare). Hamlet is contemplating whether it is best for him to continue to suffer through his life or to simply kill himself and end everything. This is not something a sane person would think. Hamlet also enjoys depreciating himself, criticizing, and insulting himself as often as possible. He believes that he is one of the worst-off people in the world, taking every opportunity to insult himself, using this to fall even further into his depression. Again, these are not words of a sane person: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!/ But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall” (Shakespeare). He is not in front of people when he says these things: it is a soliloquy. There is no reason for him to act mad anymore, and yet he continues to say things that suggest insanity.
While Ophelia’s mental disorder drew her closer to her individual freedom, Hamlet’s madness was just a means of getting a strategic advantage. In the book entitled Looking for Hamlet, it is stated that Shakespeare’s Hamlet feigns madness as a means of buying time to plot revenge against his father’s killer. Such a method was merely a trick to distract the opponents and prepare themselves for the final collision. Monologues and visions of a ghost are nothing but the attempt to deviate the focus of attention from his real intentions.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates different manifestations of madness and thus touches upon many important topics, including expression of female identity or deceitfulness of the appearances. It is obvious that Hamlet himself only feigned insanity throughout the whole play. As for Ophelia, she became truly insane once Hamlet denied his love for her and told her to go to a nunnery. Her condition reveals a struggle of a woman to free herself from the permanent obedience and acquire her own voice. It becomes a means of her self-expression. In the case of Hamlet, his madness might appear as a consequence of deep grief. However, it is more likely to be a part of a well-elaborated plan that would help him complete all his intentions and get revenge. Overall, it is settled that Hamlet’s insanity was feigned throughout the entire play, and Ophelia only became an insane halfway through the play. Their madness gave them freedom either to obtain personal voice or mourn and prepare for revenge.