Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most analyzed plays. The Danish prince is developed into a mysterious and fascinating man. A philosopher and a fencer, he is a man disgusted with the rottenness of life around him and is obligated to set things right. Under the guise of madness he attempts to achieve his ends; yet there is much to puzzle over. Was Hamlet really such a good actor that he could fool everyone into believing in his madness or was he truly mad? And, why did he wait so long to carry out his revenge? Hamlet thinks too much and this drove him to an insanity that was not feigned.
‘… and the devil hath power/ To assume a pleasing shape…’;
The ghost provides Hamlet with a dilemma. Supernatural forces are not always to be trusted. Hamlet does not know whether the ghost is telling the truth or not, which is why he has ‘The Mousetrap’ performed by the visiting players. If Hamlet had killed Claudius solely on the ghost’s advise, he would certainly have been put to death himself. There would probably have been a civil war to choose a new king. Being the humanitarian that he is, and taking account of his responsibilities as a prince and future king, Hamlet would most likely want to avoid a civil war. Even though Claudius is a murderer, and probably not as noble a king as Hamlet Sr. was, he is still a king. Hamlet realizes that Claudius brings order to Denmark and in killing him he will plunge his country into the darkness of chaos.
On top of this dilemma, Hamlet cannot share his feelings with his mother or his girlfriend. While the first is literally sleeping with the enemy, the latter has chosen the side of her father (and Claudius). Ophelia is in a difficult position, being torn between her father and her lover.
All of these things amass a great deal of stress on Hamlet. Even if Hamlet is truly only pretending to be mad after his first encounter with the ghost he is most truly insane by the end of the play. The death of his father and loss of contact with his lover begin driving him to insanity. We can say with some certainty that the ghost is real on its visit to Hamlet because others witness it, but after the death of Polonius, Hamlet is its only witness. By this point Hamlet must surely be insane. He has been brooding for so long over how he will get revenge and just as he thought it was at his fingertips, it slips away and he has found that he has killed an innocent man. Hamlet may have even identified with the fact that he had just killed a man who had no opportunity to defend himself which is quite similar to the way his father was not able to defend himself when he was murdered. Before the blood has had time to settle the ghost revisits Hamlet, reminding him of his task. This time, the ghost is a figment of Hamlet’s insanity. Hamlet has what appears to be a fit of lunacy at this point in which he makes accusations of his mother who begs him to stop, yet he does not. He then hides the corpse, only to reveal its location to Claudius later by telling him where he would ‘nose him’; if he went unfound for long. Hamlet even admits to killing Polonius in what he calls ‘a fit of madness’;.
A psychotic has several symptoms the first of which is hallucinations. A hallucination is when you see or hear something that is not really there. The second symptom is paranoia, which is the constant feeling that someone is watching you or plotting against you. Third, psychotics tend to ramble on and on during which their emotions change rapidly and adversely. The final symptom exhibited by psychotics is illusions of grandeur.
Hamlet hallucinating is very obvious during his visit to his mother after Polonius’ death. Hamlet sees what appears to be the ghost of his dead father. Yet when Hamlet asks his mother if she can see it also, she says she cannot and that he is truly mad. Hamlet is also very paranoid, and not necessarily without cause. He is being spied on and plotted against throughout most of the play. One example of this is when Ophelia is sent to talk to Hamlet while the king and Polonius listen in; Hamlet asks where her father is. Hamlet’s ramblings are most apparent during his long soliloquies. He talks for ages and his mood goes through observable and drastic changes. Hamlet’s two illusions of grandeur, I found, were best described by P. Valle in his essay ‘it hath made me mad’;: A Discussion on the Identity of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which he explained, ‘He Hamlet Sr. leaves Gertrude to divine justice. Hamlet does not accept this, he passes his own judgement on his mother. He accuses his mother, he attacks his mother. He has gone over God.’; The second time Hamlet goes over God is when he does not kill Claudius while he is praying, again Valle illustrates this, ‘Presumably, in western doctrine, in Heaven souls get judged. But Hamlet will not let the king go to God’s judgement. He has already judged him and found him guilty and evil. So he has to slay him somewhere else so that his soul would ‘be as damned and/ As hell, whereto it goes…’ Hamlet has gone over God again.’;
Hamlet may be a thinking man, this does not mean he actually likes to think. Although he may have liked to think in the time preceding the play, when the time has come for him to take action, he cannot because of this pensive urge. His capacity of thinking becomes a handicap rather than a quality. And this is not even the most painful (some would say tragic) part of Hamlet’s character. The biggest problem is that he is aware even of this. Not only is he incapable of acting without thinking, he knows this is the case, which makes the burden even heavier. Hamlet cannot face reality. It is already a traumatic experience for him when he has to believe the words of the ghost, and actually the ghost’s demanding him to act on this information is too much for him.
Hamlet is anything but indecisive, he is just contemplative. He needs to think in order to justify his actions, and his intellectual capacity is the major difference between Claudius and himself. Hamlet is extremely aware of the relation between action and reaction and realizes that he has to proceed very carefully. In the play, Claudius is the paragon of decisiveness, of action. He makes the first action, the action that sets the machine in motion – the poisoning of Hamlet’s father. He also instigates the final action, the poisoning of the blades and the cup, an action that will backfire and cause his own death.
Any other character in the play would have taken more drastic measures than Hamlet did (confiding only in his best friend, and even keeping the truth from his mother until the end of Act III). Although not every one of them might have come to killing Claudius, Hamlet seems not to do anything. Again, he thinks too much, but why?
Hamlet is self-conscious, while the majority of the characters that surround him are not. This explains why he feels inhibited to act. Hamlet resembles a real person more than any other character in the play, which might be another reason why he still remains a subject of discussion. What also sets him apart is his elusiveness. Many of the characters in the play can be categorized within minutes of their introduction. The pompous Polonius and the thick-skulled Guildenstern and Rozencrantz are perfect examples of this. This does not hold true for some characters such as Laertes and Ophelia.
In conclusion, Hamlet’s character is still a matter of debate, even centuries after his creation. Hamlet clearly shows all the signs of psychosis, something that is not easily fabricated, no matter what he may say. Most people simply assume that because he declares that he is merely feigning madness that this must be true. But, cannot a proven lunatic also claim the same?