Was Prince Hamlet Wacko?
In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, the main character offers a puzzling and ambiguous persona. Throughout the play, Hamlet often contradicts himself. He seems to balance the virtues of “playing a role”, with being true to himself. Further proof of these conflicting personas are demonstrated by his actions and inactions. The ambiguity noted here, lies in two conflicting mannerisms displayed by the young Hamlet: One that is perfectly calm and rational; and another which displays madness. These conflicting behaviors are related within Hamlet’s internal struggle–to kill Claudius for revenge of his fathers’ murder; or act responsibly, and await further proof of Claudius’ guilt. Throughout the play, Hamlet teeters on the brink of insanity induced by his actions, or inactions.
Hamlet’s sanity is clarified, in the first act, by statements and feelings expressed within his dialogue. When asked about his depressed appearance and demeanor by Gertrude, Hamlet replies, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems” (1037, line 76). This relates the idea that Hamlet is ‘what he appears to be’. Later, he clearly makes a statement about his mental health when he commits himself to avenge his father’s murder. This quote allows the reader to follow Hamlet’s train of thought in regards to his role as student, mourning son, and Prince to the throne:
“I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain” (1054, line 100). Hamlet is stating his utmost commitment to nothing short of revenge of his fathers’ death. At this juncture in the play, there is little doubt about his state of mind, or intentions. However, the next act belies Hamlet’s sanity and reason.
In act two, Hamlet appears again, although it now becomes apparent he has lost the conviction he demonstrated earlier–to complete his destiny as prescribed by the ghost of his father. During this act, Hamlet spends most of his time reading and talking with Polonius, Guildenstern, Rosencrantz, and the players. Not until the very end of this second act, does Hamlet refer to his filial duty to avenge his father. Instead of carrying out the destiny described by his fathers spirit–role of the vengeful son–Hamlet exhibitsinsane behaviors. This is illustrated by his statements to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I know not–lost my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises…” (1071, line 282). Hamlet then admits he is merely feigning insanity with, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (1073, line 350). Admitting he is only acting “mad”, implies he is secure with his plot. Hamlet also seems to portray a willingness to accept this plight with, “…for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so…” (1070, line 241). In this instance, Hamlet is stating that behavior shapes reality.
In act two, Hamlet is again prompted towards vengeance–this time by a poignant speech delivered by one of the players. Hamlet responds to this dialogue with, “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do Had he motive and cue for passion That I have?” (1078, line 515). In this complement to this player’s acting ability, Hamlet is saying that if he were such an actor he would have killed Claudius by now.Therein, lies the struggle between acting, and actual vengeance, that persists throughout the play until the very end.At this moment, Hamlet avows to avenge his father, “I should ha’ fatted all the region kites With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain! O, vengeance! What an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell…” (1079, line 535).
Again, Hamlet is questioning not only his sanity, but his role in life. He also questions the purpose of his role–madness or vengeful son? He had already pledged revenge, but again acquiesces, “Must like a whore unpack my heart with words And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, A scullion!” (1079, line 542). Hence, Hamlet