Skip to content

Hamlet Going Mad Essay

Hamlet's Antic Disposition

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford.

There is much evidence in the play that Hamlet deliberately feigned fits of madness in order to confuse and disconcert the king and his attendants. His avowed intention to act "strange or odd" and to "put an antic disposition on" 1 (I. v. 170, 172) is not the only indication. The latter phrase, which is of doubtful interpretation, should be taken in its context and in connection with his other remarks that bear on the same question. To his old friend, Guildenstem, he intimates that "his uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived," and that he is only "mad north-north-west." (II. ii. 360.) But the intimation seems to mean nothing to the dull ears of his old school-fellow. His only comment is given later when he advises that Hamlet's is "a crafty madness." (III. i. 8.)

When completing with Horatio the arrangements for the play, and just before the entrance of the court party, Hamlet says, "I must be idle." (III. ii. 85.) This evidently is a declaration of his intention to be "foolish," as Schmidt has explained the word. 2 Then to his mother in the Closet Scene, he distinctly refers to the belief held by some about the court that he is mad, and assures her that he is intentionally acting the part of madness in order to attain his object:
"I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft."
(III. iv. 187-8.)
This pretense of madness Shakespeare borrowed from the earlier versions of the story. The fact that he has made it appear like real madness to many critics today only goes to show the wideness of his knowledge and the greatness of his dramatic skill.



In the play the only persons who regard Hamlet as really mad are the king and his henchmen, and even these are troubled with many doubts. Polonius is the first to declare him mad, and he thinks it is because Ophelia has repelled his love. He therefore reports to the king that "Your noble son is mad" (II. ii. 92), and records the various stages leading to his so-called madness (II. ii. 145-150). No sooner, however, has he reached this conviction than Hamlet's clever toying with the old gentleman leads him to admit that "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (II. ii.203-4.)

Though it suits the king's purpose to accept this pronouncement of Polonius, he is never quite convinced of its truth. His instructions to his henchmen, "Get from him why he puts on this confusion" (II. i. 2), imply that he understands it as pretence and not real lunacy. He soon admits that Hamlet's actions and words do not indicate madness but melancholy:
"What he spake, though it lack'd form a little.
Was not like madness."
(III. i. 163-4.)
But it serves his wicked purpose to declare him a madman, and to make this the excuse for getting rid of him by sending him to England. In this as in everything the king is insincere, and seeks not the truth but his own personal ends.

Ophelia's view that Hamlet has gone mad for love of her is of no value on the point. She is herself, rather than Hamlet, "Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh." (III. i. 158.) The poor distracted girl is no judge of lunacy, and knows little of real sanity. She cannot enter into the depth of his mind, and cannot understand that it is her own conduct that is strange and incoherent.

There need he no doubt, then, that Hamlet's madness was really feigned. He saw much to be gained by it, and to this end he did many things that the persons of the drama must construe as madness. His avowed intention was to throw them off the track. To understand the madness as real is to make of the play a mad-house tragedy that could have no meaning for the very sane Englishmen for whom Shakespeare wrote. There is dramatic value in such madness as Lear's, for the play traces the causes of his madness, and the influences that restore him. Lear's madness had its roots in his moral and spiritual defects, and the cure was his moral regeneration. But no such dramatic value can be assigned to Hamlet's madness. Shakespeare never makes of his dramas mere exhibitions of human experience, wise or otherwise, but they are all studies in the spiritual life of man. His dramas are always elaborate attempts to get a meaning out of life, not attempts to show either its mystery, or its inconsequence, or its madness. If Hamlet were thought of as truly mad, then his entrances and his exits could convey no meaning to sane persons, except the lesson to avoid insanity. But it needs no drama to teach that.

___

FOOTNOTE 1: Cf. Romeo and Juliet (I. v. 54), where "antic face" means a mask, and also Richard II (III. ii. 162) and Henry VI (IV, vii. 18).

FOOTNOTE 2: Cf. Shakespeare-Lexicon, by Alexander Schmidt, 3rd edition, Berlin, 1902.

How to cite this article:
Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/antichamlet.html >.


______________

More Resources

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time

More to Explore

 Hamlet: The Complete Play with Explanatory Notes
 Introduction to Hamlet
 The Hamlet and Ophelia Subplot
 The Norway Subplot in Hamlet

 Analysis of the Characters in Hamlet
 Hamlet Plot Summary with Key Passages
 Deception in Hamlet
 Hamlet: Problem Play and Revenge Tragedy

 The Purpose of The Murder of Gonzago
 The Dumb-Show: Why Hamlet Reveals his Knowledge to Claudius
 The Elder Hamlet: The Kingship of Hamlet's Father
 Hamlet's Relationship with the Ghost

 Philological Examination Questions on Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
 Hamlet Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Hamlet: Q & A

_____


Points to Ponder ... "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." K. Deighton. Read on...

_____


 Soliloquy Analysis: O this too too... (1.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!... (2.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be, or not to be... (3.1)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Tis now the very witching time of night... (3.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Now might I do it pat... (3.3)
 Soliloquy Analysis: How all occasions do inform against me... (4.4)

 Ophelia's Burial and Christian Rituals
 The Baker's Daughter: Ophelia's Nursery Rhymes
 Hamlet as National Hero
 Claudius and the Condition of Denmark

 In Secret Conference: The Meeting Between Claudius and Laertes
 O Jephthah - Toying with Polonius
 The Death of Polonius and its Impact on Hamlet's Character
 Blank Verse and Diction in Shakespeare's Hamlet

 Hamlet's Silence
 An Excuse for Doing Nothing: Hamlet's Delay
 Foul Deeds Will Rise: Hamlet and Divine Justice
 Defending Claudius - The Charges Against the King
 Shakespeare's Fools: The Grave-Diggers in Hamlet

 Hamlet's Humor: The Wit of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark
 All About Yorick
 Hamlet's Melancholy: The Transformation of the Prince
 Hamlet's Antic Disposition: Is Hamlet's Madness Real?

 The Significance of the Ghost in Armor
 The Significance of Ophelia's Flowers
 Ophelia and Laertes
 Mistrusted Love: Ophelia and Polonius

 Divine Providence in Hamlet
 What is Tragic Irony?
 Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama
 Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers





An Analysis of Hamlet s antic disposition

Is Hamlet mad? A close analysis of the play reveals that Hamlet is straightforward and sane. His actions and thoughts are a logical response to the situation in which he finds himself. However, he assumes antic-disposition to undercover the truth of his father s death.

In the first act, Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions and thoughts. When questioned by Gertrude about his melancholy appearance Hamlet says, Seems, madam? Nay it is know not seems (I, ii, 76). This is to say, I am what I appear to be. Later he makes a clear statement about his thoughts of mind when he commits himself to revenge. Hamlet says, 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 (I, iv, 99-103). With this statement, the play makes a transition. Hamlet gives up the role of a student and mourning son, and commits himself to nothing else but the revenge of his father s death. There is no confusion and certainly no sign of madness in Hamlet s character. In Chapel Scene, when Claudius is praying alone for his guilt, Hamlet accidentally sees him. He realizes that this is the perfect opportunity to perform the revenge. Seeing the opportunity, Hamlet says, Now might I do it pat, now a is a-praying; And now I ll do it, and so he goes to heaven, And so am I reveng d. That would be scann d; A villain kills my father, for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. O, this is hire and salary, not revenge. (III, iii, 73-79). This shows, Hamlet has a sound mind and is not mad. He knew that if he killed Claudius, he would go to heaven upon death whereas his father s soul was unprepared for death and so went to purgatory. He has said earlier that he is what he appears to be, and there is no reason to doubt it.

When Hamlet appears again in Act Two, it seems that he has lost the conviction and shows a puzzling duplicitous nature. He has yet to take up the part assigned to him by the ghost. He spends the act walking around, reading, talking with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players. It is not until the very end of the act that he even mentions vengeance. If he had any of the conviction shown earlier, he would be presently working on his vengeance. So instead of playing the part of vengeful son, or dropping the issue entirely, he hangs out in the middle, pretending to be mad. This is shown when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I know not lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise (II, ii, 298-299). Later he tells them that he is just feigning madness when he says, I am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly, and I know a hawk from a handsaw (II, ii, 380-381). Admitting so blatantly that he is only feigning madness would imply that he is comfortable with it. He also seems to be generally comfortable with acting. This is evidenced when he says, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so (II, ii, 250-251). Hamlet is saying that thought shapes our perception of reality. It is puzzling that Hamlet is comfortable with his antic disposition at this point but not with the role that he said he would play earlier. Ever since the death of King Hamlet, young Hamlet has been in what has appeared to be in a state of melancholy. In a discussion with Polonius, Hamlet questions Polonius by asking him have you a daughter (II, ii, 182). In this discussion Hamlet mocks Polonius when Hamlet would usually show great respect for him because of he age and of his high position in court. This sudden question to Polonius has causes him to believe that Hamlet has a form of love-sickness sees as a form of madness. Hamlet knows Polonius is sure to tell Claudius of his condition. Hamlet also accuses Polonius of being the Jephthah, judge of Israel, (II, ii, 399) meaning that Polonius would put his country in front of his daughter. Hamlet has now convinced Polonius that he is in a state of madness because he knows that Polonius cares for his daughter very much. Hamlet s above actions of pretended madness and thoughts are justified to the situation he finds himself.

The purpose of Hamlet feigning madness is to undercover the truth about the events leading up to and involving the death of his father. Hamlet says to Horatio, How strange or odd soe er I bear myself, As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on (I, v, 169-171). This play-acting allows Hamlet to determine if his uncle has played any part in the scheme. By pretending he is insane, he is able to get more information about the death of his father. Play goers are shocked when Hamlet burst into his mother s bedroom. This action is generally interpreted as a sign of his discourteous nature . In the Queen s closet scene, Hamlet also acts crazy in front of his mother imagining that there is a ghost in her room. He tries to make her feel guilty enough to confess her sins. He says to his mother, Why, look you there! Look, how it steals away! My father, in his habit as he liv d! Look, where he goes, even now out at the portal! (III, iv, 132-136). I believe another reason for Hamlet to feign madness in front of Claudius is as for her mother, he wanted to drive Claudius to the breaking point of confession and he was successful. In Chapel Scene, Claudius gives way to the guilt which is beginning to torment him despite all his practical efforts to protect himself. He says, O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon t, A brother s murder (III, iii, 36-38).

From the foregoing analysis it can be concluded that Hamlet is quite a sane person. His depression, the hopeless note in his attitude towards others and towards the value of life, his reference to ghost, his self accusations, his desperate efforts to get away from the thoughts of his duty are just a logical response to the circumstances in which he finds himself. This ambiguity is demonstrated by his alleged madness for he does behave madly to become perfectly calm and rational and instant later. He assumes antic-disposition only to undercover the truth and events relating to the death of his father.