In Hamlet, Shakespeare brings together a theme of madness with two characters, one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. We can see this point through two characters namely Hamlet and Ophelia. The madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. Ophelia’s breakdown and Hamlet’s brand of insanity argue for Hamlet having a method to his seeming insanity. The play offers a character on each side of sanity. While Shakespeare does not directly put Ophelia’s insanity, or breakdown, against Hamlet’s own madness, there is indeed a clear accuracy in Ophelia’s condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet’s madness.
Obviously, Hamlet’s character offers more evidences, while Ophelia’s breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet’s sanity beginning with the first scene of the play. Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father’s ghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatly improve. Yet, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet.
As Hamlet says, “O that this too sullied flesh would melt,” (1. 2. 129) we can see that he is depressed and appalled, but it does not mean he is insane. After the first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friends cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than the devastation it really is. This is the first glimpse of Hamlet’s ability and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve effect. Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets the guards know the severity of the news, they might suspect its nature.
Another instance of Hamlet’s behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while his uncle and Polonious are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlet’s affection for Ophelia has already been established, and his complete rejection of her and what has transpired between them is clearly a fraud. Hamlet somehow suspects the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are sent by the King and Queen to question him and investigate the cause of his supposed madness. Hamlet’s actions in the play, after meeting the ghost, lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy.
However, the madness of Hamlet is continuously checked by an ever-present consciousness of action that never lets him lose control. For example, Hamlet questions his conduct in his soliloquy, but after careful consideration decides to go with his instinct and prove to himself without a doubt the King’s guilt before proceeding rashly. Even after the King’s guilt is proven with Horatio as a witness, Hamlet again reflects and uses his better judgement in the soliloquy before seeing his mother. He recognizes his passionate feelings, but tells himself to “speak daggers to her, but use none,” (3. 395) as his father’s ghost instructed.
Again, when in the King’s chambers, Hamlet could perform the murder, but decides not to in his better judgement to ensure that the King doesn’t go to heaven by dying while praying. As Hamlet tells Guildenstern, “I am but mad north-north-west/ when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. “(2. 2. 378-9) This statement reveals out-right Hamlet’s attempt to fool people with his odd behavior. If Hamlet’s madness is just a fraud of action, then Ophelia’s sanity after her father’s murder is completely a truth of insane.
Her unquestionable insanity puts Hamlet’s very questionable madness in a more favorable light. She is quite obviously mad, and, unlike Hamlet, there seems to be no method to her madness. All Ophelia can do after learning of her father’s death is sing. Beside, she doesn’t have any friend or relatives to comfort her. Indeed, Hamlet’s utter rejection of her combined with this is too much for her, and she doesn’t sing a mourning song at the beginning, but rather a happy love song. Ophelia’s breakdown into madness and inability to deal with her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection is dealt with neatly and punctually.
There is little evidence against her madness, compared to Hamlet’s intelligent plotting and use of witnesses to his actions. Thus, by defining true madness in Ophelia, Shakespeare subtracts from the chance of Hamlet’s supposed insanity. In the play, Shakespeare uses the dimmer light of reality to expose the brighter light of plan. Hamlet is dynamic, animated, and absurd in his madness, making Ophelia’s true madness seem realistic rather than absurd. Hamlet explicitly states the plan of his madness, while Ophelia does not.
To prove more of Hamlet’s sanity, he questions his actions. “To be or not to be” proves that Hamlet still thinks before he performs his actions. Further, Hamlet has a motive behind leading others to believe that he is insane. Although Hamlet is under severe pressure and emotional strain due to the high situation in the play, he shows a remarkable amount of intelligent, conscious, and rational decision-making in efforts to resolve his situation. Thus we can see that Hamlet is not insane, but actually does have a method and can make intelligent decisions.