“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II. ii. 376-7). This is a classic example of the “wild and whirling words” (I. v. 134) with which Hamlet hopes to persuade people to believe that he is mad. These words, however, prove that beneath his “antic disposition,” Hamlet is very sane indeed. Beneath his strange choice of imagery involving points of the compass, the weather, and hunting birds, he is announcing that he is calculatedly choosing the times when to appear mad.
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Hamlet is saying that he knows a hunting hawk from a hunted “handsaw” or heron, in other words, that, very far form being mad, he is perfectly capable of recognizing his enemies. Hamlet’s madness was faked for a purpose. He warned his friends he intended to fake madness, but Gertrude as well as Claudius saw through it, and even the slightly dull-witted Polonius was suspicious. His public face is one of insanity but, in his private moments of soliloquy, through his confidences to Horatio, and in his careful plans of action, we see that his madness is assumed.
After the Ghost’s first appearance to Hamlet, Hamlet decides that when he finds it suitable or advantageous to him, he will put on a mask of madness so to speak. He confides to Horatio that when he finds the occasion appropriate, he will “put an antic disposition on” (I. v. 173). This strategy gives Hamlet a chance to find proof of Claudius’s guilt and to contemplate his revenge tactic. Although he has sworn to avenge his father’s murder, he is not sure of the Ghost’s origins: “The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil” (II. ii. 596-7).
He uses his apparent madness as a delaying tactic to buy time in which to discover whether the Ghost’s tale of murder is true and to decide how to handle the situation. At the same time, he wants to appear unthreatening and harmless so that people will divulge information to him, much in the same way that an adult will talk about an important secret in the presence of a young child. To convince everyone of his madness, Hamlet spends many hours walking back and forth alone in the lobby, speaking those “wild and whirling words” which make little sense on the surface but in fact carry a meaningful subtext.
When asked if he recognizes Polonius, Hamlet promptly replies, “Excellent well; you are a fishmonger” (II. ii. 172). Although the response seems crazy since a fish-seller would look completely unlike the expensively dressed lord Polonius, Hamlet is actually criticizing Polonius for his management of Ophelia, since “fishmonger” is Elizabethan slang for “pimp. ” He plays mind-games with Polonius, getting him in crazy talk to agree first that a cloud looks like a camel, then a weasel and finally a whale, and in a very sane aside, he then comments that “[t]hey fool me to the top of my bent” (III. . 375).
Although he appears to have lost touch with reality, he keeps reminding us that he is not at all “far gone, far gone” (II. ii. 187) as Polonius claims, but is in fact very much in command of himself and the situation. With his rantings and ravings and his seemingly useless pacing of the lobby, Hamlet manages to appear quite mad. The nave and trusting Ophelia believes in and is devastated by what she sees as his downfall: ” O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! / . . . The expectancy and rose of the fair state / . . . ite, quite down! ” (III. i. 152,4,6).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also fully convinced. They are Hamlet’s equals in age but are far inferior in intellect and therefore don’t understand that he is faking. However, although Hamlet manages to convince these simple friends and Ophelia of his insanity, other characters in the play such as Claudius, Gertrude and even Polonius eventually see through his behavior. Claudius is constantly on his guard because of his guilty conscience and he therefore recognizes that Hamlet is faking.
The king is suspicious of Hamlet from the very beginning. He denies Hamlet permission to return to university so that he can keep an eye on him close by. When Hamlet starts acting strangely, Claudius gets all the more suspicious and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Their instructions are to discover why Hamlet is pretending to be mad: ” And can you, by no drift of circumstance, / Get from him why he puts on this confusion, [my italics] / Grating so harshly all his days of quiet / With turbulent and dangerous lunacy” (III. i. 1-4).
The reason Claudius is so reluctant to believe that Ophelia’s rejection has caused Hamlet’s lunacy is that he doesn’t believe in his madness at all. When Claudius realizes through the play-within-the-play that Hamlet knows the truth about his father’s death, he immediately sends him away to England. The prevailing piece of evidence demonstrating Claudius’s knowledge of Hamlet’s sanity is the fact that he feels threatened enough by Hamlet to order him killed by the king of England: “For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me: till I know ’tis done, / Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er begun” (IV. i. 67-9).
In the scene in his mother’s bedroom, Hamlet tells Gertrude that his insanity is assumed: “[I]t is not madness / I have utter’d: bring me to the test, / And I the matter will reword, which madness / Would gambol from” (III. iv. 143-6), but even without his confirmation, the queen has seen through his act. While Hamlet is reprimanding her, she is so upset that she describes his words as “daggers” (III. iv. 98) and claims, ” Thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (III. iv. 158). The words of a madman could not have penetrated her soul to such an extent.
The queen takes every word Hamlet says seriously, proving she respects him and believes his mind to be sound. Furthermore, she believes Hamlet’s confession of sanity immediately. She does not question him at all but instead promises to keep it her secret. “I have no life to breathe / What though hast said to me” (III. iv. 200-1). Even Polonius can see that Hamlet has not completely lost touch with the world. Although he frequently misses the meanings of Hamlet’s remarks and insults, he does recognize that they make some sense.
After a confusing conversation with Hamlet he remarks, ” Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (II. ii. 205). When his theory of rejected love proves wrong, he becomes very suspicious of Hamlet’s behavior and offers to test it by hiding behind the “arras” in Gertrude’s bedroom so that he can listen in on Hamlet’s private conversation with his mother. Polonius’s suspicions about the legitimacy of Hamlet’s madness lead to his death when Hamlet stabs the “arras” in the mistaken belief that the eavesdropper is Claudius.
Hamlet’s soliloquies, his confidences to Horatio, and his elaborate plans are by far the most convincing proof of his sanity. Throughout the play, Hamlet’s soliloquies reveal his inner thoughts which are completely rational. In one such speech, Hamlet criticizes himself for not having yet taken action to avenge his father’s murder: “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I / . . . the son of the dear murder’d, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (II. ii. 545, 581-3).
Hamlet calls himself a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal” (II. . 563), a villain and a coward, but when he realizes that his anger doesn’t achieve anything practical other than the unpacking of his heart, he stops. These are not the thoughts of a madman; his emotions are real and his thoughts are those of a rational man. Even when he contemplates suicide in the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, his reasons himself out of it through a very sane consideration of the dangers of an unknown afterlife: “And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (III. i. 85-6).
A further important proof of his sanity is how patiently he devises plans to prepare for his revenge. As he explains to Horatio, his “antic disposition” is a device to test his enemies. His mounting of the play-within-the-play is another well-laid plan to trap Claudius into admitting guilt: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (II. ii. 602-3) and even when the play brings him concrete proof, he is careful not to rush to take his revenge at the wrong moment. He could easily kill Claudius while he is praying but restrains himself so that there is no chance of Claudius’s entering heaven.
Although Hamlet’s patience can be seen as an example of his procrastination, I think that it is rather a sign of rationality. Hamlet shows himself perfectly capable of action, as well as of rational thought, in escaping the king’s armed guard, dispatching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England, dealing with the pirates and making it back to Denmark. In addition, the letter Horatio from him through the ambassador bound for England is clear and precise and shows no signs of a befuddled mind. Finally, I am convinced of Hamlet’s sanity by his very normal reactions to the people around him.
He is perfectly sane, friendly and courteous with the players, giving them good acting tips which they appreciate and respect. When Polonius and Claudius test the theory of rejected love by “loosing” Ophelia to him, Hamlet acts completely rationally. He greets Ophelia sweetly, gets a little cold when he remembers that he has not seen her “for this many a day,” is very hurt when she returns his remembrances, and becomes completely furious, insulting womankind in general, when she lies to him about her father’s whereabouts and he realizes he is being spied on.
He reacts the way any hurt young rejected lover would. In the end, it is surprising that he is able to keep up the charade of feigning madness for so long, and part of his tragedy is that it doesn’t help him anyway; in the end, he avenges his father by killing Claudius not through an act of madness, but as a result of Claudius’s own treachery.