One of the central issues in Shakespeares play Hamlet is madness. The focus of my essay revolves around Young Hamlet and the questions posed by this character in respect of his sanity. Firstly, is Hamlets madness entirely feigned, as he initially leads us, the audience, to believe? To what extent is Hamlets madness an act? Does Hamlets feigned madness shield him from actually going mad? Or, an opposing proposition would be, does Hamlets feigned madness result in him becoming mad? My essay is an exploration of these key queries. I will conduct almost an enquiry into the sanity of Young Hamlet.
Furthermore, I intend to incorporate into my study a psychological perspective. Primarily, I must put this investigation into historical context. Hamlet was written, and first performed, in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, around the 1600s. We are aware Shakespeares writing was influenced immensely by his audience. He knew, as all great writers do, that his play would only be a success if he could capture their attention. This is clearly depicted by the introduction of the play. Set in the gloom on a spooky battlement of a Danish Castle, Shakespeare certainly introduces the play with a bang so to speak, or, more to the point, a ghost!
Having attracted the attention of his audience Shakespeares following challenge was to retain it. This is where the theme of madness plays its part. The Elizabethans were fascinated by madness. During the 1600s the mentally ill were tortured and chained in dungeons. Mad persons were publicly beaten and tortured for entertainment of visitors of London, at the hospital of Saint Marys of Bethlehem, later known as Bedlam. Those who carried out the flogging were exempt from legal punishment. Harsh as this may seem, the Elizabethans knew little better.
In fact the common belief of the time, reflected in Shakespeares plays was derived from the doctrines of Hippocrates and Galen which stated illnesses were caused by an excess or deficiency of one of the 4 humours within the body: blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, a 13th century monk, suggested that excessive amounts of choler could give rise to madness. However, others suggested excess melancholy was the cause. I think in respect to Hamlet there is undoubtedly an excess of melancholy to account for any apparent madness! There are several texts thought to have influenced Shakespeare in his creation of Hamlet.
The most obvious is The Spanish Tragedy (1589) by Thomas Kydd, which was still being performed during the Elizabethan period, incorporating the themes of revenge, murder and feigned madness to avoid suspicion. A 12th century Danish chronicler, collecting information about his countrys past, wrote down the story of Amleth, this too includes the themes of revenge, treacherous murder, and the marriage of a mother to the assassin. Shakespeare s plays include a great deal of psychological accuracy. In fact it could be said that, in relation to Sigmund Freud, Shakespeare figured out the human mind before the father of psychology was even born!
Freuds vision of psychology is derived, not altogether unconsciously, from his reading of Shakespeares plays. Freud developed the concept of how unconscious forces could disrupt a persons mental health. Emil Krapelin in the 1890s later classified this as Schizophrenia, which is a common type of psychosis, characterised by hallucinations, delusions, personality changes, withdrawal and serious thought and speech disturbances; linked to depression, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, thoughts of suicide and concentration problems. Typically it develops between late teens to early 30s.
Freuds suggestion leads on to the concept that Hamlets mind has both a conscious and sub-conscious level. Freud understood dreams, like jokes and slips of the tongue, concealed conflicting desires. An example of an indication of these secret urges is when Hamlet says to the king in his final rage, Act 5 sc. ii 318-19, Here thou incestuous, murdrous, damnd Dane, drink off this potion. He mentions incest, which has nothing to do with the King and Queen, but does relate to him and his mother. From this I make an exceptionally provocative proposition.
The Oedipus complex is according to Freud and later Earnest Jones (1949) the boy fated to kill his father and marry his mother. This controversial point is echoed by one raised by Thomas Hanmer, 1736, who drew attention to Hamlets delay in carrying out his revenge. How can he murder Claudius when his uncle carried out the deed he himself subconsciously wanted to carry out? Another suggestion to raise, based again on work of Freuds, relates to Hamlets love of his mother. Every son loves his mother and tries to please her. Subconsciously, Hamlet is motivated by an oedipal urge to sleep with his mother, for various reasons.
First, Hamlet had lost the love of his life Ophelia; her father and brother who instruct her to distance herself from Hamlet have in effect taken her from him. This sends him into anger mode that has to be exerted somehow, which happens to be desire for his mother, the next love in his life. Secondly, Freuds theory that Hamlets mind has a conscious level and a subconscious level helps us to understand Hamlets motivations and actions towards his mother, such as apparently going to her for support. Hamlet might have really been going to his mother for reasons more intricate than that.
To fully analyse Hamlets character I must study him throughout the entire play. From the very beginning Hamlet makes rash decisions. For example in Act1sc. iv he goes alone with the ghost even though Horatio tells him not to. L. 81. Be ruled you shall not go. Hamlet does not know if the ghost is in fact an honest or good ghost. This shows that from the very start we see Hamlet has little respect for his life. In fact Horatios speech here is of equal importance as Hamlets in revealing Hamlets current state of mind. L. 69-78. What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff We see that Hamlets best friend, obviously a character who knows him well, is worried about how easily Hamlet may be tempted to his death. He carries on to say: The very place puts toys of desperation He refers here to fanciful impulses, which result in despair and even suicide. It seems that Horatio believes Hamlet to be emotionally vulnerable. This is shown within the lines 73-74: Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason And draw you into madness?… Such analysis would in fact lead one to believe Hamlet is actually on the brink of madness from the start.
Hamlet first directly reveals to the audience the turmoil he feels within his first soliloquy, Act1sc. v L. 92-112. Here Hamlet darts from one topic to another, using fragmented phrases and rhetorical questions. This language depicts his confused emotional state. It is at the end of Act 1 L. 172. that we learn, as he tells Horatio and Marcellus, of Hamlets ploy to, To put an antic disposition on – Could this encourage us to believe that throughout Hamlet is feigning insanity? Even in such crazy situations Hamlet can keep mental stability, shielded from true madness by his feigned insanity.
The next we hear of Hamlets behaviour is from Ophelia, Act2sc. i. Ophelia tells her father, Polonius, that Hamlet has been to see her in a terrible physical and mental state with his clothing all dishevelled. Polonius believes that it is due to Ophelias rejection, which he and Laertes insisted upon, that Hamlet has gone mad, hes sexually frustrated. However later, in an aside, Polonius recognises that Hamlets strange comments may superficially appear mad but there is an underlying meaning to them. Act2 scii. L. 205-206. Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.
This shows that Polonius is suspicious of Hamlets madness, which would urge one to believe Hamlets madness is feigned. To obtain a balanced view of Hamlet I must study a range of perspectives and sources. Doing so it is crucial that I recognise that my perception of Hamlet differs immensely from that of your average Elizabethan. This is a consequence of several factors. Firstly, the majority of the Elizabethan/Jacobean audience would have perceived the plot, and more importantly Hamlet, as they appear on the surface. Hamlet would seem, to the preponderance, as if his madness was entirely feigned and as he himself would lead one to believe.
One reason for this simple perception was due to the limited education available at the time. The play may have also appeared a little more believable to an Elizabethan audience; it would have more relevance to their lives. Even though it was set in Denmark, a country that the minority of the population would knew about, there is frequent reference to disease, illness and the plague, all which were far more common then than they currently are, thankfully. This is a point raised by Clemen who argued that there is a strong vein of imagery suggesting a process of infection and decay in the play.
This statement echoes my suspicion that Hamlets mental stability deteriorates throughout the play. Unlike the majority of the modern day audience the Elizabethans could sympathise with the plot of revenge, during the 1600s the primeval stance of an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth would have been more commonly accepted. The biblically correct attitude, found in Genesis, would be more inclined towards a lack of action or even forgiveness Vengeance is mine, I will repay saith the Lord, the attitude that we are, today, encouraged to adopt.
The soliloquies are key components of the analysis of Hamlet. However, whilst studying them I must bear in mind the variation of production and perception over the eras. It has been suggested that soliloquies performed in the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre were not necessarily performed as if the speaker was in direct communion with his/herself but spoken directly to the audience as an attempt to persuade them to see the play from their perspective. However, nowadays there are many more ways of portraying the soliloquies, which in turn have varying effects on audiences.
For example, in Laurence Oliviers production Hamlets soliloquies are done in a voice over to give the effect of the audience hearing Hamlets inner most thoughts. This has a different effect than if a modern day production were to have the soliloquies recited, as they appeared to be intended a direct communion with himself, allowing the audience the opportunity to overhear his thoughts. Due to modern stage conditions, such as artificial lighting, the actor cant really see the audience so the soliloquy is forced back onto his/herself.
This results in Hamlet apparently talking to himself which has, inarguably, a far more dramatic effect, consequently the audience are more inclined to perceive Hamlet as mad. Another essential component, greatly influenced by the directors interpretation, is the ghost. We assume that in Shakespeares production the ghost is always visible when the script suggests. Infact it is said that Shakespeare himself often took up the role. However, modern day productions have varying ways of portraying the ghost.
The Laurence Olivier production stays true to the script projecting the ghost as a shadowy human figure dressed in armour. The Royal Shakespeare Company 1965 added a little original flair including the ghost as a 10ft. puppet like creation, whereas the Tony Richardson production creates a slightly spookier effect by implying the ghosts presence with a bright light shone on the faces of the actors in attendance. However, the most persuasive production, and arguably least true to the script, is Richard Eyres 1980.
Here, Jonathon Pryce, the actor playing the Hamlet, spoke the lines of the ghost as if possessed. The 1st scene was cut to support this reading. Controversial as this may seem the idea of Hamlet being possessed by the ghost echoes the perception that mad persons were in fact possessed by spirits, which may still have been upheld by some members of the Elizabethan audience so, it does infact have a historical edge. These differing ways of directing the play have drastic effects on our perception of Hamlets sanity.
For instance, some productions show the ghost in Act1 yet dont include any physical representation when he reappears to Hamlet in Act 3 sc. iv. Such a production would imply Hamlets madness was progressive, his sanity deteriorates. Different productions have other persuasive techniques. For example, in Act 3 sc. iv, which features gross sexual imagery such as Live in the rank sweat of an enseamd bed, L. 94 and making love over the nasty sty L. 95-96. Hamlet has been shown to be raping his mother.
This would be supported by Freuds suggestion of Hamlets subconscious desires. In such a production one would question whether Hamlets subconscious and conscious minds have become confused, has the former temporarily displaced the latter? Here the illusion of the ghost, as it comes to remind him of his vengeful intention, portrays what his conscious mind usually represents. In contrast a production such as Richard Eyres would lead the audience to believe Hamlet was mad from the beginning.
Therefore the conclusion I make is Hamlets sanity can only be measured for each individual performance and production. Hamlet could well be sane, shielded from madness or arguably he could be defined as a schizophrenic. I cant even conclude how Shakespeare intended Hamlets madness to be perceived, only that he made his play simple enough for the poorly-read to follow, yet complicated enough for the father of psychology to derive his work from. All I can conclude is the extent of which Hamlets madness is feigned is an individuals interpretation.