Ah, to be or not to be, that is the question. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is hand’s down one of the richest works of literature that explores the human psyche and condition. It’s GORGEOUS. It’s complex, introspective, thrilling and certainly some of Shakespeare’s best writing. Most importantly, it’s some of the most morally ambiguous, confusing, thought-provoking pieces of literature I’ve ever read.
A refresher: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is home to mourn the death of his father, who died two months earlier. Suddenly, the ghost of his father ~appears~ and beckons Hamlet to follow him and reveals that his brother Claudius poisoned him. So, Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s murder. Drama ensues. And some murders. And some pretty strange behavior on Hamlet’s part, if you ask me.
What makes Hamlet so incredible is how it shows that complexity of the human condition and how it deals with stressful situations brought forth in the narrative. Through Hamlet’s character, the audience sees a highly intelligent, but neurotic young man with a tendency towards melancholy deal with an entirely unconventional, stressful situation. Not only did his uncle murder his father (Scar from the Lion King? Anyone?), but also he has also spoken to his father’s ghost multiple times and later murdered a man he did not intend to kill. SHEESH.
But perhaps my favorite thing about Hamlet is that we have NO IDEA if Shakespeare intended for his audience and his readers to view Hamlet as insane. In Hamlet’s character, we see a stream of consciousness and a vast scope of human behavior that ranges from what is considered normal to utterly bizarre. Because the audience can see right into Hamlet’s thoughts (ex. that super-famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy) and observe all aspects of his behavior, it has long been debated on whether or not Hamlet is sane.
This reading, from the perspective of psychology, is one that I researched and studied during my sophomore year of college, just as I was delving deeper into the world of Shakespeare in my major. My favorite professor and English advisor, classics expert Dr. Jasper Neel, was my guide through this research. Below was his favorite way of breaking this predicament down:
He’s faking it and it’s all part of his plan.
This is certainly a possibility; after all, Hamlet repeatedly claims throughout the play that his apparent madness is an act that he is in control of at all times:
“How strange or odd some’er I bear myself – as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (III.iv.170-172).
Hamlet may be one of those dark, deeply alienated, but nevertheless sane individuals who can simply live within his own private drama, never really letting anyone know what he really thinks and entirely controlling his own narrative — even with Shakespeare’s own audience (tricky, huh?)
And with this, no truly insane person could plan, manage, deceive, and act SO successfully as Hamlet does. So….maybe he is sane. And he’s just ~faking it til he makes it.~
Those who know him best seem to think he’s crazy.
The characters closest to him, such as his mother, uncle, girlfriend and closest friends seem to think he is insane. Since determinations of insanity are always made by others, never by the person declared insane, by any normal definition he is insane, even if he has tricked those closest to him into thinking this.
At the beginning of the play, Claudius mentions “Hamlet’s transformation” and claims that “the exterior nor the inward man resembles what it was” (II.ii. 4-7) and later, his family believes that Hamlet’s defect is essentially not madness, but something deeper – there is “something in his soul” (III.i. 161-163).
Pretty sketchy…right? So maybe he is insane.
But it should be noted — those closest to him each have their own personal and political agenda, therefore making them less reliable sources. Like, Claudius is LITERALLY THE DUDE who killed Hamlet’s dad, starting all this hullabaloo in the first place. So it also begs the question if this stance can even be trusted and accepted in the first place. *sigh*
Hamlet’s behavior strongly suggests insanity, and even Hamlet himself sometimes suggests he’s crazy.
No sane person would behave as Hamlet does with Ophelia (whom he is supposed to love), with Polonius (including with Polonius’ corpse), with his friends (even if he does not trust them), or at Ophelia’s grave. Each of these outlandish behaviors indicate towards an unstable man.
See, here he is being a total ass to Ophelia AKA Kate Winslett:
And later, after Ophelia’s death, Hamlet actually jumps into her grave and exclaims, “Thou pray’st not well. I prithee, take thy fingers from thy throat, for though I am not splenitive and rash, yet have I something in me dangerous, which let thy witnesses fear” (V.i. 244-248). Not only is this behavior, like, TOTALLY unstable, but also Hamlet even admits that he sees himself as a threat that others should fear.
So, another conclusion is that homeboy is just 👏🏼crazy👏🏼.
Well…in my opinion, there is too much contradictory information to make a conclusion on whether or not Hamlet is categorically insane. We simply will never know (and in my opinion, I don’t think we’re supposed to know — Shakespeare, in most of his plays, leaves this psychological ambiguity up for interpretation.)
Though the audience does have a door into Hamlet’s psyche, this still does not allow the audience to make a satisfactory judgment on the condition of his mental state; rather, it just shows us the complexity of a man’s psyche and the interpretation of it by those around him.Hamlet is simply an example of the complexity and depth of the human condition, and a mental state that cannot be narrowed down into a single interpretation of sane or insane.
Anyways, the way I look at it is Hamlet is under no obligation to make sense to us. And I think Shakespeare liked it that way. Makes analyses like this all the more fun, right?