Is Hamlet Faking His Madness?

While Hamlet’s mourning for the loss of his father, the king of Denmark, is genuine, there are strong indications that the madness he demonstrates is contrived. Both Claudius and Queen Gertrude acknowledge Hamlet’s grief (as opposed to his madness). Claudius even finds some degree of virtue in the manner in which Hamlet grieves as he tells him “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father” (1:2:86). At the same time, however, Hamlet is chided by both Claudius and the Queen for remaining in what they consider an excessive and unusual state of mourning. This is evident as Claudius, addressing Hamlet, says; ”Filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow, but to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubbornness; tis unmanly grief” (1:2:91), and earlier as Queen Gertrude tells Hamlet “Do not forever with veiled lids seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou knowest tis common that all lives must die” 1:2:70). These passages indicate that Hamlet’s behavior is attributable to a state of extreme grief.

Another indication that Hamlet, although grief-stricken, is in full possession of his faculties is suggested by his presence of mind to pick his battles verbally as he concedes to Queen Gertrude’s demands that he “cast off thy nighted colour” (1:2:68) and abandon his ideas about going to study in Wittenberg. Hamlet states “I shall in all my best, obey you, madam” (1:2:120), which signifies a healthy thought process wherein he believes it best, under current circumstances, to agree to the Queen’s wishes in order to put an end to the beratement. At the conclusion of this conversation with Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet offers a clear indication that in the midst of his emotional trauma, he still has the mental capacity to reason and make sound decisions. As he contemplates suicide, he quickly rejects the idea because he believes such an act would be unpleasing to God; “Oh that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (1:2:130). The truly mad are not likely to be dissuaded by the thought of how their actions will be perceived by others.

The exchange between Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo suggests that the three soldiers viewed Hamlet as sane. After they relate to Hamlet the story of how the ghost of his father appeared to them as they stood watch, Hamlet decides to join them on their next watch in hopes that ghost may reappear. As the ghost appears, it beckons Hamlet to go away with it (1:4:56), and Horatio, for fear that the ghost might “deprive you of your sovereignty of reason and draw you into madness” (1:4:73), recommends that Hamlet not go, an indication that at the time, they perceived no madness in him.

The position that Hamlet is not mad could be rejected. It could be argued that Hamlet is indeed mad because he sees the ghost of his father; that seeing and interacting with the ghost in itself constitutes madness. In some other context, this might prove a valid argument. For the purpose of establishing that Hamlet is mad, however, the argument fails to consider that the sanity of Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo is never brought in to question. The guards are not major players in the story, however, it is to them to whom the ghost first appears, and then once again as Hamlet stands with them during their watch. If Hamlet is guilty of madness because he has seen the ghost of his father, then this must also apply to Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo; soldiers soundly fit for duty.

That Hamlet’s madness is a well-contrived ruse is suggested by Hamlet himself as he elicits an oath from Horatio and Marcellus, that they will “never make known what you have seen tonight” (1:5:142), and further, as he asks their loyalty to not renounce him based on some unexplained, unidentified behavior they will witness of him in the future; “how strange or odd so’er I bear myself as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (1:5:170). The antic disposition of which he speaks refers to the staged madness which he plans to stage before Ophelia. Rarely, if ever, do the mad make specific plans to demonstrate it freely and openly at some future time.

An opposing view might point to Hamlet’s wild appearance and violent demeanor toward Ophelia as evidence of his madness. When Hamlet enters Ophelia’s sewing room, he is unkempt and looks “as if he has been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors” (2:1:83). As she reports this to her father, Polonius, he questions whether Hamlet is “mad for thy love?” (2:1:85). Hamlet’s wild  appearance and strange behavior is the actualization of the plan he hatched earlier, the antic disposition to which he earlier referred as he made Horatio and Marcellus take vows of secrecy.

Another point that could lend support to the counter-view, the view that Hamlet is mad might be drawn from Polonius, who outright tells Queen Gertrude “Your noble son is mad” (2:2:92). Polonius believes this to be so because his daughter Ophelia, acting on advice from her father, has rejected Hamlet’s romantic advances. To Polonius, Hamlet’s unusual behavior toward Ophelia in her sewing closet, his madness, is the result of Ophelia’s rejection of him. Polonius, however, does not have all the facts. He is unaware that the madness was feigned.

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Cancer is Nothing to Smile About

The ad sprawled across the city bus showed a woman smiling. The bold caption read “My sister has cancer, but I don’t.” Taken at face value, I suppose somewhere in this cruel world a sister like that really exists; one who would thank her lucky stars that if cancer just had to strike, better her sister than her. I doubt, however, that one would be so callous as to advertise her elation on a 35 to 45 foot bus for the entire city to see. People aren’t generally that open about their darkness.

Whatever product the smiling woman was selling, the content of that bold captioned text and her happy face are sure to be at odds with the details in the fine print. A miracle cure? I doubt it. Edward Bernays might have thought this was ingenious, but all it did for me yesterday was make me feel sadder.

You see, today is the second anniversary of the death of my older sister, Vanessa. She died of cancer. I was her caretaker. The experience was unlike any other I have had, and this is true even though I had another sister who died of cancer in 1989. That smiling face on the city bus ad bothered me. My sister had cancer. I don’t. I can’t find anything in that sentence that makes me want to smile.