IB English A1
Through the centuries, learnèd scholars around the world have been trying to decipher the effects of madness on the expression of a character’s true feelings. Shakespeare’s protagonist, Hamlet, explores this theme by going to the blurred border between sanity and insanity, and even crossing it at times. This theme brings up many questions ranging from how Hamlet’s madness shows in his actions and speech to a greater philosophical reasoning as for why madness is necessary to express a character’s deepest emotions.
This spectrum portrays the process of answering one broader question: Hamlet’s mask of antic disposition
reveals his true character, how does it do that? Using the guise of Antic Disposition, Hamlet demonstrates his grief for his Father’s death, his fear for his future and his love for Ophelia
Hamlet’s madness is more obvious an act of antic disposition than true insanity. A blatant example is when Claudius asks Hamlet in Act 3, scene 2, “How fares our cousin Hamlet?” Hamlet’s nonchalant response comes in the form of “Excellent, I’ faith, of the chameleon’s dish. I eat the air, promise-crammed.
You cannot feed capons so.” (99-101). Although many scholars are non-conclusive about this statement
(Davis 19), one possible interpretation is that Hamlet is hinting to the fact that he himself is a chameleon: he changes his behavior according to his environment. Thus he is able to show his true self but allow it to go unnoticed because of his apparent madness. Hamlet further uses these obvious statements of antic disposition to remind Gertrude and Claudius of the reason for Hamlet’s dissatisfaction. To bring an example,
by saying “For look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within ‘s two hours” to which
Gertrude replies “Nay, ‘tis twice two months my lord” (III.ii.133-136), Hamlet achieves two objectives – he
feigns insanity by losing track of time and thus successfully causes others to believe in his mask of antic disposition and, as mentioned above, pokes fun at his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” (II.ii.157). Hamlet
seems to successfully persuade others of his insanity; Polonius identify Hamlet's madness as "love-melancholy," which was considered a full fledged disease in Shakespeare’s time (Davis 122). Ophelia, for a
short while convinced of her father’s theory dismisses hamlet as “a noble mind o’erthrown” (III.ii.152). In
other words, Hamlet’s feigned insanity is made apparent by a variety of statements, pressuring others to truly believe in his insanity. This insanity proves to be a catalyst in Hamlet in terms of causing the particular
tragic series of events to take place.
Hamlet’s madness plays an essential role in the journey towards the dénouement of the play because it is his madness that causes the most significant events to transpire. It is under disguise of Hamlet’s madness that Claudius sends Hamlet to England, and that same madness which motivates Hamlet
to unashamedly murder Polonius. Hamlet’s lunacy causes Ophelia to lose her sense of being, by robbing her
of her father and her most loved man – Hamlet himself. “You should not have believed me, for virtue
cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not” (III.i.126-129) says Hamlet to
Ophelia breaking her heart and planting the seeds of Madness, which then flourish so shamelessly, that Ophelia does maker her quietus – although not with a bare bodkin, but rather in water. This spectrum of events allows Hamlet to successfully take his revenge on Claudius, even at the cost of Gertrude’s life and his
own. In his book, The Development of Dramatic Art contemporary English writer Bertrand Evans provides
with a unique definition of Dénouement. He claims that if a “certain character causes the events leading up
to the climax then it is he who is liable for the dénouement” (73). Using Evans’ definition, the dénouement
is caused by Hamlet, since it is his lunacy that causes the catastrophic series of events to take place, and it thus logical that it is that same lunacy that leads to the climax and its following dénouement. Moreover, Hamlet’s insanity drives the themes of the play to converge because it his insanity which drives the play
towards the climax, without which a dénouement would not take place. The most vital theme, which Hamlet’s madness lucratively elucidates, is that same madness. In Hamlet’s speech to Laertas, he proclaims
that “his madness is poor Hamlet's enemy” (V.ii.253) meaning that he realizes that his madness was the
source and cause for the given unraveling of events. Following the climax of Hamlet, the reader become
conscious of the fact that Hamlet has crossed the border between madness and rationality and it seems to be too late for Hamlet to repent. The eloquence of Hamlet’s ideas and choice of action is what truly
contributes to the converging of the themes of the play, and thus the Dénouement.
The initiative of foil is also apparent throughout Hamlet. There are many possibilities for Foil
analysis, however, one certain character comes to mind when Hamlet’s actions and sayings are to be
compared. That character is Horatio – arguably Hamlet’s only close friend, Horatio seems to ‘foil’ Hamlet in terms of their contrary views and reactions to events. Horatio in Hamlet is portrayed as a certain frame of
reference – the image of rationality and prudence in contrast to Hamlet, who, under the mask of antic disposition and true insanity has antagonistic reactions to Horatio. Shakespeare portrays Horatio as such in order to highlight Hamlet’s lunacy, to use Horatio as a frame of reference and contextualize Hamlet’s actions. The most obvious evidence for the use of Horatio as a foil character is when, in Act 5, scene 1, both Hamlet and Horatio examine the skull of Yorick: “Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her
paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.” Hamlet’s insanity becomes apparent when he starts commanding the skull. Antithetically to Horatio, who upon examining the skull, does not speak to it nor reflect upon it but merely answers Hamlet’s mad questions. Horatio’s image of care
and justice is further preserved when Horatio warns Hamlet: “…and there assume some other horrible form which might deprive your sovereignty of reason and draw you into madness?” (I.iv.80-82). Moreover
Horatio is used to reveal Hamlet’s plan for revenge when Hamlet confides in him: “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (I.v.191-192). The establishment of Horatio as a rational
character develops Hamlet’s own characteristics because Horatio is used to contrast Hamlet’s irrational behavior and reveal Hamlet’s plan of action.
The purpose of the center-piece soliloquy of Hamlet is generalized as examining the purpose of life;
However, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy of Act 3, Scene 1 successfully portrays Hamlet’s antic
disposition combined with some of the greatest philosophical pondering in the history of literature to reveal more, concerning Hamlet’s true being. Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s guise of insanity to deliver this
indispensible ‘soliloquy’. Although the viewer does not know whether Hamlet is aware that he is alone or not, this soliloquy is delivered in Iambic Pentameter. In contemporary times, Iambic Pentameter was considered the purest form of speech, and mad characters scarcely spoke in it. This brings up a parallel with Guy Roberts’ production of Macbeth shown in the ISP Theater (Roberts). Lady Macbeth constantly speaks in
Iambic Pentameter until act V, scene i, where the Lady begins to decay to insanity and her Iambic Pentameter stops with “out damned spot, out I say”. This brings up the question of whether Hamlet is aware that he is being watched. However, since he does speak in Iambic Pentameter, there is a possibility that he temporarily removes his mask of madness. However, it is possible that Hamlet uses that mask of antic disposition to convey Shakespeare’s pondering with a certain purpose which might have been
questioned if Hamlet’s mask would stay off. By asking the question – to be or not to be – to live or not to
live, Hamlet already depicts himself as being irrational, in terms of not thinking logically as a rational thinker scarcely doubt the reason to live nor even preoccupy himself with it. Hamlet’s pondering come to a turning
point when his madness reaches its limit – “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?”
he says (III.i.83-84) and his lunacy becomes apparent as suicidal feelings are considered by the ‘rational’ society – just the opposite – irrational. Therefore, Hamlet’s centerpiece soliloquy is used two-fold: both to
convey Hamlet’s madness, and allow Hamlet to reach a certain conclusion on the purpose of life, all the while making the reader truly wonder.
The transformation of Hamlet’s antic disposition to genuine madness is a process which allowed
Hamlet to express his soul’s deepest thoughts and reactions without needing an excuse. Beyond his mask
lay his grief for the unfortunate unraveling of events with his adieu to Polonius being “Can’t part with me
something I will gladly give away, ‘cept my life”. Furthermore, the fear entrusted deep in his soul, and the misery for the realization that it is his antic disposition that allowed for genuine madness to produce glue, and stick the mask to his face as well as cause the tragic effects, proven when in Act V, Scene ii he admits that it is his madness that falters him. However, the more general question that can be hereby raised is why?
Why is it that Shakespeare needs madness in order to portray Hamlet’s inner feelings? The answer to the
question is not simple but it does consist of several rationales. The most basic rationale is that in the true state of lunacy one can express his thoughts and act without considering the consequences or understand the nature of one’s actions. This allows for a truer understanding of the person. Hamlet, for example speaks
to Yorick’s skull as if it is the person himself. Here Horatio, the Gravedigger and even the audience discover
more about Hamlet than could be conveyed in words. Another reason for the necessity of madness to illustrate a person is that the person does not use strategy when talking to others, meaning that he does not hide any side of him – be that good or bad. Shakespeare uses the center-piece soliloquy to make others truly understand Hamlet because it allows for Hamlet to express verbally himself and for Shakespeare get the viewers thinking.
Hamlet’s insanity is apparent throughout the play. Considering that insanity transforms from a
simple mask of antic disposition to true madness, the viewer can easily see Hamlet’s character from all
directions – regardless of whether Hamlet tried to hide his more negative side or not. Hamlet has many foils which produce a solid image of him as a character, and is the protagonist to blame for the dénouement. His center-piece soliloquy proves essential to the better recognition of the audience of Hamlet’s true
personality and combines philosophy with true madness to have its prolonged effect on the centuries of readers. Using Hamlet’s exploration, Shakespeare effectively constructs an intricate net of actions and reactions through which, Hamlet’s co-thespians and spectators may discover the true Hamlet. Through
verbal expressions and decisive action, Hamlet’s madness portrays many emotions and passions which lie,
rarely debunked, deep under that mask.
Derek Russell Davis, Scenes of Madness: A Psychiatrist at the Theatre (New York: Routledge, 1995) iii, Questia, 2 Mar. 2008
Bertrand Evans, The Development of Dramatic Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960) iii, Questia, 4
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1599-1601. New York: Washington Square Press,
Roberts, Guy, dir. Macbeth. MiLoCo. International School of Prague. 27 Feb.