J. Xavier Smith
“Hamlet’s Sanity: Not to be or never was?”
Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, has some deep rooted psychological issues, such as his suicidal nature and his illogical ties between female sexuality and moral corruption. Some of are his own doing but some are forced upon his mind by the actions of others; his mother, his uncle and the ghost of his father to name a few. According to William Wood “Hamlet is pictured to us as a young man possessing highly sensitive and emotional qualities of mind, in combination with most refined intellectual insight and subtlety, original reasoning power of a high order, exalted, and most delicate imagination; and yet judged critically, these splendid powers of mind do not appear in their perfectly developed form…” Hamlet’s traits show just how confused this young man is. Between his distrust of women, hate of Claudius, and his fixation on death, Hamlet’s mind could be pictured as a kind of emotional limbo. From a psychological stand point, the character of Hamlet starts off as faking insanity only to later on find he is truly insane.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare is attempting to make a comment about the complexity of the human mind and the power that a person’s mental perspective can have on the events of his or her life. Since the death of King Hamlet, young Hamlet has been in what appeared to be in a state of madness. According to the
authors at Sparknotes.com, Shakespeare set the stage for Hamlet’s internal
dilemma in Act1, Scene 5 of the play when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears
and calls upon Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”. In the aftermath of his father’s death, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death. He is plagued with questions about the afterlife, about the wisdom of suicide; about what happens to bodies after they die...the list is extensive. Hamlet thinks a lot about suicide, the first time would be when he says. “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew or that the Everlasting has not fixed His cannon against self-slaughter.” The beginning of this speech,
Hamlet is talking about killing himself for the first time in the play. He states that if God was not against suicide he would take his life (Sparknotes.com). This is the start of Hamlet’s dive into insanity. William Wood, the writer of “Hamlet; from a psychological point of view” points out that “He lives habitually in two worlds, an ideal one and an actual one. In this way he becomes the prey of the most painful mental conflicts, the intensity of which occasionally almost drives him to desperation. The sad result of this state of things in a sensitive nature, is too often the setting up of a condition of chronic and habitual irritability, which may end either in actual insanity or in such a weakening of the brain’s power, that the individual, unless invigorated by an entire change of scene and occupation, becomes utterly unfit for anything like sustained mental effort.”(Wood, pg.22) An
example of this is Hamlet’s “To be or, not to be” speech.
Hamlet’s “To be or, not to be”, probably the most famous speech in the
English language, is spoken by Hamlet in Act III, scene i, lines 58––90. His most
logical and powerful examination of the theme of the moral legitimacy of suicide in an unbearably painful world, it touches on several of the other important themes of the play. Authors at Sparknotes.com state that, Hamlet poses the problem of whether to commit suicide as a logical question: "To be, or not to be," that is, to live or not to live. He then weighs the moral ramifications of living and dying. Is it nobler to suffer life, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," passively or to actively seek to end one's suffering? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to suffering, pain, and uncertainty it might bring, "the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to." Based on this metaphor, he decides that suicide is a desirable course of action, "a consummation / Devoutly to be wished." But, as the religious word "devoutly" signifies, there is more to the question, namely, what will happen in the afterlife. Hamlet immediately realizes as much, and he reconfigures his metaphor of sleep to include the possibility of dreaming; he says that the dreams that may come in the sleep of death are daunting, that they "must give us pause." He then decides that the uncertainty of the afterlife, which is intimately related to the theme of the difficulty of attaining truth in a spiritually ambiguous world, is essentially what prevents all of humanity from committing suicide to end the pain of life. He outlines a long list of the miseries of experience, ranging from lovesickness to hard work to political oppression, and asks who would choose to bear those miseries if he could bring himself peace with a knife, "when he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin?" He answers himself again, saying no one would choose to live, except that "the dread of something after death" makes
people submit to the suffering of their lives rather than go to another state of existence which might be even more miserable. The dread of the afterlife, Hamlet concludes, leads to excessive moral sensitivity that makes action impossible: "conscience does make cowards of us all …… thus the native hue of
resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."(Sparknotes.com)
In this way, this speech connects many of the play's main themes, including the idea of suicide and death, the difficulty of knowing the truth in a spiritually ambiguous universe, and the connection between thought and action. In addition to its crucial thematic content, this speech is important for what it reveals about the quality of Hamlet's mind. His deeply passionate nature is complemented by a relentlessly logical intellect, which works furiously to find a solution to his misery. He has turned to religion and found it inadequate to help him either kill himself or resolve to kill Claudius. Here, he turns to a logical philosophical inquiry and finds it equally frustrating. One should note that Hamlet is played as still having some control and not totally mad. Thomas Tyler, a professor at the university of London, and writer of “The Philosophy of Hamlet”, points out a case example of this on page 6 of his book.
“How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on.) –Act 1 Sc.5
But, it may be said, does not Hamlet excuse to Laertes the killing of Polonius, expressly on the ground that it was not Hamlet but Hamlet’s madness, which had inflicted the injury?
“What I have done, that might your nature, honour and exeption roufhly awake, I here proclaim was madness. Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet. If Hamlet from himself be
ta’en away, and, when he’s not himself, does wrong Laertes, then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness” –Act 5 Sc.2
In reply, however, to any argument in favour of the reality of Hamlet’s madness, based on the passage just quoted, it may be sufficient to point to the fact that, at the very time when Polonius is killed by the trust through the arras, not only is Hamlet’s sanity conspicuous in the discourse with the Queen, but he expressly denies that he is really mad (Tyler pg.6)
Hamlet is the perfect example of the tragic hero. A university student, whose studies are interrupted by his father’s death, Hamlet is extremely philosophical and contemplative. The first thing to point out about him is that he is enigmatic. There is always more to him than the other characters in the play can figure out; even the most careful and clever readers come away with the sense that they don’t know everything about Hamlet. Such as the fact that, he has brave and daring aspects. One example of this is that when he went to England. If his plan didn’t work he would have been killed. He is also loyal. His loyalty to his father was the reason he was so angry at Claudius and his mother, Gertrude. Another trait was that of intelligence. He was able to think up the idea of faking insanity in order to get more information about Claudius. But Hamlet, like all other tragic hero’s had a flaw. He couldn’t get around to doing anything, because he couldn’t move on. He is particularly drawn to difficult questions or question that cannot be answered with any certainty. Also, it took him a long time to stop grieving about his father because he didn’t want to move past that part of his life. Clearly his feelings of frustration anger and helplessness stem partly the unhappy turns his life has taken. In the end, Hamlet’s despair, paired with his inability to move on, is so intense that he is becoming disillusioned with
the world and life itself. Hamlet’s soul is sick. The symptoms are horror at the fact of death and an equal detestation of life, a sense of uncleanliness and evil in the things of nature; a disgust at the physical body of man; bitterness, cynicism, hate. It tends towards insanity. This should make one think...Was he faking madness or just expressing the truth that was hidden from view.
Hamlet’s words often indicate his disgust with and distrust of women in general. Shattered by his mother’s repugnant decision to marry Claudius so soon after her husband’s death (According to Hamlet, they could have used the leftover food from the funeral in the wedding reception) Hamlet becomes extremely cynical even neurotic, about women in general showing a particular obsession with what he perceives to be a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. As shown in his famous “get thee to a nunnery” speech to
Ophelia. In which he tells her that he would rather her be a nun that to corrupt herself (and him for that matter) with her sexuality. In Act 3 Sene 1, Hamlet denies the existence of romantic values. Love, in his mind, has become synonymous with sex, and sex with uncleanness Therefore beauty is dangerous and unclean. Sick of the world of man, of love, Hamlet denies the reality of his past romance,”I loved you not.” This statement alone fits coherently into his
diseased mind, and so it is, to him, the truth. But end the end he admits that he loves Ophelia “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum.”(Hamlet, Act 5, Sene 1)
In dealing with the death of his father Hamlet has two things the push his mental stability to the edge, the ghost and his uncle/step-father/man keeping
hamlet from the throne, Claudius. No one really knows much about the ghost. This apparition appears on the castle’s battlements and provides the crucial
piece of information that drives much of the play’s plot. It appears to be King Hamlet but it may have be a physical being from Hell sent to tempt him, but it may also be a projection of the prince’s negative feelings onto his uncle. The ghost accuses in Act1, but Hamlet is perceptive enough not to accept the being at it’s word. One thing that he realizes is that the ghost is playing directly to his own emotions.
Hamlet never really liked Claudius, and has always had a strong love for his father. So you might ask why Hamlet waited so long to kill Claudius. If Hamlet had killed Claudius at first opportunity, there would have been little chance for the Shakespeare to develop the internal dilemma. Hamlet’s delay of killing Claudius takes on three distinct stages. Firstly, he had to prove that the ghost was actually telling the truth, and he did this by staging the play “the mouse trap” at court. The second stage was when Hamlet could have killed Claudius while he was confessing to God. If Hamlet had done it here then Claudius would have gone to heaven because he confessed while Hamlet’s father was in purgatory because he did not get the opportunity to confess. So Hamlet therefore decided not to murder Claudius at that point in the play. The third delay was the fact that he got side tracked. He accidentally killed Polonius which created a whole new problem with the fact that Laertes now wanted Hamlet dead. After he committed this murder he was also sent off and unable to see the king for another few
weeks until he could finally do the job. All of these delays paint a picture of pre-meditated murder with an obsession to kill.
Hamlet is a very good character you study if you want to see just how good of a writer that Shakespeare is. He was able to craft a picture of a human mind and show it slowly sink into madness. Shakespeare’s works speak for themselves. Love, Hate, Madness, Wisdom....Hamlet is truly the perfect tragic hero. But we will never know what Shakespeare wanted us to get out of Hamlet. Because we can’t very well talk to Shakespeare. And even if we could I don’t think he would tell us everything there is to tell about Hamlet. After all, the rest is silence.
“Hamlet-character analysis” Sparknotes.com, May 4, 2004,
< http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/hamlet/canalysis.html> Tyler, Thomas. “The philosophy of “Hamlet”” Edinburgh: The Folcroft press, inc.,
Wood, William. “Hamlet- a psychological point of view” New York: AMS
press Inc. 1972.
Scofield, Martin “The ghosts of Hamlet: The play and modern writers” London:
Cambridge University Press, 1980.