Hamlet's Construction of Sanity

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In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet many characters appear to suffer from what appears to be mental instability, most notably Hamlet, Ophelia, and Gertrude. The apparent “madness” of these characters develops and drives the plot, which results in the play’s tragic ending. It is the reader’s responsibility to decipher which characters are actually mentally ill and which are merely pretending. Furthermore, it is important to keep track of which characters believe other characters are mentally ill. The most important of these is Gertrude, Polonius, and King Claudius’ belief that Hamlet is mad. Gertrude’s suspicion is confirmed by Hamlet’s slaying of Polonius and then shortly after his discussion with the ghost of King Hamlet, whom his mother cannot see. Shortly after the ghost leaves, Hamlet tells his mother, “No, in despite of sense and secrecy,/Unpeg the basket on the house’s top./Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape,/To try conclusions, in the basket creep/And break your own neck down” (III.IV.196-200). In this passage Hamlet instructs his mother to tell King Claudius what has happened. When Claudius discovers the apparent madness of Hamlet this begins a large series of events that leads to the death of all of the main characters.

The above passage uses a simile, personification, and a pun to draw the reader’s attention to its importance. The most noteworthy of the figurative language comes in this line, “Unpeg the basket on the house’s top” (III.IV.197). The line instructs Gertrude to reveal to Claudius the events that just transpired. However, to “unpeg” “the houses top” is a pun, which refers to tricking Claudius (the houses top) into believing that Hamlet is indeed insane. This line is followed by a simile: “Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape/To try conclusions, in the basket creep” (III.IV.198-199). According to the footnotes, the story of the famous ape is no longer known, so it is impossible to understand the allusion and what...
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