The Sanity of Hamlet

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Method in the Madness: Hamlet's Sanity Supported Through His Relation to Ophelia and Edgar's Relation to Lear

In both Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character in each play, namely Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King Lear, acts as a balancing argument to the other character's madness or sanity. King Lear's more decisive distinction between Lear's frailty of mind and Edgar's contrived madness works to better define the relationship between Ophelia's breakdown and Hamlet's "north-north-west" brand of insanity. Both plays offer a character on each side of sanity, but in Hamlet the distinction is not as clear as it is in King Lear. Using the more explicit relationship in King Lear, one finds a better understanding of the relationship in Hamlet.

While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelia's insanity (or breakdown) against Hamlet's madness, there is instead a clear definitiveness in Ophelia's condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet's madness. Obviously, Hamlet's character offers more evidence, while Ophelia's breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet's sanity beginning with the first scene of the play.

Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father's ghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatly improve. Yet, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio says, being the only of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the play, "Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes. (I.i.56-8)" Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the King with his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts somewhat from its credibility, but all the men are witness to the ghost demanding they speak alone.

Horatio offers an insightful warning:

What if it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o'er his base into the sea, And there assume some other horrible form Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness? Think of it. (I.iv.69-74)

Horatio's comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that the ghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King and speaks to Hamlet rationally. There is also good reason for the ghost not to want the guards to know what he tells Hamlet, as the play could not proceed as it does if the guards were to hear what Hamlet did. It is the ghost of Hamlet's father who tells him, "but howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind. (I.v.84-5)" Later, when Hamlet sees the ghost again in his mothers room, her amazement at his madness is quite convincing. Yet one must take into consideration the careful planning of the ghost's credibility earlier in the play.

After his first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friends cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than the devastation it really is.

Horatio: What news, my lord?

Hamlet: O, wonderful!

Horatio: Good my lord, tell it.

Hamlet: No, you will reveal it. (I.v.118-21)

This is the first glimpse of Hamlet's ability and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve effect. Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets the guards know the severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Another instance of Hamlet's behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while his uncle and Polonius are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlet's affection for Ophelia has...
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