Certainty and Insanity: Hamlet
With no way to be absolutely certain about anything in life, it makes it hard to deliver the justice some may need. In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet never allows himself to come to an absolute certainty that Claudius killed his father. Whether it was his insanity or his morals, he is unable to take retribution for the murder of his father, which helps drive him insane. By not taking justice into his own hands, Hamlet’s indecision, and his insanity, ultimately leads him to his own death. When Hamlet first meets with the ghost of his father and hears the story of his death, he doesn’t want to believe the ghost outright. Upon finding out that Claudius has killed his father, Hamlet could have simply went to the Kings’ bedroom and slit his throat while he slept. He ignored this opportunity, which allowed his mind to begin questioning his actions. This is the first time Hamlet will delay the killing of Claudius. He begins to slip into insanity, which paralyzes his actions. Hamlet explains that the time for action isn’t right when he is speaking with Horatio the night he first saw the ghost. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right” (I. v. 88-89). Hamlet explains that he understands that the situation of seeing the ghost or even the story may not be right, but he feels like he is the person to fix it. This puts a great deal of pressure on Hamlet, which starts the downward spiral of his insanity.
Hamlet faces many dilemmas during the course of the play. He has the dilemma of having to come to terms with losing his father. He then has to deal with the anger he has towards his mother for her quick remarriage. Then when Hamlet finds out that his mother’s new husband, his uncle, was the murderer, he isn’t able to deal with any more. With dilemmas keep piling on top of one another, Hamlet has a psychotic break. As Ophelia explains it to her father,
My Lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
With a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors, he comes before me. (II, i, 77-84)
In this explanation, one begins to understand that Hamlet has been unable to deal with the death of his father, much less the fact that he was murdered by his uncle. The behaviors exhibited by Hamlet are not the actions a normal person would have, especially one of royalty. As Edward Foster explains, “That Hamlet loses his mental stability is arguable from his behavior toward Ophelia …” (Foster, par 17). A person not suffering from some form of psychosis would have been more put together and rational. Hamlet’s insanity allows him to sink into a reality that isn’t real, “….results in the development if a sense of unreality in the affected individual” (“Hamlet”, par 2) While the ghosts’ story shouldn’t have left any doubt in Hamlet’s mind, he is still uncertain that Claudius did commit the act, fearing that the ghost could be the devil in disguise, just trying to make him a murderer. So in a poorly devised plan, Hamlet thinks he knows a way to get absolute certainty that Claudius killed his father. Hamlet’s plan is, “There is a play tonight before the king. / One scene of it comes near the circumstance / Which I have told thee of my father’s death” (III, ii. 68-70). This plan is used to gauge Claudius’s reaction, so as to tell if he has a guilty conscious or not. This is where Hamlet’s sanity is furthered questioned. If Claudius’s realizes this is Hamlet’s actions, then he can assume Hamlet knows about his terrible deed, and may send for him to be executed. John Alvis agrees by stating, “…Hamlet’s deeds appear ill considered and politically feeble” (par 9). While that does happen later, Hamlet gets the proof he needs, when Claudius stands during the play and exclaims, “Give me some light, away!” (III, ii, 252)
The next time that Hamlet delays in killing Claudius, it is because he finds Claudius kneeling in prayer after the play. Hamlet assumes Claudius is asking repentance for the killing of his father, thus would still get to walk through Heaven’s gate with a pure and clean soul. Hamlet knows that his father wasn’t afforded this luxury by his words in Act 1 when the ghost said, “… Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, / …/ No reckoning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head” (I, v. 76-79). While King Hamlet was robbed of his chance to repent his sins, young Hamlet would not be so easy to allow Claudius to die after being forgiven of his. “… he believes that Claudius, killed at prayer, would not be damned to hell.” (“Hamlet” par 2) Hamlet believes that allowing Claudius to go to heaven would be just as bad as if he murdered his father.
Although Claudius’s reaction is enough certainty for almost anyone, the freak out by Claudius still doesn’t satisfy Hamlet. If Hamlet was clear minded, he would be able to see the truth and complete his promise to his father. Hamlet continues to allow doubt to dictate his actions. “Contagion to this world. Now I could drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the bitter day / Would quake to look on …” (III, ii, 365-367) The words Hamlet uses do not show the stability that he thinks he has. Hamlet’s insanity plays such a vital role in his delay of justice against Claudius. He is so wound up in his own mind that he has a hard time accepting that he is the reason of his delay. He spends so much time plotting and planning, he can never really convince himself to do the act. He is also stuck in a realm of pity. Poor, poor Hamlet. He shows this in his soliloquy:
… Am I a coward?
Who calls me “villain”? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie i’ th’ throat?
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?
‘Swounds, I should take it, for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall
To make the oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain! (II, ii, 547-557)
His self-pity blinds him to his task, and allows the pressures of that task to take over, and allows him to sink into insanity a little more. He knows that he should have already taken Claudius’s life, but because his cowardliness, he has failed to do it, and in turn, sinks further in his self-pity. As Hamlet’s madness continues, his delay makes him responsible for the deaths of so many others. Had he killed Claudius sooner, the life of his mother, Polonius and Ophelia could have been saved. As Alvis explains, “By his delay Hamlet has contributed to his mother’s death, and by his own imprudent decisions he has made himself responsible for the murder of Polonius, the consequent madness and death of Ophelia…” (par 12). With that weighing on Hamlet’s mind, he would not have been able to return to a state of sanity anyway, as he had such a guilty conscious anyway. Through all of Hamlet’s delay, he finally makes good on his promise of revenge in the final acts of the play. As Foster explains, “… he strikes his uncle only after he has discovered Claudius’s final scheme to kill him” (Foster, par 17). While Hamlet has delayed his killing of Claudius throughout the entire play, it wasn’t until the very end of the play that he asserts his authority and locks the door upon his mother dying, “O villainy! Ho, let the door be locked. / Treachery! Seek it out” (V, ii, 313-314). Laertes then explains the plot of Claudius to kill Hamlet, and he forces Claudius to drink his own poison. This is a certain type of justice in its own. Karma, let’s say. In the play Hamlet, many things take place that alert the audience to the instability of Hamlet. Upon losing his father, his mother quickly remarried her late husband’s brother. Hamlet’s father came back as a ghost to tell Hamlet that he was damned to hell because his brother had killed him. He promised his father that he would seek revenge for his death. All of these things mount together and place a heavy burden on Hamlet. As he progressively gets worse, he begins to alienate everyone in his life, feeding them stories and dancing around questions. He denies things he has given to Ophelia, and denies he had ever loved her. The one person who he trusts the most and the only person he allows to be a part of his plan is Horatio. Horatio is the balance for Hamlet. When it appears Hamlet has gone a little too far, Horatio is able to center him and bring him back to this realm of reality. Hamlet has delayed the death of Claudius because of insanity, but also because of his sanity. Wavering between the two, Hamlet never allows himself the chance to accept his duties. He never actually commits the revenge as promised, but the job does get done in the end.
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