There is a duality to the character of Hamlet, as his madness changes from a performance to true insanity throughout the play. Initially, in Act 1 Scene 5, Hamlet is coerced by the ghost and decides that he will “put an antic disposition on”. This is the main use of dramatic irony in the play, as the audience knows Hamlet’s madness is performed. However as the play develops and changes, so too does Hamlet’s madness. Act 3 Scene 4 is the main turning point for Hamlet’s madness. The scene begins with a confrontation between Gertrude and Hamlet. Gertrude: “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended”
Hamlet: “Mother, you have my father much offended”
The use of stichomythia in this conversation creates a sense of violence between the characters. It also confirms to the audience that Hamlet’s madness is still a performance, because he can respond quickly and with wit. When this is juxtaposed with Ophelia’s legitimate insanity, it becomes clear that Hamlet is still performing. Ophelia speaks cryptically in Act 4, using metaphors and imagery of nature. Her use of rhyme and poetry also adds to the audiences understanding of true madness.
Hamlet’s performance turns to reality directly after he murders Polonius in cold-blood. If Hamlet were sane he would have shown an emotional reaction. However he reveals nothing, - “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell”. The powerful and hurtful words used in this sentence clearly show that his performed madness has amplified to a true insanity. From this point until the final scenes of the play, the character of Hamlet has changed. He begins to use more metaphors, speaking cryptically to other characters. When the ghost appears to Hamlet later in the scene, only Hamlet can see him. Gertrude is worried about Hamlet as he “bends [his] eye on vacancy”. For the ghost to be real, Gertrude must be able to see him - since in the beginning of the play the watchmen and Horatio can see the ghost. This is a further use of dramatic irony, as only the audience knows that the ghost can be seen by other characters. This shows that the ghost is now a figure of Hamlet’s imagination and he has lost control of his mind.
As Hamlet is in exile he abruptly decides to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death in England. He later tells Horatio that they were “not near [his] conscience”. This quote demonstrates how Hamlet has lost all sense of emotional attachment and has no moral responsibility towards his old friends. Just as the audience fears Hamlet is lost control entirely, he comes back to reality when he learns of Ophelia’s death in Act 5 Scene 1. “I loved Ophelia, forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum” Hamlet’s choice of imagery, “forty thousand brothers”, shows the audience and other characters in the play the intensity of his love towards Ophelia. This is the turning point, yet again, for his madness. Once he realises that his true love is gone forever he snaps out of his mad trance and comes to terms with what is currently happening. This is proven by his apology to Laertes in the following scene, “Give me your pardon sir…I here proclaim was madness”. He speaks in third person when referring to his previous actions, demonstrating that he was not in control.
The idea of revenge is a large component of the plays overall plot. As the play begins the ghost acts as a catalyst and coerces Hamlet into wanting to take revenge for his father’s “foul and most unnatural murder”. It is hard for Hamlet to commit to action because of his philosophical nature. He tends to ponder on issues that are less relevant to the things happening around him. The main scene that demonstrates Hamlet’s inaction is Act 3 Scene 3. Claudius is praying and Hamlet’s trait as a philosophiser prevents him from taking revenge. Instead he watches Claudius while he contemplates mortality and life after death, again. Further into the play, Act 4 Scene 4, Hamlet cannot understand why “twenty thousand men” can fight for an “eggshell” of land while he does nothing. He proclaims “Why what an ass am I!” since his father was “kill’d”, his mother “stain’d” and all he does is philosophise.
The other revenge plot in the play is Laertes avenging his father, Polonius. Laertes is manipulated by Claudius to fight Hamlet with the poisoned sword. As Laertes dies, he reveals his true emotions, “Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee”, demonstrating that he would not have acted against Hamlet if it wasn’t for Claudius’s pressure.
A major delay in the play, is Hamlet’s use of the “mouse-trap”. Hamlet chooses to doubt the ghost rather than taking action against Claudius. He uses the play-within-a-play as a means to “catch the king” and thus prove that the ghost was real, not “be the devil”. The use of this form of metatheatre creates a “chameleon” effect, where only the audience and Hamlet know the true use of this entertainment.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is shaped and defined by the major themes of madness, revenge and doubt within it. Along with these themes, his use of dramatic techniques and character interactions are what makes the play so famous.