Throughout William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the audience is continuously reminded of the fact that clarity and madness have been known to be genuinely confused. As the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet is dealt a significant blow when the loss of his father leaves an opening for his power hungry uncle to assume the throne, becoming the king of Denmark and thus ruling a kingdom that is not rightfully his own. In an attempt to unveil his uncle’s scheming and guiltiness, Hamlet continuously tries to prove his uncle has committed the murder of a once beloved king of Denmark. However, his own scheming proves to be significant as he continuously feigns madness in the presence of his uncle, mother, Polonius, and especially his true love, Ophelia. Hamlet’s clarity begins to succumb to his madness as he truly believes that he will uncover the deadly truth of which he gained knowledge through the ghost of his father, the deceased King Hamlet. As the plot progresses in this tragic play, the audience sees all too well that this madness is no longer feigned; instead it has taken Hamlet over as he truly believes that his uncle is responsible for the death of his dearly loved father. However, the death of another much loved father proves to truly make Ophelia go mad as Hamlet is truly at fault for the murder of Polonius. While her insanity is caused by grief, Hamlet’s is self-inflicted; but, the seemingly harmless self-affliction becomes too much for Hamlet to handle after the death of his love, Ophelia, and he realizes the extent of the harm and damage he has caused in the once peaceful realm of Denmark.
In the scene where Ophelia is sent as a test to Hamlet by Polonius and the king Hamlet states he wishes to ban marriage because he doesn’t believe in love. His statement resides within Ophelia as she believed him to be in love with her. However, Hamlet’s infamous “To be or not to be…” soliloquy creates a perfectly plain image to the audience as Hamlet experiences and toys with the fact that mortality is meant for no one, and that death is imminent, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil.” This makes Hamlet appear mad to his observers, but is really an act because he knows they’re watching. He makes sure to emphasize the fact that mortality cannot suit anyone in the world, especially his uncle who vindictively murdered his own brother. This scene also shows the beginnings of unrest within Ophelia, foreshadowing the fact that she may soon completely unravel at Hamlet’s choice of words pronounced to her.
Another seen that alludes to Hamlet’s “madness” refers to the fact that he secretly replaced his letter of execution with a forged one of the call for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: his uncle’s henchmen that were meant to keep an eye on him. It is made apparent by Ophelia’s behavior, that a truly mad person has less ability to function normally as the audience witnesses her meltdown at the knowledge that her father has been executed by her lover. Hamlet’s plan to switch the letters was extremely tactful and demonstrates the fact that he still has a clear mind, he is able to plan and plot accordingly to ways that will help him defeat his sadistic uncle once and for all.
Finally the point where Ophelia dies is a good indication to her mental instability. Although scholars have never been able to show it was suicide, it showed she did not care as to whether she lived or died, her sanity evaded her along with the fact that her father would never again return. At no point in the play does Hamlet give up or weaken mentally. He cleverly avoids his execution and fights through the poison’s effects in the final duel to avenge his father’s death.
Based on the aforementioned scenes highlighting the differences between Ophelia and Hamlet, one may draw the conclusion that Hamlet’s “madness” was an act while Ophelia was genuinely insane. The prince was on a mission for revenge, and this charade was his way of fulfilling that task. His clever speech, tactful resolve, and high regard for self-preservation all point to sane and intelligent intentions. Ophelia’s insanity, however, derives from the distress and grief of losing her beloved father at the hands of a most potent lover. Her madness consumes her entire being, and with no regard to mortality, she is thought to have ended her own life.