Hamlet, Method to the Madness

Topics: William Shakespeare, Characters in Hamlet, Laurence Olivier Pages: 5 (1788 words) Published: October 8, 1999
Hamlet: Method in the Madness
Method in the Madness: Hamlet’s Sanity Supported Through HisRelation to Ophelia and Edgar’s Relation to Lear In both Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare incorporates a theme ofmadness with two characters: one truly mad, and one only actingmad to serve a motive. The madness of Hamlet is frequentlydisputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character ineach play, namely Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King Lear, actsas a balancing argument to the other character’s madness orsanity. King Lear’s more decisive distinction between Lear’sfrailty of mind and Edgar’s contrived madness works to betterdefine the relationship between Ophelia’s breakdown and Hamlet’s “north-north-west” brand of insanity. Both plays offer a characteron each side of sanity, but in Hamlet the distinction is not asclear as it is in King Lear. Using the more explicit relationshipin King Lear, one finds a better understanding of the relationshipin Hamlet.While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelia’s insanity (orbreakdown) against Hamlet’s madness, there is instead a cleardefinitiveness in Ophelia’s condition and a clear uncertainty inHamlet’s madness. Obviously, Hamlet’s character offers moreevidence, while Ophelia’s breakdown is quick, but more conclusivein its precision. Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing toHamlet’s sanity beginning with the first scene of the play.Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is togive credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father’sghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatlyimprove. Yet, not one, but three men together witness the ghostbefore even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio says, being theonly of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the play, “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without thesensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes. (I.i.56-8)” Horatio,who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as anunquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the Kingwith his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts somewhat from its credibility, but all the men arewitness to the ghost demanding they speak alone.Horatio offers an insightful warning:What if it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to thedreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o’er his base into thesea, And there assume some other horrible form Which might depriveyour sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness? Think ofit. (I.iv.69-74)Horatio’s comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea to use a pleaof insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that theghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King andspeaks to Hamlet rationally. There is also good reason for theghost not to want the guards to know what he tells Hamlet, as theplay could not proceed as it does if the guards were to hear whatHamlet 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 musttake into consideration the careful planning of the ghost’scredibility earlier in the play.After his first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friendscheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than thedevastation 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 notfeeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets the guards knowthe severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Anotherinstance of Hamlet’s behavior manipulation is his meeting...
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