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Means and Ends: How Hamlet’s Supposed Insanity Justifies and Masks His True Goal of Revenge

By Jbooch Feb 09, 2009 990 Words
Means and Ends: How Hamlet’s supposed insanity justifies and masks his true goal of revenge

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet uses “comedy” and insanity as a façade to mask his inner turmoil. By using humor and insanity, he can misdirect his own means of whether or not he wants to kill his father’s murderer, King Claudius. Hamlet believes that if he can keep people off balance regarding his physical state of mind, they will question only his sanity, not his ultimate plot of revenge. However, do these means justify the ultimate end of revenge? Do these means make Hamlet a noble person?

In Act II Scene ii, there is an exchange between Polonius and Hamlet. Polonius attempts to converse with Hamlet, who appears to be insane then he calls Polonius a “fishmonger” and answers his questions irrationally. One instance of this is when Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading and Hamlet replies, “words, words, words” (II.ii.187). This is a very sarcastic and humorous reply to “what are you reading?” The whole exchange is rather humorous as Hamlet continues on with his quick-witted remarks that keep Polonius on edge. But many of Hamlet’s seemingly lunatic statements hide barbed observations about Polonius’s pomposity and his old age. Polonius comments that while Hamlet is clearly mad, his replies are often “pregnant” with meaning (II.ii.200).

In the first two scenes of Act III, Hamlet and Claudius both devise traps to catch one another’s secrets: Claudius spies on Hamlet to discover the true nature of his madness, and Hamlet attempts to “catch the conscience of the king” in the theater (III.i.582). The play-within-a-play tells the story of Gonzago, the duke of Vienna, and his wife, Baptista, who marries his murdering nephew, Lucianus. Hamlet believes that the play is an opportunity to establish a more reliable basis for Claudius’s guilt than the claims of the ghost. Since he has no way of knowing whether to believe a member of the spirit world, he tries to determine whether Claudius is guilty by reading his behavior for signs of a psychological state of guilt. When the murderer pours the poison into the king’s ear, Claudius rises and cries out for light. Chaos ensues as the play comes to a sudden halt, and the king flees from the room. Hamlet is now left with Horatio and they agree that the king’s behavior was telling. Extremely excited, Hamlet continues to act frantic and scatterbrained, speaking glibly and inventing little poems. This nonsense talk is another comic element. Shakespeare gives Hamlet these lines, which make people think he’s mad, but at the same time, they provide a little bit of comedy to lighten up the tragedy just a bit.

Along with providing the audience with a good laugh, Hamlet’s humorous lines are also there for another reason. All of Hamlet’s funny lines are in scenes were he is pretending to be insane. He uses comedy as a façade to mask her inner turmoil. Hamlet wanted people to believe that he was truly insane. In order to do this, he used some comedic and sarcastic lines the keep people off balance for his own purpose. When Polonius asked him what he was reading, he responded only by saying, “words, words, words” (II, ii, 187). This response was not was Polonius had expected. He was confused by Hamlet’s answer and the more he spoke with Hamlet, he realized that he kept getting these strange responses. It was then that Polonius really begins to think that Hamlet is mad, and this is exactly what Hamlet wants. He believes that if he can get people to think he’s insane, then they wont realize that he is really plotting the death of the king. According to Hamlet’s Obsession with Revenge, “ Hamlet feigns insanity because it allows him to do several things that he otherwise would be unable to do…This would help prevent others in the royal household from speculating that Hamlet was rationally planning hostile actions such as killing Claudius” (1).

Although Hamlet pretended to be insane around people, on his own he was very intelligent and was able to analyze things in depth and on a personal level. He produced beautiful soliloquies about life, contemplating death, debating whether his motives for killing Claudius are justified; however, this methodical person is only found by himself and is never shown to another character throughout the play. By hiding this side of himself, he is able to use his insanity to justify and mask his ultimate goal of revenge. He uses the time he has to himself to justify his motives for killing Claudius. He debates whether he has the right intentions or whether he is going to be committing an unnecessarily cruel murder. In order to hide these thoughts and to keep people from becoming suspicious, he uses his fake insanity to distract people and make them think that he isn’t capable of thinking such thoughts.

Even though Hamlet is able to justify his means for revenge, does killing your stepfather qualify Hamlet as a noble person? Hamlet’s actions show his allegiance lies to the duty of his family and not to the duty to his country. By using comedic lines to hide his inner confusion and by hiding the logical and systematic side of Hamlet, he was able to finally revenge his father’s death. Hamlet went to extreme lengths to keep his revenge a secret so it would be perfect when he executed his final plan, and that shows extreme nobility and dignity to his father

Works Cited
“Hamlet’s Obsession with Revenge.” 24 Oct 2007

Literature: An introduction to fiction, poetry, drama, and writing. Comp. X.J. Kennedy,
Dana Gioia. New York: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data,
2007 1508-1509; 1528-1531

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