The Role of Madness in Hamlet

The Role of Madness in Hamlet



The Role of Madness in Hamlet

The theme of madness is the most prevalent in Hamlet. It is one of the most controversial themes in the play. Many readers are confused as to whether Hamlet is faking his own madness or whether he is truly insane. The theme often shows in Hamlet’s character, and this is the cause of most controversy in the play. Other than Hamlet, Shakespeare also expounds on the theme through Ophelia. Ophelia and Hamlet display their madness differently, and this gives the reader a chance to contrast the differences between them. Unlike Hamlet, Ophelia’s madness does not cause any controversy, as it is genuine and not planned in any way. The theme of madness helps Shakespeare to expound more on Hamlet’s character and to develop the plot.

Hamlet conceives the idea of feigning madness as a way of finding out the truth concerning his father’s death. He reasons that by doing this, people will not question his actions in his quest for truth. He first mentions his plan to Horatio, when he tells him “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet, to put an antic disposition on” (Act 1 Scene 5 pp. 24). He does not dwell into more details concerning how he shall manage to achieve this and Horatio does not ask him to elaborate. It is clear that this is the beginning of Hamlet’s antics to display his antics. Before he discovers his father’s ghost, he does not show anything in his character that would suggest that he was mad in any way. Although he is saddened by the recent events, including his father’s death and his mother’s quick marriage to the king, he does not portray anything in his character that would show that he is mad.

Madness enables Hamlet to put on a different disposition with no one questioning his actions. Every person around him assumes that he has become mad. This gives him a leeway to speak and acts the way he wants. Hamlet is clearly acting and he is aware of his actions. He demonstrates this by showing his intelligence, through sarcasm, which no one seems to notice. When talking to Polonius he makes sarcastic remarks directed at him. Hamlet not only makes fun of him, but he also insults him. However, Polonius does not seem to understand Hamlet’s intentions at first. This shows that Hamlet is also taking advantage of his feigned madness to get back at others who have hurt him or those who he feels are not worthy. Hamlet is aware that Polonius is using his daughter to get in good standing with the king and he chastises him for it. Hamlet confesses to his mother that he is not mad.

Hamlet combines his new state of mind with his craftiness to make his act believable. He is a reflective man and one who obviously understands how to study other people’s characters and emotions. He uses this to his advantage and he applies his wittiness to confuse other people. When he is talking to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, he tells them “I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (Act 2 Scene 2 pp. 33). However, the two of them do not seem to understand quickly enough what he is trying to tell them. They go along with the notion that Hamlet is mad and this prevents them from reading any clues that Hamlet gives them showing that he is not mad.

One would have to compare Hamlet’s madness with that of Ophelia to be completely sure that Hamlet is faking his own madness. Hamlet is able to talk sense when he is with Horatio. He is aware of his actions, and he does not place himself in danger knowingly. On the other hand, Ophelia loses her sense of sanity when her father dies and when she has to face dejection and insults from her said lover. She does not have any method to her madness. She cannot handle the pain and anguish anymore and she ends up endangering her life. Unlike Hamlet, she does not have any moment of reflections, which would compel her to think twice about her decisions and actions. She just acts as she sees fit at the time. The two characters contrast deeply. While Ophelia portrays genuine madness, Hamlet concentrates on perfecting his feigned madness. He does it so well to the extent that everyone considers him a mad man. 

Other than bringing out Hamlet’s character, Shakespeare uses Hamlet to develop the plot. It would be nearly impossible to read Hamlet without the theme of madness present. The author would not be capable of developing the plot in the way that he has. He would have to bring out Hamlet’s character as a calculating and cold person that is only interested in seeking revenge. However, the theme of madness humanizes Hamlet. This is clearly evidenced in the way that it enables Hamlet to find out the truth about his father’s murder without implicating the Claudius falsely. Hamlet uses the play performed by the theatre troupe to find out if indeed Claudius was guilty of the crime that the ghost accused him. He does this without raising any sort of alarm among the people. Other than Claudius, Horatio, and Hamlet, the other people watching the play think that it is some form of entertainment. Shakespeare also develops the plot using Ophelia’s madness. He uses it as a form of escape for the girl who does not seem to know what to do after her alleged boyfriend kills her father. It is a way for Shakespeare to remove Ophelia from the scene, as her death comes soon after.

Although Hamlet starts by feigning madness, it is possible that the heavy burden of avenging his father’s death takes a big toll on him and he ends up believing that he is mad. This is demonstrated in the way he behaves like a mad person even when he does not have to convince anybody. This is demonstrated in his treatment of Ophelia. Hamlet does not have anything to gain by continuing to treat Ophelia with such contempt. Ophelia and the other characters are already convinced of Hamlet’s madness. Instead of being content with this knowledge, Hamlet proceeds to treat Ophelia more cruelly. Hamlet becomes increasingly obsessive and passionate. These emotions drive him to killing Polonius. Hamlet cannot claim that he intended to kill Claudius at this point since he has just seen him praying and this action has prevented him from executing his revenge. Therefore, he is very much aware that the person behind the curtain is not Claudius. In this case, Hamlet’s madness seems to have become real to him since he is overridden by passion and emotion. However, this is only a temporary situation, for he converses with his mother in a logical manner following the death.

Hamlet is not mad but he has managed to use his craftiness and knowledge to create a believable character, whom everyone seems to think is mad. He does not abandon his original quest of avenging his father even though he does take a long time in executing his plans. Although he is not mad, it is clear that the mission that his father’s ghost has laid upon him is a heavy burden for him and it has put a lot of pressure on him. Because of this, he sometimes acts mad even when doing so does not help him in fulfilling his agenda in any way. His emotions and passions get a hold of him to the extent that he does not seem to have much control in what he does. The reader can contrast Ophelia’s state of mind with Hamlet’s madness to get a clear picture of the genuine representation of madness.


Shakespeare, W. (1777). Hamlet, prince of Denmark: A tragedy. London, United Kingdom: Printed for John Bell

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