Madness and Insanity in Shakespeare's Hamlet - Madness and Hamlet
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Madness and Hamlet
Hamlet is one of William Shakespeare's most honored works and is a piece of literature, which has been studied in depth by many a scholar. The storyline of Hamlet follows a vein of madness that begins with Claudius' murdering King Hamlet and ending with the tragic killing of almost every main character. Many reasons have been proposed for the ultimate tragedy, which occurs at the conclusion of the play. It will be argued in this essay that madness is the cause of the eventual tragedy in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Claudius' murdering of his brother, the king is the first murderous act of mental illness in the story and it sets into course the madness of many other characters. Murdering one's brother so that they may marry their sister in law is not the act or desire of a sane person. After the king's death, Claudius and Gertrude marry within a matter of months. This quick marriage circumvents the standard mourning period of one year that is expected of a queen. Hamlet is greatly disturbed by the fact that his mother does not mourn longer for his fathers death and conveys his anger about this subject on several occasions. The marriage of a man to his sister in law is thought incestuous by the church and contributes to the overall lack of decency in this story. Claudius is directly responsible for the death of the king, Hamlet's father, and he also contributes to the deaths of Gertrude and Hamlet. His actions set into course a series of events of which the end result is the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia. He is also indirectly responsible for the deaths of these characters.
Hamlet's display of mental illness allows him to prove to himself that Claudius did, in fact, murder his father. After seeing the ghost of his father, Hamlet vows to avenge his death and decides that feigning lunacy will provide him with the means to prove Claudius' guilt. Following his initial encounter with the ghost of his father, Hamlet is very excitedly speaking with Marcellus and Horatio and tells them:
But come / Here, as before, never, so help you mercy
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Insanity In Shakespeare Madness Hamlet Tragedy In Shakespeare Main Character Mental Illness Ending Decency
/ How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself- / As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on- / That you, at such times seeing me, never shall, / With arms encumbered thus, or this headshake, / Or by pronouncing some doubtful phrase /.... That you know aught of me - this do swear, / So grace and mercy at your most need help you. (Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 177-189)
In this passage he is explaining that if he is to appear to be acting strangely, or putting on an "antic disposition," they should not be alarmed or act as if they know some secret about him. His plan to act insane provides him with the means with which to act and speak in ways which would, under normal circumstances, not be tolerated. Thanks to his plan of acting insane he is able to prove Claudius' guilt.
Throughout the story Hamlet pretends to be insane and even dies acting out this façade of lunacy. It seems at first that Hamlet is just acting but then it appears that he does go truly insane. Even after he has gathered evidence against Claudius, he continues to behave strangely. When he murders Polonius, thinking that he is Claudius, he does not react to his actions in the manor in which a sane person would. This act enrages Laertes who then desires to avenge his fathers death by slaughtering Hamlet. The death of Claudius by the hands of Hamlet also contributes to the dismay of Ophelia. In these ways, Hamlet's insanity contributes to the overall tragedy of the play.
Driven to madness by the murder of his father, Laertes, with the help of Claudius conspires to kill Hamlet. Laertes, in his planning Hamlet's death, tells Claudius that he has:
...bought an unction of a mountebank / So mortal that, but dip a knife in it, / Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare, / Collected from all simples that have virtue / Under the moon, can save the thing from death / That is but scratched withal. I'll touch my point / With this contagion, that if I gall him slightly, / It may be death. (Act 4, Scene 7, lines 141-149)
Claudius arranges for there to be a sword fight in which Laertes will be able to poison Hamlet. To further ensure that Hamlet will be killed, Claudius plans to offer Hamlet poisoned wine. Hamlet never drinks this wine. Instead, Gertrude drinks it to celebrate Hamlet's success in the duel and Claudius himself is also poisoned by it. The sword fight in which Hamlet is to be slain ends with the death of Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude.
Ophelia's madness is caused by the actions of other characters in the story. Her father tells her to stay away from Hamlet, whom she has much affection for. Hamlet lies to her, telling her that he does not intend to be with her. After all this, Her father, Laertes is murdered by her former lover, Hamlet. and then Hamlet is sent to England. The sum of all these actions result in her feeling such distress that she becomes mentally ill.
Claudius' murder of the king sets into course the insanity of many other characters, the result of which is homicide and suicide.
Shakespeare is one of those authors who is hard to escape if you’re in any English or literature program long enough. While Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays, they fall roughly into two categories: comedies and tragedies. And when he wrote tragedies, he went all out.
Spoiler alert: Most, if not all, of the characters die in Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Hamlet is no exception.
But beyond the bloodbath, Hamlet offers a lot of possible elements to analyze. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though, I’ll give you a few pointers on how to set yourself up for success when writing your Hamlet essay.
Read Critically Before Writing Your Hamlet Essay
The first key to writing well is reading well. There are tons of methods to critical reading, and you may have to try a couple until you find one that fits your style.
My personal favorite is highlighting. If this sounds a bit basic, you haven’t highlighted the way I have before.
You’ll definitely need more than one color—around 4 or 5 should do it. When you see something pertaining to one theme, use yellow. Then pink for a particular symbol. Blue for things you might want to use in a character analysis.
Always be sure to make a key, so you know what each color means.
Color-coding your highlighting does two things—it keeps your evidence organized and allows you to see if you have enough support to write your whole Hamlet essay on symbolism or on one character.
Other methods include annotating and taking notes on the computer or a separate sheet of paper. These two methods work roughly the same way.
With annotations in the margins of books, you can see exactly which lines made you write a note, and everything is right there in front of you. Note-taking, on the other hand, gives you more space to explain your thoughts, but always be sure to jot down what part of the work the notes pertain to.
You can use all of these methods at once or come up with a technique all your own.
The important part is to read beyond basic enjoyment of the story with the goal of really comprehending the play… plus, this prewriting work will help you remember exactly which points to write about in your Hamlet essay.
Draft a Detailed Outline
Once you have all the important bits flagged in some way, it’s time to figure out what you want your Hamlet essay to focus on and organize the information in an outline.
The more detail you put into this outline, the less work you’ll have to do later in the writing process. (If you have lots of details in your outline, the essay will basically just be about making everything connect and read better.)
Let’s say I’m writing my Hamlet essay on what the ghost of Hamlet’s father represents. My outline would look like this:
- Auditory and visual hallucinations in modern times are considered signs of a mental disorder, and the same could be said in Hamlet’s time.
- Thesis Statement
- In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is the only character to have conversations with the ghost of his father, and the ghost advises him to murder his uncle. The existence of the ghost demonstrates how mad Hamlet has become.
- Castle guards and Horatio see, but don’t talk to, the ghost.
- Hamlet gets advice from the ghost, which puts the idea of revenge in his mind.
- Hamlet tells Horatio he senses his father before he knows about the guards’ sightings of the ghost, showing his grief and longing to connect with his father again.
- Hamlet is the only one at all to notice the ghost in Gertrude’s room
- Murder Advice
- The ghost says that he will be tormented in the afterlife until all is made right.
- Hamlet doesn’t believe the news about Claudio, calling into question the validity of the advice.
- Questioning this advice can be seen as questioning the validity of the ghost in general and questioning Hamlet’s own sanity.
- Hamlet is grief-stricken more than anyone else in the play and is focused almost the entire time on revenge.
- In his grief and diminishing mental state, he hallucinates a ghost and has conversations with it as a way to justify his revenge plot.
(Note: If you also have to turn in a formal outline as part of the assignment, make sure each level has at least two parts.)
Come Up With a Killer Thesis Statement
Your thesis statement is perhaps the most important sentence of your entire essay. I’ve known teachers who have taken half of the points away if there was no thesis statement.
While the stakes may not be that high for you, pretending like they are really makes you focus on writing a clear, identifiable thesis statement.
But what is a thesis statement, and why is it so important?
Simply put, a thesis statement tells the reader what you’re going to be writing about in the rest of your Hamlet essay. It’s a little bit of a preview that lets the reader know what they’re in for.
And that’s why it’s so important—you’re going to bring up a lot of points in your essay, but your thesis is the thing that ties all of those points together.
You can either write the entire thesis statement during your outlining phase or write a simple version while outlining and refine it when you start writing.
Different Directions Your Hamlet Essay Can Take
Like I said before, there’s a lot to unpack in Hamlet. It’s not just a story about people killing other people (even though there’s a lot of that)—it’s about madness, mistrust, revenge, and inaction. And it’s got some pretty interesting characters to boot.
Some students make the mistake of trying to fit too much into their Hamlet essay at once. This not only creates incohesive writing, but also doesn’t give you the space to actually analyze your main points.
Focus on one theme, character, or symbol—and analyze the heck out of it.
Below are a few of the different topics you could use for your Hamlet essay. There are so many more. Feel free to write about something totally different. As long as you have enough support for your argument, you can essentially write about anything in the play.
The need for revenge vs. the inability to take action
Revenge is a pretty common theme in tragedies, but in Hamlet, it’s not actually about the act of revenge itself. Hamlet is not the most decisive person in the world. He wants to be certain of the facts.
If he had simply killed Claudius when the ghost told him to, the play wouldn’t have made it past the first act.
But the idea that a murderer like Uncle Claudius gets to live is enough to drive Hamlet up the wall. He thinks about revenge and talks about revenge, but when it comes time to pull the metaphorical trigger, he chokes almost every time.
And when he does try in earnest, he ends up killing the wrong guy, sending someone else (Laertes) into a tizzy and leaving him ready to get his own revenge.
If Hamlet had taken swifter action in the first place, maybe only one person would’ve wound up dead. But instead, everyone dies.
So in the end, there are two things of note about what Hamlet says about revenge:
- Revenge breeds more revenge; violence begets violence.
- If you absolutely have to carry out a revenge plot, at least do it decisively. Fewer people get hurt that way, except… you know… the one on the receiving end of said revenge.
My thesis statement for this theme would be:
In Hamlet, Shakespeare poses the need for revenge against the inability to take action by showing how both revenge and indecisiveness can cause destruction.
Theme of madness
There’s so much uncertainty in Hamlet, both from the characters and from the audience/readers. Take, for example, the theme of madness.
Hamlet’s plot from the beginning is to fake being crazy so that he can get Claudius’s guard down. The only problem is that he starts talking to his dead dad’s spirit a lot, which no one else seems to be doing.
Also, his inability to take action starts making for a lot of dead bodies. That’s certainly enough to drive anyone crazy.
So the question is, is Hamlet just really good at acting mad? Or did he take the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach and go mad because he was playing the part?
My thesis statement here would read:
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet feigning madness ultimately drives him mad, as seen through him talking to the ghost and becoming stuck between the decision to kill or not to kill.
The ghost is another symbol/character that makes some readers skeptical. The king had just died, and those who loved him were grieving, naturally. So a few people actually did see the ghost.
Hamlet was the only person to actually talk to the ghost, though.
This is a pretty big detail. The guards and Horatio could’ve been tired and just seeing things when they witnessed the ghost. But carrying on full conversations with the spirit of your dead father is more than “just seeing things.”
Even Hamlet is skeptical that the ghost is real, which is why he doesn’t kill Claudius immediately. (He might be mad, but if he is, he’s not mad enough to kill someone without real proof.)
So the ghost can stand for different things, depending on the evidence you pull from the play. It can serve as proof that Hamlet is actually mad or can represent the elusiveness of certainty.
You can find my thesis statement for this one in the outline above, but as a quick reminder, here it is again:
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is the only character to have conversations with the ghost of his father, and the ghost advises him to murder his uncle. The ghost shows how mad Hamlet has become.
If these themes weren’t enough to inspire you, here are some example Hamlet essays other people have written. Take a look, and get your ideas flowing.
As always, if you feel like your Hamlet essay is still lacking life, send it to the Kibin editors to take a look at.
They’ll check for grammar, flow, and to see whether it makes sense overall. With their help, you can be absolutely certain your Hamlet essay won’t be dead in the water.
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