I HAVE of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth seems to me a sterile promontory …
The speaker is Hamlet, of course, and he is either severely depressed or doing a damn good job faking it:
What a piece of work is man!
How noble in reason!
how infinite in faculties!
in form and moving, how express and admirable!
in action how like an angel!
in apprehension, how like a god!
the beauty of the world!
the paragon of animals!
And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
Somehow, our hero has to get over his grief and harness his anger long enough to elicit the facts, figure out who his enemies are, then lie low and bide his time for the right opportunity to strike, assuming he can summon up the nerve to act against his true nature.
Shakespeare wastes no time in introducing his madness theme. In the first scene of the first act, sentinels Barnardo and Marcello assume their night watch with extreme caution. Their conversation reveals that they have had two close encounters with a ghost. Are they hallucinating? Hamlet’s buddy Horatio definitely thinks so, but then …
Enter the Ghost in complete armour, holding a truncheon, with his beaver up.
Suddenly, Horatio is a believer. But Marcello needs confirmation that he is not losing his marbles. “How now,” he implores Horatio. “Is not this something more than fantasy? What think you on’t?”
This is Horatio’s cue to deliver his own prognosis: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.”
Hamlet has yet to make his entrance, and already mad is the new normal.
Now we learn that no sooner have they buried Hamlet’s father than his uncle (Claudius) has married his mother (Gertrude) and assumed the throne. Perfect sociopaths that the new love couple are, neither parent can fathom why Hamlet is so upset.
“How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” enquires Claudius, apparently noticing that his newly adopted son is not exactly acting like the life of the party.
Gertrude gets straight to the point: “Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off.”
In other words, snap out of it, get over it. What’s the big deal? So what that your mother is shtupping the guy who murdered your father?
Clearly Hamlet is becoming unhinged, but if his new father and all his retainers think he’s crazy (as in resolving to exact his revenge on them) then it's curtains for Hamlet. (Actually it turned out to be curtains for Polonius – yuk-yuk.)
We are talking about a normal reaction to a crazy situation, especially in a culture that gave birth to the terms anger and berserk, not to mention the name of the weapon of choice, the knife. This is what everyone around him is expecting, for Hamlet to act as they would, were they in his shoes. The catch is that they are bound to display their understanding in a preemptory outpouring of unsheathed steel.
One slight misstep for Hamlet, then, one indiscreet glance the wrong way, one blown syllable in one soliloquy, and cue up the grave diggers for the first act.
So - was Hamlet mad or was he just faking it? That is the question. Scholars pose this as an either-or “to be or not to be” riddle when reality (keeping in mind our hero is fictional) suggests a far more nuanced “to be AND not to be.”
Hamlet clearly knows he cannot hide his perfectly logical and dangerous madness. No, his survival depends on showing the Danish court a different kind of crazy, a harmless crazy, a crazy so crazy that even fair Ophelia is confused.
At one point in the play, Ophelia advises her father Polonius of Hamlet's interest in her:
He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.
But later on, our title character abuses the object of his affections:
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners?
Ophelia has bought in to Hamlet's madness:
O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
And so has Claudius, who has overheard everything:
Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.
Hamlet has bought himself time. He is mad, faking mad, going mad. Then there is the not-so-small matter of his force nine depression, introduced at the beginning of the play. As we know, any decent red-blooded male of Viking descent would have been hell-bent on revenge. But no, Hamlet can barely summon up the motivation to get out of bed, and Prozac is eight hundred or so years from being invented.
Someone needs to pull our melancholy Dane out of it. Enter Horatio and Marcellus and Barnardo with a very strange sighting to report, an apparition armed and with his beaver up – Hamlet’s father!
The life and death battle of wits is on.
See also: The Madness of Lear
First published Sept 2010 as a blog, republished as an article Jan 14, 2011, reviewed Dec 3, 2017.
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