Shakespeare’s Hamlet explores the freedom that madness provides through setting and the characterisation of Hamlet and Ophelia, presenting the freedom their changing speech and behaviour provide. Shakespeare emphasises the liberty of Hamlet and Ophelia’s seemingly irrational actions against their confined status and actions in a rigid social structure where women still “obey” a male figure and Princes feel trapped in a “prison.” Hamlet uses the façade of madness to “put on an antic disposition”, to find his father’s murderer.
Shakespeare portrays the liberty a responsible Prince is provided through his madness to justify his irrational and indecent investigation of his father’s death, concerning the “King” himself. Similarly, Hamlet uses his madness to deny responsibility for the murder of Polonius as he was “from himself ta’en away” when Polonius was killed. Shakespeare portrays Hamlet’s apparent absence, due to his madness, from the scene through the use of third-person narrative that angers the audience as Hamlet easily gets away with murder.
Shakespeare displays Ophelia’s madness as a sign of the loss of her father, which is the first indication of her freedom from the confinement of a “male figure” in her life. Her speech is changed from iambic pentameter to prose in her sonnets, indicating her madness and freedom of speech. Her once submissive character that “obey[ed]” her father’s every wish is portrayed as outspoken as she insults Gertrude by offering her “fennel” and “columbines”, that symbolise adultery. She is able to break from her confinement as a polite “noblewoman” who now has the freedom of speech as that of a man.
The audience further acknowledges Ophelia’s will to take control of her own life through her suicide in which she “chant[ed] snatches of old lauds” and drowned “like a creature native” to water. Her madness which allowed her to peacefully “drown” is indicated by Shakespeare as the gateway to free Ophelia from this rigid patriarchal society, resonating with the audience who themselves may feel oppressed and would want to take control of their own life.
Through the characterization of Ophelia and Hamlet, and their changing speech and behaviour, Shakespeare successfully displays that despite the alienation and isolation of madness, madness also allows truth and freedom to act.