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Momentary Lapse of Sanity: Critical Analysis of Hamlet

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This paper aims to discuss the possibility of prince Hamlet being, in fact mentally ill, or wheter he was just such a bright mind that all the intended madness could have been staged and well-planned beforehand. The first significant problem arises with the fact that William Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet with such a great and thorough depiction of characters as it is. This makes the recognition of certain patterns in the behaviour of the characters and understanding various puns and wordplays immensely tough. As well as this, the background of Hamlet’s and everyone else‘s previous life in unknown, so trying to gather one’s personality, knowing only a part of the story may sound shallow.

The first scene opens with the guards on the night watch over the castle in Elsinore, Denmark. As the guards who have already seen a ghost the night before, but weren’t entirely sure whether it was real or not, brought another person, Horatio, as a witness, expecting the ghost to appear again. The Ghost turns up at that exact spot as the night before, at the same time. As bewildered by his presence as he is, Horatio tries to make contact with the Ghost and orders him to prove his identity. A few moments later, the Ghost disappeared. Even at this early stage of the play Horatio foreshadows the later development of the story stating: „But in the gross and scope of mine opinion, this bodes some strange eruption to our state“ (84-85). After a while, the Ghost appears again and Horatio threatens him ordering Marcellus, the other guard, to strike him with a spear, if he doesn’t stand still, not being of aware of the silliness of this command. After this incident, Horatio does not hesitate to inform Hamlet that they have seen the ghost of his father hoping that the ghost could speak to him as it is his own son. Hamlet, still grieving over the death of his father, immediately decides to join the guards on the watch the next night to see it himself.

Hamlet may have been already slightly insane, or at least emotionally instable even before the beginning of the play and the encounter with the ghost of his father, because of the fact that it wasn’t even two months since the death of his father. Yet Hamlet’s mother is already married to King Hamlet’s brother as if she wasn’t in any grief at all. Upon their first encounter, the Ghost initiates Hamlet into the background of his death. Telling him that it was, in fact, murder and instills Hamlet with the thought of revenge, which Hamlet becomes utterly obsessed with. In spite of the fact, that other people see the Ghost as well, Hamlet is the only one who gets to communicate with him, without any witnesses, which may suggest that the Ghost’s speech could have been only a delusion playing with Hamlet’s mind. Hamlet himself later states „Here, as before, never, so help you mercy, How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on)“ (923-925). These lines distinctly demonstrate that Hamlet is going to behave like a mad person from now on purpose. Since even he is not wholly sure whether the encounter was real or not and if his father was really murdered. „But if he was simply playing mad, it was foolish of him to tell the trick at the same time“ (Joseph C., Allen 1904, 2). This shows an immense amount of trust that Hamlet has in Horatio, as he could easily tell anyone else and the whole plan would have been ruined.

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From now on the plot of the play can be interpreted in two different ways. Since Hamlet’s mental sanity is not entirely proven from the beginning, it is questionable whether Hamlet is a sane person pretending to be deranged or vice versa. Following Hamlet’s odd letter to his love Ophelia and his more than strange entering and leaving Ophelia’s room, when he says nothing at all, just grabs her wrist and stares at her like a madman. Ophelia feels the urge to convey this experience to her father, Polonius, who immediately rushes to inform the king and the queen about this. After telling them Hamlet enters the room, pretending to not have a clue who Polonius is, asking him if he, perchance has a daughter and giving him advice to watch over her. Even though Hamlet responded to him with much wit which he hoped might suggest him that he is fine, this is exactly the kind of behavior Polonius would expect from a deranged person, but even he has to admit that „How pregnant sometimes his replies are.“ (1310). Upon the arrival of the actors, Hamlet greets them very friendly, and in a way apologizes to Guildensern for it: „I’m only crazy sometimes. At other times, I know what’s what.“ (1460). „Through most of this interview, he shows himself very shrewd, sifting their purpose and then with a pretense of frankness telling them just what he would like them to think“ (Allen, 2). Throughout the second act, Hamlet sends mixed signals to everyone so that no one could assume what his real intentions are, and in a way pretends that there is nothing going on.

During the conversation with Ophelia in the third Act, Hamlet after a long monologue about death shows that even he can behave like an absolutely despicable person that doesn’t really care about the feelings of others. As he tells Ophelia : „You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.“ (1810-1812) demonstrating her that he never truly loved her and denies every part of their relationship. This all was most likely staged by Hamlet as he was trying to convince everybody, even his love of his mental instability. Nevertheless, it leaves Ophelia rather shaken wishing: „Heavenly powers, restore him!“ (1833). At this part of the play Claudius is most likely the only person who believes that Hamlet is not really crazy, but only has some kind of an emotional breakdown due to his sadness and decides to send him to England.

Despite the fact that Hamlet is so eager to revenge his father, when he gets a seemingly perfect chance to do so, he chooses not to. While Claudius is praying to God, talking about his guilt, and the weight of the crime on his soul, begging God to forgive him, Hamlet stands right behind him. Showing that he is, or it at least appears so, in a sane state of mind, he considers the consequences and chooses not to kill him, because he would go straight to heaven. This option might appear wise, but in reality, is really selfish and will cause many unnecessary deaths in the future. Hamlet shows within the play many outbursts of grievance and wrath towards his mother. The most significant happens in the beginning of the third act, when Polonius sneakily hides behind the tapestry in order to listen to Hamlet’s and Gertrude’s argument. During the quarrel, Gertrude calls for help as she feels threatened by Hamlet, to which Polonius tries to intervene from behind the tapestry and is mercilessly stabbed by Hamlet’s sword. Hamlet doesn’t hesitate a second to do so, because he expects the king to be hiding there, yet shows no remorse even when he discovers that he just killed Polonius. In the course of this scene, Hamlet’s madness is proven, as a few seconds later the Ghost enters and talks to him. Every time the Ghost appeared before, someone else saw him, which showed that the Ghost in his essence really exists, but this time Hamlet is the only one that sees him and hears him speak. Regarding this, it might be just some kind of inner devil that’s powering Hamlet on his revenge spree and he might be not in full control of his actions. Because of this, Hamlet loses his love, Ophelia, as she goes crazy and drowns herself after hearing that Hamlet, the man that she loved, doesn’t love her anymore and on top of that remorselessly and unnecessarily killed her father. A nice contrast to Hamlet’s behavior makes Laertes, Polonius‘ son. Despite being furious with Hamlet, takes the situation deliberately and refuses to avenge his father as Hamlet convinces him that he is suffering from a mental illness. Being said, Laertes challenges him to a duel and Hamlet dies of a poison-dipped sword wound.

Throughout the play, Hamlet’s behavior shows pretty balanced features, in order to make it impossible to decidedly state if he was crazy or not. For the rest of the caracters this demeanor meant insecurity because noone could reliably predict his next move or reaction to a certain situation. The main problem is, that for Hamlet it meant the same. „I believe in Hamlet’s sanity at first. But as things move on and more stress is put upon Hamlet, I believe he loses control of his sanity. Basically, it all got out of hand. Regardless, of sanity or insanity.“ (Hamlet Sane Or Insane, 2013). For Hamlet, death of his father and later finding out that it was a murder made him so overwrought, that he was determined to do whatever it takes to avenge him. Hamlet may be considered to be a hero of this play, but if it was not for his egocentricity and intrasigent stubbornness many of the unnecessary deaths could have been prevented.

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Momentary Lapse of Sanity: Critical Analysis of Hamlet. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 3, 2023, from
“Momentary Lapse of Sanity: Critical Analysis of Hamlet.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
Momentary Lapse of Sanity: Critical Analysis of Hamlet. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Dec. 2023].
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