The word “madness” or “insanity” can be linked with the malicious acts of many. Being mad can be defined as the state of being mentally ill, or unable to behave in a reasonable way (Cambridge Dictionary n.d.). In the setting of a courtroom, a culprit may plead insanity as an excuse for their wrong-doings, and they would have to pass certain tests (depending on where the crime took place) to determine whether their claim is valid. Insanity can be viewed as a mental illness too. Events in an individual’s life like a troubled upbringing or the loss of a significant person in their life can be the cause of madness.
In “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, Prince Hamlet is faced with some crucial decisions that the average person would prefer not to deal with. All of his choices had some type of meaning behind them or some sort of justification. With this said, if insanity means not being able to behave in a reasonable way, with his decisions being reasoned and justified, Hamlet does not fit the description of a mad person.
At the beginning of the story, Hamlet was grieving for his father. Unaware of the cause of his death, Hamlet was also in a state of confusion. On top of all this, prior to his father dying, his mother married his uncle, Claudius, less than two months after his passing which left Hamlet questioning the murderer of his father even more, since they didn’t show much remorse for the former King’s death. Upon the ghost telling Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius and is seeking revenge, Hamlet tells Horatio that he plans on pretending to be crazy to fulfill his father’s orders: “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (Shakespeare I.v.179-180). The simple fact that he’s aware he’s going to act out of line on purpose to kill Claudius shows that he’s a sane person. Polonius also justifies Hamlet’s behaviour by saying that there are reasons behind his actions, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Shakespeare III.i.203-204), the reason being that he’s killing Claudius for allegedly murdering King Hamlet. Although he interprets it as madness, he also understands that Hamlet has a plan.
When grieving the death or loss of someone we care about, we go through five different stages: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them (Axelrod 2019). While grieving due to his father’s passing, Hamlet is experiencing something similar to the “Bargaining” stage when the ghost of his father tells him that Claudius was responsible for his death. Specifically because in the bargaining stage, people tend to think of what they would’ve done differently to save their lost one’s lives. In this case, Hamlet is thinking of killing King Claudius, not only because his father instructed him too, but because he may feel some sort of responsibility for his father’s death.
A reason for Hamlet being not sane is the fact that he’s speaking with a ghost. Firstly, Hamlet is not the only one who is able to see the ghost, various others saw it as well. But if this encounter with the ghost was truly a hallucination, it’s not uncommon for people to imagine their loved ones being present after their passing to cope with the loss. Going back to the grieving stages, Hamlet was still in denial of his father’s death, so this could have caused him to see and speak with him.
An insane person probably wouldn’t hesitate when being asked to commit a murder, even to someone as close as an uncle. However, Hamlet wasn’t completely on board with doing this. This is shown by how long he puts off the murder from the day he was demanded by his father to kill Claudius. He constantly procrastinates the murder and even questions if the encounter he had with the ghost was actually a devil, “The spirit that I have seen may be a devil and the devil hath power” (Shakespeare II.ii.585-586). If Hamlet was truly mad, he would not contemplate the spirits intentions. He shows his reasonable thinking by wanting to get proof that Claudius actually killed his father before getting revenge. Some may argue that he was pressured by the ghost to kill his father, as the ghost checks on him not once, but twice to see if he got the job done, which makes a case for Hamlet’s justification. Previously, Hamlet was lost and confused, but after encountering his father, he found a sense of direction. Even though he ended up killing his uncle, the fact that he took the time to really think about what he was going to do and tried to find reasons not to do it brings out the humane side of Hamlet.
While killing Claudius was justified, killing Polonius was not, but it had a reason. Obviously, Hamlet didn’t plan on killing Polonius, this death can be considered as an accident. Hamlet was a rookie in the murderer game so he obviously didn’t have experience taking someone’s life. Hamlet’s adrenaline was probably through the roof when he stabbed him, and it didn’t help that Polonius was hidden behind a curtain when it happened. For this reason, Hamlet’s decision-making ability was very limited so he assumed that the counselor was Claudius spying on him.
When Ophelia discovered that Hamlet, the love of her life, murdered her father, instead of understandably feeling sad, she started to sing and dance. If anything, based on the circumstances of the situation, this should be considered as insanity, as it is not normal and she ended up killing herself after acting like this. “To be or not to be--that is the question” (Shakespeare III.i.56), this famous quote can be interpreted as Hamlet contemplating suicide. This contemplation shows that he’s a logical person who thinks before he acts, in comparison to an insane person that’s driven by madness. He weighs out the options of being alive or ending it all and starting the afterlife. But by staying alive, he has more self-control over his life and future.
Hamlet’s mother can agree with the fact that he’s a sane person as well “I doubt it is no other but the main, His father’s death and o’er-hasty marriage.” (Shakespeare II.ii.56-57) “I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft” (Shakespeare, III.iv.189-190), this quote by Hamlet is not false, as he is a sane person. The antonym of insanity is sanity, which can be defined as the ability to think and behave in a normal and logical manner. Hamlet is pretending to be insane, and even in instances where his actions appear to be questionable, they are justified and reasoned.