Madness and Insanity in Shakespeare's Hamlet - The Necessary Madness of Hamlet

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The Necessary Madness of Hamlet

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, is a complex play, filled with layers of meaning. These are often revealed through the madness of the characters and the theme of madness throughout the play. Although Hamlet and Ophelia are the only characters thought to be so afflicted, the reactions of other characters to this madness mirrors their own preoccupations.

When one refers to madness in Hamlet, most would think of Hamlet's madness, or at least that that he was pretending to possess. Although Ophelia does go insane and ultimately commits suicide, the central lunacy of the play revolves around Hamlet himself. Hamlet's plan to act mad is completely unexplained. It is safe to assume that he is pretending to be mad so he can get away with saying and doing things that would not ordinarily be tolerated. Also, if people think that he was crazy, they would not pay any attention to him in his plot to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death. This plan backfires though, because his family and friends bend over backwards to find the cause of his madness.

Every main character in Hamlet seems to have their own conjectures as to why Hamlet is acting so out of character. One obvious reason is the mourning of his father's death. In addition to this, though, they all have personal ideas of varying merit. Claudius thinks that Hamlet has some kind of secret cause for the sudden change in his personality. Gertrude believes that along with being upset about the death of his father, Hamlet is tormented by the fact that she married Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern believe that he is hurt, for his ambitions have been squashed. Not only does his uncle...

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...thers. Ophelia's insanity is very different from Hamlet's and quite straightforward. She does not need to ponder very hard before she decidessuicide is a much better option than life has ever been.

The madness in Hamlet sets up nearly all of the play. The main character, Hamlet, is believed to be crazy by all, except Horatio who knows Hamlet's reasoning behind the insanity. All of the characters decide on their own guesses as to what is plaguing Hamlet. This is interesting because all of their hypotheses are based on the things that most worried them.


Pennington, Michael. "Madness as the Only Safe Haven." Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. of "Hamlet": A User's Guide. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Norton Critical Ed. New York: Norton. 1992.

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