William Shakespeare’s supreme tragic drama Hamlet does not answer fully for many in the audience the pivotal question concerning the sanity of Hamlet – whether it is totally feigned or not. Let us treat this topic in detail, along with critical comment.
George Lyman Kittredge in the Introduction to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, explains the prince’s rationale behind the entirely pretended insanity:
In Shakespeare’s drama, however, Hamlet’s motive for acting the madman is obvious. We speak unguardedly in the presence of children and madmen, for we take it for granted that they will not listen or will not understand; and so the King or the Queen (for Hamlet does not know that his mother is ignorant of her husband’s crime) may say something that will afford the evidence needed to confirm the testimony of the Ghost. (xii)
Critical opinion is divided on this question. A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy staunchly adheres to the belief that Hamlet would cease to be a tragic character if he were really mad at any time in the play (30). On the other hand, W. Thomas MacCary in Hamlet: A Guide to the Play maintains that the prince not only feigns insanity but also shows signs of true insanity:
Hamlet feigns madness but also shows signs of true madness) after his father’s death and his mother’s overhasty remarriage; Ophelia actually does go mad after her father’s death at the hands of Hamlet. For both, madness is a kind of freedom – a license to speak truth. Those who hear them listen carefully, expecting to find something of substance in their speech. Is it they, the audience, who make something out of nothing, or is it the mad who make something out o...
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Felperin, Howard. “O’erdoing Termagant.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Rpt. of “O’erdoing Termagant: An Approach to Shakespearean Mimesis.” The Yale Review 63, no.3 (Spring 1974).
Kittredge, George Lyman. Introduction. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Five Plays of Shakespeare. Ed. George Lyman Kittredge. New York: Ginn and Company, 1941.
MacCary, W. Thomas. Hamlet: A Guide to the Play. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html No line nos.
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