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Madness and Hamlet
Hamlet is one of William Shakespeare's most honored works and is a piece of literature, which has been studied in depth by many a scholar. The storyline of Hamlet follows a vein of madness that begins with Claudius' murdering King Hamlet and ending with the tragic killing of almost every main character. Many reasons have been proposed for the ultimate tragedy, which occurs at the conclusion of the play. It will be argued in this essay that madness is the cause of the eventual tragedy in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Claudius' murdering of his brother, the king is the first murderous act of mental illness in the story and it sets into course the madness of many other characters. Murdering one's brother so that they may marry their sister in law is not the act or desire of a sane person. After the king's death, Claudius and Gertrude marry within a matter of months. This quick marriage circumvents the standard mourning period of one year that is expected of a queen. Hamlet is greatly disturbed by the fact that his mother does not mourn longer for his fathers death and conveys his anger about this subject on several occasions. The marriage of a man to his sister in law is thought incestuous by the church and contributes to the overall lack of decency in this story. Claudius is directly responsible for the death of the king, Hamlet's father, and he also contributes to the deaths of Gertrude and Hamlet. His actions set into course a series of events of which the end result is the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia. He is also indirectly responsible for the deaths of these characters.
Hamlet's display of mental illness allows him to prove to himself that Claudius did, in fact, murder his father. After seeing the ghost of his father, Hamlet vows to avenge his death and decides that feigning lunacy will provide him with the means to prove Claudius' guilt. Following his initial encounter with the ghost of his father, Hamlet is very excitedly speaking with Marcellus and Horatio and tells them:
But come / Here, as before, never, so help you mercy
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In this passage he is explaining that if he is to appear to be acting strangely, or putting on an "antic disposition," they should not be alarmed or act as if they know some secret about him. His plan to act insane provides him with the means with which to act and speak in ways which would, under normal circumstances, not be tolerated. Thanks to his plan of acting insane he is able to prove Claudius' guilt.
Throughout the story Hamlet pretends to be insane and even dies acting out this façade of lunacy. It seems at first that Hamlet is just acting but then it appears that he does go truly insane. Even after he has gathered evidence against Claudius, he continues to behave strangely. When he murders Polonius, thinking that he is Claudius, he does not react to his actions in the manor in which a sane person would. This act enrages Laertes who then desires to avenge his fathers death by slaughtering Hamlet. The death of Claudius by the hands of Hamlet also contributes to the dismay of Ophelia. In these ways, Hamlet's insanity contributes to the overall tragedy of the play.
Driven to madness by the murder of his father, Laertes, with the help of Claudius conspires to kill Hamlet. Laertes, in his planning Hamlet's death, tells Claudius that he has:
...bought an unction of a mountebank / So mortal that, but dip a knife in it, / Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare, / Collected from all simples that have virtue / Under the moon, can save the thing from death / That is but scratched withal. I'll touch my point / With this contagion, that if I gall him slightly, / It may be death. (Act 4, Scene 7, lines 141-149)
Claudius arranges for there to be a sword fight in which Laertes will be able to poison Hamlet. To further ensure that Hamlet will be killed, Claudius plans to offer Hamlet poisoned wine. Hamlet never drinks this wine. Instead, Gertrude drinks it to celebrate Hamlet's success in the duel and Claudius himself is also poisoned by it. The sword fight in which Hamlet is to be slain ends with the death of Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude.
Ophelia's madness is caused by the actions of other characters in the story. Her father tells her to stay away from Hamlet, whom she has much affection for. Hamlet lies to her, telling her that he does not intend to be with her. After all this, Her father, Laertes is murdered by her former lover, Hamlet. and then Hamlet is sent to England. The sum of all these actions result in her feeling such distress that she becomes mentally ill.
Claudius' murder of the king sets into course the insanity of many other characters, the result of which is homicide and suicide.