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In Hamlet, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the contrapuntal character in the play, namely Ophelia, acts as a balancing argument to the other character's madness or sanity. Shakespeare creates a contrasting relationship between the breakdown of Ophelia and the "north-north-west" brand of insanity used by Hamlet in that while Hamlet's character offers more evidence for a contriving manipulation, Ophelia's breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision.
While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelia's insanity (or breakdown) against Hamlet's madness, there is instead a clear definitiveness in Ophelia's condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet's madness. Obviously, Hamlet's character offers more evidence, while Ophelia's breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers clear evidence pointing to Hamlet's sanity beginning with the first scene of the play. Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father's ghost in private, the argument for his madness would greatly improve. However, not one, but three men together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio says, being the only of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the play, "Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes" (I.i.56-8). Horatio, who appears frequently throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when framing the King with his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost alone detracts somewhat from his credibility, but all the men are witnesses to the ghost demanding that Hamlet speak with him alone. Horatio offers an insightful warning:
What if it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff that beetles o'er his base into the sea, and there assume some other horrible form, which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, and draw you into madness? Think of it (I.iv.69-74).
Horatio's comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that the ghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King and speaks to Hamlet rationally.
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After his first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friends cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than the devastation that it really is.
Horatio: What news, my lord?
Hamlet: O, wonderful!
Horatio: Good my lord, tell it.
Hamlet: No, you will reveal it (I.v.118-21).
This is the first glimpse of Hamlet's ability and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve effect. Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets the guards know the severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Another instance of Hamlet's behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while his uncle and Polonius are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlet's affection for Ophelia has already been established in I.iii. and his complete rejection of her and what has transpired between them is clearly a hoax. Hamlet somehow suspects the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses in II.ii. that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are sent by the King and Queen to question him and investigate the cause of his supposed madness.
Hamlet's actions in the play after meeting the ghost lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy, yet that madness is continuously checked by an ever-present consciousness of action which never lets him lose control. For example, Hamlet questions his conduct in his soliloquy at the end of II.ii, but after careful consideration decides to go with his instinct and prove to himself without a doubt the King's guilt before proceeding rashly. Even after the King's guilt is proven with Horatio as witness, Hamlet again reflects and uses his better judgment in the soliloquy at the end of III.ii. before seeing his mother. He recognizes his passionate feelings, but tells himself to "speak daggers to her, but use none," as his father's ghost instructed. Again, when in the King's chamber, Hamlet could perform the murder, but decides not to, in his better judgment, to ensure that the King doesn't go to heaven by dying while praying. As Hamlet tells Guildenstern in II.ii., "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." This statement reveals out-right Hamlet's intent to fool people with his odd behavior. This is after Polonius' enlightened comment earlier in the same scene, "though this be madness, yet there is method in't."
Compare the copious evidence against Hamlet's madness with the complete lack of evidence for Ophelia's sanity after her father's murder. Her unquestionable insanity puts Hamlet's very questionable madness in a more favorable light. In IV.v. she is quite obviously mad, and unlike Hamlet there seems to be no method to her madness. All Ophelia can do after learning of her father's death is sing. Indeed, Hamlet's utter rejection of her combined with this is too much for her, and she doesn't sing a mourning song at the beginning of IV.v., but rather a happy love song. Later, when she meets with Leartes, she says to him:
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts. Leartes: A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted. Thought and afflictions, passion, hell itself, She turns to favor and to prettiness (IV.v.179-89).
While the Queen tells Leartes that an "envious sliver" broke and flung Ophelia into the river wearing a headdress of wild-flowers (compare the mad Lear's crown of weeds), the clowns in V.i. confirm the reader's suspicion that she did not die so accidentally:
Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks
her own salvation (V.i.1-2)?
Here lies the water; good. Here stands the man; good. If the man
go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes, mark you that. But if the water come to him and drown him,
he drowns not himself; Argal, he that is not guilty of his own
death shortens not his own life (15-20).
Ophelia's breakdown into madness and inability to deal with her father's death and Hamlet's rejection is dealt with neatly and punctually. There is little evidence against her madness, compared to Hamlet's intelligent plotting and use of witnesses to his actions. Thus, by defining true madness in Ophelia, Shakespeare subtracts from the plausibility of Hamlet's supposed insanity.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the dimmer light of reality to expose the brighter light of contrivance. Hamlet is dynamic, animated, and absurd in his madness, making Ophelia's true madness seem realistic rather than absurd. Hamlet explicitly states the contrivance of his madness, while Ophelia does not. Further, Hamlet has a motive for leading others to believe he is insane. Although Hamlet is under severe pressure and emotional strain due to his situation, he shows a remarkable amount of intelligent, conscious, and rational decision-making in efforts to resolve his situation. In this way, Hamlet is sharply contrasted with the mad Ophelia, whose insanity is not questioned by her or other characters in the play. After displaying madness, Ophelia makes no rational decisions that would lead the reader to believe in her sanity. Thus, the argument that Hamlet is truly mad refutes his ability to act rationally and discounts the dramatic device of Ophelia as a contrapuntal example of true insanity.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Chute, Marchette. "The Story Told in Hamlet." Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Excerpted from Stories from Shakespeare. N. p.: E. P. Dutton, 1956.
Danson, Lawrence. "Tragic Alphabet." Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Rpt. from Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language. N. p.: Yale University Press, 1974.
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).
Hart, Bernard. The Psychology of Insanity. London: Cambridge, 1914.
Landis, Carney, and James D. Page. Modern Soceity and Mental Disease. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1938.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Norton Critical ed. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. New York: Norton, 1992.