The Theme of Madness
The play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare was set in the 18th century and captures the events occurring after the death of the King of Denmark. After the death of old Hamlet, the next heir is prince Hamlet who is deeply saddened by his father’s death and the fact that his mother has re-married the new successor to the throne, Claudius. Hamlet learns from the ghost of his father that old Hamlet was murdered by his brother through poisoning, which refuted the theory that his death was after being bitten by a poisonous snake. The ghost assigns him the mission of tracking and killing his father’s killer. In his mission of avenging his father and the pain caused to the family, Prince Hamlet resigns to kill Claudia. He realizes that his mission will fail if he is suspected of foul play, but comes up with a plan.
Hamlet decides to act insane to fend off suspicion and the first sign is his behavior towards Ophelia. It is important to note that he had courted Ophelia so she was the first to realize his weird behavior. Ophelia is described as his lover with whom he has “made many tenders of his affection” (Act I, Scene III) before the start of the play. Prince Hamlet enters Ophelia’s clothing closet with his clothes loosely tied around his waist and pretends to be mad by grabbing her hands, touching her face, and looking at her blankly as he walks out of the room. Ophelia reports of the incidence as thus in scene II,
“He took me by the wrist, and held me hard; / Then goes he to the length of all his arm; / And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow, / He falls to such perusal of my face/As he would draw it. Long stay’d he’s; / At last,–a little shaking of mine arm,/ And thrice his head thus waving up and down,–He raised a sigh so piteous and profound,/ That it did seem to shatter all his bulk,/…” (Act II, Scene III).
Ophelia thinks her refusal to accept him as a lover had driven him to the acute insanity after she had accepted him earlier. Ophelia is advised by her father to reject him, as he did not trust the prince on judgment. Ophelia’s father is inclined to believe that his daughter is the reason Prince Hamlet is madly in love. Claudius becomes suspicious of his sudden weird character and assigns two of Hamlet’s friends from school to scout and report on the prince. He employs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Polonius is certain that price Hamlet is madly in love with his daughter to a point of insanity and thus advises King Claudius and his wife, Hamlet’s mother, of the Prince’s declining state of mind.
The following exchange takes place between Hamlet and Polonius: Polonius, “What is the matter, my lord?” Hamlet, “Between who?” Polonius: “I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.” Hamlet: “Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams; all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.” Polonius: “Though this is madness, yet there is method in’t.” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 193–206)
The king and his wife instruct the spies to counsel the prince out of his mental state and advise him to behave accordingly. While in the company of the two spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, prince Hamlet assigns two performers to do a play, in which the lead character is poisoned the same way his father was killed. He is inclined to believe that the king will be outraged by the play thus confirming his guilt in killing Old Hamlet, prince Hamlet’s father. If the king reacted in an unconventional manner, prince Hamlet would have established that the ghost claiming to be his fathers’ was not deceiving him, thus he would have established his father’s murderer. This is the start of prince Hamlets endeavor into finding out if King Claudius was the killer.
The prince alienates himself, continuing with his act of insanity to avoid attention. He even withdraws himself from his love, Ophelia and declares that he had been lying by saying he loved her. In his words, he never loved her from the very start but was pretending all through. Prince Hamlet complicates the matter by making sure he sat next to Ophelia during the play. This is a sign that the prince is clearly out of his mind because he at one point declares not to love Ophelia then he goes ahead to insist in sitting next to her in Act III, making Ophelia comment that his attitude had shifted from depression to ecstatic.
Madness is arguably the main theme in the play because it is used significantly to enable the achievement of the other themes. It is important to note however, that prince Hamlet’s feigned insanity is a technique he employs to cover up his detective operations. Hamlet also uses insanity to stall the process of finding out his father’s killer. It is also used to help him decide on how he wanted to carry on with his life starting from investigating his father’s death, to going back to school or ultimately whether to pursue his quest for the throne. With his perceived madness, either decision would have been viable since he could have decided to forfeit the throne on grounds of insanity.
Having to act mad makes Hamlet forget his father’s death faster and he recovers much faster. Some people mistake his madness as having being caused by his father’s death and consider it a way of mourning. The madness is an important tool in developing the plot of the narrative play. Though Prince Hamlet uses his madness to a successful result and accomplishes his mission, the very madness cost Ophelia her life. It is ironical that Prince Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father, the very person he loves, causing her to go insane and consequently die. Her madness is real and sends her to her death. This is a great undoing to the strength of this style of narrative as it deprives the character her life.
Ophelia loses all the opportunities of becoming the person she had wanted to be when her life ends prematurely. Prince Hamlet in his feigned insanity is unable to portray his true feelings following the death of Ophelia whom we are not sure he loved. The success of the theme of madness was greatly set back by the death of Ophelia. Her madness and consequently her death make the reader question the authenticity of the narrative in showing the choice and control of people in their lives. After her father’s death, Ophelia adopts Prince Hamlet’s mannerisms hoping that they would help her escape the sad memories. This proves detrimental to her heath as she ends up drowning and dying.
Shakespeare does not clearly elaborate on this theme of madness as it remains uncertain whether it can be morally acceptable to feign insanity and claim victory and achievement of personal goals or the fact that insanity would lead to the person’s death. Ophelia’s death makes us question the power of choice as a woman and in so doing, raises suspicion of whether Shakespeare was discriminating against women. It can be taken to suggest that women cannot handle the pressure of feigning insanity as well as men. Were it not for her insanity, Ophelia would have been sober enough to keep her perceived pregnancy and avoid the fate she suffered of committing suicide. This cast doubt on the strength of the feature as a theme fails to pass along a clear message to the reader on its applicability. In conclusion, the theme of madness has been effectively employed in the Shakespeare narrative to help portray the themes of revenge and determination. Were it not for the death of Ophelia, it would have been right to conclude that the feature has been successfully used to pass across the message in the story.
Madness as a figure of narration and as a theme proves detrimental to the life of the assisting character hence cannot be emphasized in the day-to-day life. The play by Shakespeare in general is a perfect piece of work perhaps proving Shakespeare’s masterly of the art of narration. The author, Shakespeare, uses a unique style of narration that has remained a blueprint to be necessary for modern day poets and play writers if only to near his fete. By employing madness as a feature, Shakespeare plays around with a sensitive issue but ultimately succeeds in giving the narrative a profound uniqueness. Madness is indeed the central theme in the play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark employed to leave the reader in suspense and to decide whether Ophelia’s madness was real or indeed feigned.