The madness of prince Hamlet
The madness of prince Hamlet
In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark the protagonist exhibits a puzzling duplicitous nature. Hamlet contradicts himself throughout out the play. He endorses both of the virtues of acting a role and being true to oneis self. He further supports both of these conflicting endorsements with his actions. This ambiguity is demonstrated by his alleged madness, for he does behave madly, only to become perfectly calm and rational an instant later. These inconsistencies are related with the internal dilemmas he faces. He struggles with the issue of revenging his fatheris death, vowing to kill Claudius and then backing out, several times. Upon this point Hamlet teeters through the play. The reason for this teetering is directly related to his inability to form a solid opinion about role playing. This difficulty is not present, however, at the start of the play.
In the first act Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions and inner state. When questioned by Gertrude about his melancholy appearance Hamlet says, ÊSeems, madam? Nay it is. I know not ÈseemsiË (1.2.76). This is to say ÊI am what I appear to be.Ë Later he makes a clear statement about his state when he commits himself to revenge. In this statement the play makes an easy to follow shift. This shift consists of Hamlet giving up the role of a student and mourning son. Hamlet says,
Iill wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Hamlet is declaring that he will be committed to nothing else but the revenge of his fathers death. There is no confusion about Hamletis character. He has said earlier that he is what he appears to be, and there is no reason to doubt it. In the next act, however, Hamletis status and intentions suddenly and with out demonstrated reason becomes mired in confusion.
When Hamlet appears again in act two, it seems that he has lost the conviction that was present earlier. He has yet to take up the part assigned to him by the ghost. He spends the act walking around, reading, talking with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players. It is not until the very end of the act that he even mentions vengeance. If he had any of the conviction shown earlier he would be presently working on his vengeance. So instead of playing the part of vengeful son, or dropping the issue entirely, he hangs out in the middle, pretending to be mad. This is shown when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ÊI know not-lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exerciseË (2.2.298-299). Later he tells them that he is just feigning madness when he says, ÊI am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsawË (2.2.380-381). Admitting so blatantly that he is only feigning madness would imply that he is comfortable with it. He also seems to be generally comfortable with acting This is evidenced when he says, Êthere is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it soË (2.2.251-252). Hamlet is saying that behavior shapes reality. It is puzzling that Hamlet is comfortable with playing at this point but not with the role that he said he would play earlier. If he is to play a role why not the one that his father gave him? When the players come in a short wile later his attitude changes.
Hamlet is prompted to vengeance, again, by the moving speech that is given by one of the players. About this speech he says,
Whatis Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he motive and cue for passion
That I have? (2.2.561-564)
In this praise of this players ability to act, Hamlet is saying that if he were such an actor he would have killed Claudius by now. This link between vengeance and acting that is present here is what Hamlet struggles with until very near the end. He is then moved to swear that he should kill Claudius when he says,
I should Èai fatted all the region kites
With this slaveis offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Why, what an ass am I? (2.2.581-585)
He makes this big buildup of what he should have done and how he will be revenged and he shoots it down in the next line. This passage is the model of Hamletis cognitive dissonance. After all of this swearing and support of the value of acting and words, he backs out of it again. He canit decide whether to play the role or not. Words are further condemned when he says, ÊMust, like a whore, unpack my hart with wordsË (2.2.587). So he is now condemning role playing. Being caught in the middle he decides that he needs more proof of the Kings guilt when he says, ÊThe playis the thing / Wherein Iill catch the conscience of the KingË (2.2.606-607).
Before the mouse trap is to be played, Hamlet runs into Ophelia and makes some telling statements. Upon the issue of Opheliais beauty Hamlet says, ÊThat if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beautyË (3.1.109-110). He is saying that Ophelia can be honest and fair, but that, honesty being an inward trait, and fairness being an outward trait, cannot be linked. He goes on further to say that
Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd that the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
So not only can the inner and outer self not be linked, but acting, or the show or exterior, will transform oneis inner self to match the exterior show. He says this just after denying that words and acting are important. By what he says here, if he would only act the part he wouldnit have a problem taking action. Then he contradicts himself yet again when he says ÊGod hath given you one face, and you go make yourselves anotherË(3.1.146-147). He just said that appearance is all and now chastises women for changing it. He is bouncing back and forth between supporting acting and denouncing it. Whenever he is in support of acting he is also ready for vengeance. When he swings back to support acting again he says,
It hath made me
mad. I say we will have no more marriages. Those
that are married already-all but one-shall live.
The ÊoneË Hamlet is referring to must be the King. So it returns to vengeance and acting going together. In the next scene the conflicting action is similar, but less obvious.
When Hamlet is advising the player on how his lines should be read he says, ÊSuit the action to the word, the word to the actionË (3.2.17-18). If Hamlet would follow his own advice he would not have a conflict. This shows that he is not consistent within himself. Hamlet is saying one should not distinguish between word and actions, but he does maintain this separation. Yet when Hamlet speaks with Horatio he praises him for being objective, levelheaded, and for having a consistent character. He is praising Horatio for being true to himself, not being an actor. Hamlet says,
Give me that man
That is not passionis slave, and I will wear him
In my heartis core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (3.2.69-72)
Hamlet is saying this because he wants Horatio to watch the King at the play. He is unsure of his uncleis guilt, and he wants proof. He wants it from someone who he thinks is honest throughout. It comes back to acting and vengeance or in this case he has failed in his vengeance and needs Horatio to agree with him. Hamlet says to Horatio,
Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkernnel in one speech,
It is a dammed ghost we have seen, (3.2.77-80)
Proof, however, does not have any thing to do with the role Hamlet is supposed to play, but there is more to it than that. The interesting thing is that his uncle will be judged by how he acts during the play. If the King is a good actor, and does not show his guilt, he will most likely not be killed. However, the King is not a good actor and when he rises Hamlet responds with, ÊWhat, frighted with false fire?Ë(3.2.254). Itis as if Hamlet is saying itis only a play, itis not real. He does say something to this effect a few lines before. ÊYour majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us notË(3.2.229-230). This new proof drives Hamlet to use more words. He is again to talk of killing, and he says, ÊNow I could drink hot bloodË (3.2.379). He again associates this with a role, that of Nero. ÊThe soul of Nero enter this firm bosomË (3.2.383). Later Hamlet again talks himself out of character and does not kill the King. He puts it off until later and says,
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation init,
Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be dammed and black
He is waiting until Claudius fits the part of a villain. His action is paralyzed whenever something does not fit the part. He needs his revenge to be dramatic so that he may get into it and finally play it out, and it takes him the next scene and an act to finally do this.
After Hamlet backs out of killing Claudius, Hamlet says to his mother, ÊO shame, where is thy blush?Ë(3.4.72). He is voicing his distaste for Gertrude not only for marrying his uncle but for not being true to herself, she should show some shame for her sins but does not. Hamlet is contradicting himself in this. He has been duplicitous and untrue for two thirds of the play. At this point he is still not sure as how he is to proceed. Hamlet is caught in the middle of acting and objectivity. Hamlet finally gets his act together, and decides to act the part his father had given him, after he sees the soldiers going off to war to die.
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That, for fantasy and a trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain. O, from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!
Those soldiers fight and die for an insignificant plot of land, and they do it because they are soldiers, no other reason. Hamlet realizes that he should do what his role dictates strictly because it is his role. He does not falter in his conviction after he returns and fully embraces the act. Upon confronting Laertes he says ÊThis is I, Hamlet the DaneË (5.1.53-54). The ÊDaneË, meaning the King. He is claiming his right to the throne. This is the appropriate action for someone as wronged as he, albeit late. In reaction to Opheliais death he is again behaving as he should have. She was his love interest and as such he should have loved her more than her brother. This is shown when Hamlet says ÊI loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers /Could not, with their quantity of love,/ Make up my sumË (5.1.256-258). Hamlet should have loved her, but he did not. Had he loved her he would not have not treated her so poorly earlier. He is now committed to acting, and loving Ophelia fits the role.
In the rest of the play Hamlet does not mess around. He barely has time to tell his story of escape to Horatio before he is challenged. He does not refuse the challenge because as nobility, which he is finally claiming to be, he cannot refuse and keep his honor. Hamlet goes to the match and because he has now accepted the role he does not hesitate to kill the King when prompted to.
It would seem that being a good actor is paramount to survival in this play. Polonius could not stick to the role of adviser and was trying to convince the King that Hamlet was in love with his daughter. This leads him to spy on Hamlet, and because he could not do that right either, is killed. Ophelia could not handle the role of mourning for her father, goes mad and dies as a result. The King could not cover up his guilt, so Hamlet has the proof he needs to spur him on. Finally Hamlet, who if he would have acted as the ghost instructed him to in the first place, instead of flip flopping, would have killed Claudius outright. Had Hamlet been truly comfortable with acting, Claudius would have been the only causality.