“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawkfrom a handsaw” (II.ii.376-7). This is a classic example of the “wildand whirling words” (I.v.134) with which Hamlet hopes to persuade people tobelieve that he is mad. These words, however, prove that beneath his “anticdisposition,” Hamlet is very sane indeed.
Beneath his strange choice ofimagery involving points of the compass, the weather, and hunting birds, he isannouncing that he is calculatedly choosing the times when to appear mad. Hamletis saying that he knows a hunting hawk from a hunted “handsaw” orheron, in other words, that, very far form being mad, he is perfectly capable ofrecognizing his enemies. Hamlet’s madness was faked for a purpose. He warned hisfriends he intended to fake madness, but Gertrude as well as Claudius sawthrough it, and even the slightly dull-witted Polonius was suspicious. Hispublic face is one of insanity but, in his private moments of soliloquy, throughhis confidences to Horatio, and in his careful plans of action, we see that hismadness is assumed. After the Ghost’s first appearance to Hamlet, Hamlet decidesthat when he finds it suitable or advantageous to him, he will put on a mask ofmadness so to speak. He confides to Horatio that when he finds the occasionappropriate, he will “put an antic disposition on” (I.v.
173). Thisstrategy gives Hamlet a chance to find proof of Claudius’s guilt and tocontemplate his revenge tactic. Although he has sworn to avenge his father’smurder, he is not sure of the Ghost’s origins: “The spirit that I have seen/ May be the devil” (II.ii.596-7). He uses his apparent madness as adelaying tactic to buy time in which to discover whether the Ghost’s tale ofmurder is true and to decide how to handle the situation.
At the same time, hewants to appear unthreatening and harmless so that people will divulgeinformation to him, much in the same way that an adult will talk about animportant secret in the presence of a young child. To convince everyone of hismadness, Hamlet spends many hours walking back and forth alone in the lobby,speaking those “wild and whirling words” which make little sense onthe surface but in fact carry a meaningful subtext. When asked if he recognizesPolonius, Hamlet promptly replies, “Excellent well; you are afishmonger” (II.ii.172). Although the response seems crazy since afish-seller would look completely unlike the expensively dressed lord Polonius,Hamlet is actually criticizing Polonius for his management of Ophelia, since”fishmonger” is Elizabethan slang for “pimp.” He playsmind-games with Polonius, getting him in crazy talk to agree first that a cloudlooks like a camel, then a weasel and finally a whale, and in a very sane aside,he then comments that “they fool me to the top of my bent”(III.
ii.375). Although he appears to have lost touch with reality, he keepsreminding us that he is not at all “far gone, far gone” (II.ii.187) asPolonius claims, but is in fact very much in command of himself and thesituation. With his rantings and ravings and his seemingly useless pacing of thelobby, Hamlet manages to appear quite mad. The nave and trusting Opheliabelieves in and is devastated by what she sees as his downfall: ” O, what anoble mind is here o’erthrown! / .
. . The expectancy and rose of the fair state/ . . .
quite, quite down!” (III.i.152,4,6).
Rosencrantz and Guildensternare also fully convinced. They are Hamlet’s equals in age but are far inferiorin intellect and therefore don’t understand that he is faking. However, althoughHamlet manages to convince these simple friends and Ophelia of his insanity,other characters in the play such as Claudius, Gertrude and even Poloniuseventually see through his behavior.
Claudius is constantly on his guard becauseof his guilty conscience and he therefore recognizes that Hamlet is faking. Theking is suspicious of Hamlet from the very beginning. He denies Hamletpermission to return to university so that he can keep an eye on him close by.When Hamlet starts acting strangely, Claudius gets all the more suspicious andsends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Their instructions are todiscover why Hamlet is pretending to be mad: ” And can you, by no drift ofcircumstance, / Get from him why he puts on this confusion, my italics /Grating so harshly all his days of quiet / With turbulent and dangerouslunacy” (III.i.1-4). The reason Claudius is so reluctant to believe thatOphelia’s rejection has caused Hamlet’s lunacy is that he doesn’t believe in hismadness at all.
When Claudius realizes through the play-within-the-play thatHamlet knows the truth about his father’s death, he immediately sends him awayto England. The prevailing piece of evidence demonstrating Claudius’s knowledgeof Hamlet’s sanity is the fact that he feels threatened enough by Hamlet toorder him killed by the king of England: “For like the hectic in my bloodhe rages, / And thou must cure me: till I know ’tis done, / Howe’er my haps, myjoys were ne’er begun” (IV.iii.
67-9). In the scene in his mother’s bedroom,Hamlet tells Gertrude that his insanity is assumed: “It is not madness /I have utter’d: bring me to the test, / And I the matter will reword, whichmadness / Would gambol from” (III.iv.143-6), but even without hisconfirmation, the queen has seen through his act. While Hamlet is reprimandingher, she is so upset that she describes his words as “daggers”(III.iv.98) and claims, ” Thou hast cleft my heart in twain”(III.
iv.158). The words of a madman could not have penetrated her soul to suchan extent. The queen takes every word Hamlet says seriously, proving sherespects him and believes his mind to be sound.
Furthermore, she believesHamlet’s confession of sanity immediately. She does not question him at all butinstead promises to keep it her secret. “I have no life to breathe / Whatthough hast said to me” (III.iv.
200-1). Even Polonius can see that Hamlethas not completely lost touch with the world. Although he frequently misses themeanings of Hamlet’s remarks and insults, he does recognize that they make somesense. After a confusing conversation with Hamlet he remarks, ” Though thisbe madness, yet there is method in’t” (II.ii.205). When his theory ofrejected love proves wrong, he becomes very suspicious of Hamlet’s behavior andoffers to test it by hiding behind the “arras” in Gertrude’s bedroomso that he can listen in on Hamlet’s private conversation with his mother.
Polonius’s suspicions about the legitimacy of Hamlet’s madness lead to his deathwhen Hamlet stabs the “arras” in the mistaken belief that theeavesdropper is Claudius. Hamlet’s soliloquies, his confidences to Horatio, andhis elaborate plans are by far the most convincing proof of his sanity.Throughout the play, Hamlet’s soliloquies reveal his inner thoughts which arecompletely rational.
In one such speech, Hamlet criticizes himself for nothaving yet taken action to avenge his father’s murder: “O what a rogue andpeasant slave am I / . . . the son of the dear murder’d, / Prompted to myrevenge by heaven and hell, / Must, like a whore, unpack my heart withwords” (II. ii. 545, 581-3). Hamlet calls himself a “dull and muddy-mettledrascal” (II.ii.
563), a villain and a coward, but when he realizes that hisanger doesn’t achieve anything practical other than the unpacking of his heart,he stops. These are not the thoughts of a madman; his emotions are real and histhoughts are those of a rational man. Even when he contemplates suicide in the”to be or not to be” soliloquy, his reasons himself out of it througha very sane consideration of the dangers of an unknown afterlife: “And thusthe native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast ofthought” (III.i. 85-6).
A further important proof of his sanity is howpatiently he devises plans to prepare for his revenge. As he explains toHoratio, his “antic disposition” is a device to test his enemies. Hismounting of the play-within-the-play is another well-laid plan to trap Claudiusinto admitting guilt: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch theconscience of the king” (II.ii.602-3) and even when the play brings himconcrete proof, he is careful not to rush to take his revenge at the wrongmoment.
He could easily kill Claudius while he is praying but restrains himselfso that there is no chance of Claudius’s entering heaven. Although Hamlet’spatience can be seen as an example of his procrastination, I think that it israther a sign of rationality. Hamlet shows himself perfectly capable of action,as well as of rational thought, in escaping the king’s armed guard, dispatchingRosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England, dealing with thepirates and making it back to Denmark.
In addition, the letter Horatio from himthrough the ambassador bound for England is clear and precise and shows no signsof a befuddled mind. Finally, I am convinced of Hamlet’s sanity by his verynormal reactions to the people around him. He is perfectly sane, friendly andcourteous with the players, giving them good acting tips which they appreciateand respect. When Polonius and Claudius test the theory of rejected love by”loosing” Ophelia to him, Hamlet acts completely rationally. He greetsOphelia sweetly, gets a little cold when he remembers that he has not seen her”for this many a day,” is very hurt when she returns his remembrances,and becomes completely furious, insulting womankind in general, when she lies tohim about her father’s whereabouts and he realizes he is being spied on. Hereacts the way any hurt young rejected lover would. In the end, it is surprisingthat he is able to keep up the charade of feigning madness for so long, and partof his tragedy is that it doesn’t help him anyway; in the end, he avenges hisfather by killing Claudius not through an act of madness, but as a result ofClaudius’s own treachery.Shakespeare