One of the inevitable and time-honoured questions asked about Hamlet focuses on the question of his insanity, whether he has put on an “antic disposition” or whether he is truly insane. Discuss whether you believe Hamlet is putting on an “antic disposition” or whether you believe he is truly insane. Consider the following questions in preparing your response, but do not answer them specifically.
What is sanity or insanity?
How people know whether they are sane or insane?
If an individual lives entirely on his or her own, how can that person determine whether she or he is insane or sane?
Does one have to be insane to take another person’s life? To commit murder?
Is Hamlet sane or insane during this act of the play?
Hamlet’s sanity or insanity remains debatable, with differing views from among readers. Some readers believe that Hamlet was only pretending to be insane, while others contend that Hamlet was actually insane. Others suggest that Hamlet was engulfed by moments of insanity. It may be difficult to categorize one as either sane or insane even in the real world. Some individuals may show characteristics of an insane person yet they have perfect knowledge of what they are doing. Some may also pretend to be insane for a variety of reasons, while they are perfectly sane. This paper postulates that Hamlet was perfectly sane, but only used “antic disposition” to make others believe that he was truly insane and hence achieve what he wanted.
Hamlet’s sanity or insanity can be discussed in different ways. At some parts of the play he is depicted as insane while in other parts he is perfectly sane, capable of even plotting against his enemies. The parts of the play where Hamlet seems to lose control of his actions depict insanity, while other portions where he seems in control of his actions depict sanity, of a man in his right senses. Throughout the play, Hamlet is engulfed by moments of mood swings and lack of control. During such episodes, he can be described as insane. In Act 1 of the play, Hamlet uses “whirling words” which give the impression of an insane person. He says, “Why, right, you are in the right” (Shakespeare 6). Such sentences and word use points to insanity. Horatio seems not to clearly understand what Hamlet is talking of, a point illustrated by the statement he makes concerning Hamlet’s words; “You’re talking in such a crazy way, sir” (6). Hamlet seems to talk in an unusual way as Horatio contends, a point that may be taken as part of the definition of insanity.
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Prior to his father’s death, Hamlet is portrayed as perfectly sane. Hamlet is friends with Horatio, Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz. Such friendship depicts sanity, as only sane people can make friends. Hamlet has an affection towards Ophelia. This also defines sanity. It means that Hamlet is normal and has feelings just like any other person. Sanity involves being able to make right decisions. Throughout the play, Hamlet is able to make rational decisions, just like a sane man would do. When his father’s ghost appears, he resolves to speak rather than running away. Hamlet also displays rational thinking when during the court scene he is able to cleverly prove that Claudius killed his father. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet displays rational thinking and the know-how that his father was murdered, contrary to the belief that he died of other causes. Hamlet says, “That I, the son of a dear father murdered” (23). This indicates that just like a sane person is aware of the reality on the ground, Hamlet was also much aware of what had transpired to cause his father’s death.
There are certain indicators that people may use to gauge whether they are sane or insane. In Hamlet’s case, it could also be possible to establish whether he was sane or not using these defining indicators. Hamlet could establish whether he was sane by looking at how well his behavior conforms to society’s accepted ways and customs. Hamlet was deeply aggrieved by his father’s death. This is common and expected in society when one loses a loved one. Hamlet is distraught about his mother’s quick remarriage. This could happen to any man in the society. Hamlet’s behavior in this case seems to be driven by Oedipus complex. In Scene 3, he says; “Mother, you have my father much offended.” A person can know whether he is sane or not looking at whether he or she causes trouble to oneself and others. Hamlet does not cause any trouble to himself. However, Hamlet is a danger to others as evidenced in scene 4. Hamlet stabs and kills Polonius, indicating that he could be insane. Even after realizing he has killed Polonius, he does not show mercy. Instead he says, “You low-life, nosy, busybody fool, goodbye.”
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Individuals who live entirely on their own can still determine whether they are sane or insane. In living alone, there would be no social norms or customs to abide. Doing harm on oneself can therefore be the only indicator as to whether one is sane or insane. Throughout the play, Hamlet does not in any way intend to harm himself. He is only determined to reveal those who killed his father. Thus, there is a possibility that Hamlet is not insane since he does not wish to harm himself and neither the ones he truly loves. Another way to determine whether he or she is sane or insane is through awareness of the reality on the ground. A sane person is able to know and clearly understand the current situation and the future impacts. Hamlet well aware of the current situation. He knows that his father was murdered and in addition, his mother is planning to remarry, something that makes him feel distraught.
One does not have to be insane to kill another person. People can commit murder for a various reasons. Hamlet kills Polonius but is not remorseful about the death. From the play, there could be a possibility that Hamlet accidentally stabs Polonius. This is because he thought that it was the king who had hidden behind the tapestry. His character is somewhat questionable after he realizes that he killed Polonius and instead of showing remorse he celebrates over his death. Hamlet is not insane when he commits murder, and is well aware of what he has done.
Hamlet is not insane during the act of the play but rather feigns insanity. His main goal is to fool the king and the attendants. In scene 5, Hamlet talks about putting “an antic disposition on” (74). The antic disposition mentioned simply means that Hamlet is feigning insanity. He later claims that he is just “mad north-north-west” (170). This also points out that he is sane. In act 3, Guildenstern laments about Hamlet’s ‘crafty madness” meaning he finds his insanity questionable. As the king and his entourage enters the court, Hamlet says to Horatio that “I must be idle” (85), ushering the audience to episodes of antic disposition. From the play, it is only the king and his subjects that consider Hamlet as mad. However, the king doubts his insanity. Interestingly, Hamlet’s madness seems to be directed to those he dislikes who include the king, Claudius, Guildenstern, Polonius, and others.
In conclusion, insanity involves losing control over one’s actions. Hamlet is clearly in control of what he does, although he is bent on making everyone especially those he dislikes believe that he is insane. Hamlet takes Polonius life by stabbing him with a sword, and is glad that it was one of his enemies he has killed. From the play, it is clear that Hamlet was well aware of his actions, and knew the reality on the ground. He was thus a sane person.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Hauppauge, N.Y: Barron’s, 2002. Print.