Many criminal suspects today divert guilt from themselves by attributing their actions to some sort of insanity. Prince Hamlet, of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, puts on a similar fake lunacy that eventually takes over Hamlet, controls him, and leads to his downfall.
Hamlet returns to his home, Denmark’s palace, one day to find King Hamlet, his father, dead. While still mourning his father’s death, his mother marries, of all people, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Then, Hamlet meets a ghost whose appearance is like that of the dead King Hamlet. To confuse Hamlet’s situation even more, this ghost explains to Hamlet that Claudius murdered King Hamlet while he was sleeping. Hamlet’s responds to the confusion, sadness, and anger he feels by putting on what he terms an “antic disposition” (1.5.192).
Shakespeare uses Ophelia, among other characters, to describe Hamlet’s “antic disposition” – changes in both his appearance and behavior. Shortly after expressing his plan to put on his “antic disposition,” Hamlet changes his appearance from that of a presumably attractive young man to that of a sickly figure. After Hamlet shows up in her chamber, Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend, explains that Hamlet appears “with his doublet all unbraced, No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle, Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other, And with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosed out of hell” (2.1.88-93). Hamlet’s new behavior, too, varies greatly. Hamlet, at one time, represented the young man many desired to become. Ophelia explains he possessed at one time a “noble mind” and was a “soldier,” and a “scholar” – all the terms by which any young man at that time would like to be known (3.1.64). Now, though, Hamlet lashes out at others, speaks harshly with those to whom he is supposedly close, and even thoughtlessly kills a man.
Though Hamlet fails to disclose his reasoning behind displaying the “antic disposition,” his words and actions point to a few possible motives. When Hamlet first puts on his insanity appearance, it is possible that he does so in order to determine the validity of the ghost’s words. He explains in one of his soliloquies, “The spirit that I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power T’ assume a pleasing shape” (2.2.627-629). Hamlet has a seemingly valid fear at this point in the tragedy; Hamlet has no other source besides the ghost from which he can gather evidence against Claudius. If Hamlet were to take revenge on Claudius without having first acquired evidence that Claudius actually did something to offend Hamlet, his actions would be worse than those he thinks Claudius carried out – not only would Hamlet commit murder, he would also falsely accuse another man. Therefore, Hamlet’s plan to put on a false madness is clever, as it will allow him to unobtrusively find out more information. If all the members of the court deem Hamlet insane, they will put up with any strange actions on his part, rather than becoming suspicious.
Though Hamlet’s “antic disposition” comes across as a clever method by which he can gather information, his motive appears to consist of more than simply discovering the truth regarding what happened to his father. Shortly before stating his doubts revolving around the validity of the ghost’s account of recent happenings, Hamlet explains, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (2.2.577-578). He then continues to question how an actor with whom he speaks can show so much emotion in response to a fictional story, while he, himself cannot take revenge in reply to Claudius’ real-life actions against Hamlet’s father. This seems like a more plausible motive for Hamlet’s cover – he wants revenge but has no desire to face the consequences of such an action. Using his reasoning, if nearly all the characters believe he is crazy, they will attribute his poor choices and shameful actions to the insanity rather than to Hamlet himself, and they will exonerate him.
Hamlet’s madness begins as a false appearance that he displays intentionally. After the ghost gives Hamlet a detailed account of what supposedly happened to King Hamlet, Hamlet explains to his friends Horatio and Marcellus, “I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on” (1.5.191-192). From the reader’s perspective, no doubt should exist as to the artificiality of Hamlet’s insanity. Hamlet clearly shows his intent to act in such a manner; no reason exists to believe otherwise. Additionally, in the Act 2 discussion between Hamlet and Polonius, an assistant to Claudius, even Polonius recognizes Hamlet’s wit – a trait frequently non-existent in a madman. Polonius explains in an aside, “though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t” (2.2.223-224). A truly mad person does not have a method to his madness, as it has come as a result of a force other than his will.
Though Hamlet has control over his insanity when he first displays it, as the play progresses, Hamlet loses that power over it. He puts a constantly decreasing quantity of thought into his actions, thoughts, and words. Alongside his loss of control over his “antic disposition,” Hamlet becomes more and more distraught over his fear of killing Claudius. In one of his soliloquies, Hamlet explains, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (3.1.91-93). Indeed, Hamlet’s conscience holds him back from taking revenge, but his obsession with killing Claudius only pulls Hamlet away from the direction of his conscience. His fixation with getting revenge for his father’s death only serves to fuel his madness and give it a foothold in controlling Hamlet.
As his madness controls more and more of his life, Hamlet treats those whom he should treat with dignity and respect as if they were trash. When Hamlet talks to Ophelia in Act 3, he fails to treat her the way any woman, or any person for that matter, deserves to be treated. He threatens Ophelia that if she marries, he will “give [her] this plague for [her] dowry: be [she] as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, [she] shalt not escape calumny” (3.1.146-148). In other words, Hamlet vows to slander Ophelia. If Hamlet still possessed control over his madness at this point, he would not go around speaking such harsh words to a woman he loved. On the other hand, one could explain Hamlet’s actions by arguing that he never truly loved Ophelia. If that were the case, though, it would make no sense for Hamlet to fight with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, over who loved her more and then say, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum” (5.1.285-287). Hamlet does love Ophelia, but his failure to exercise self-control, to keep his anger to a minimum and to respond in an appropriate manner to his father’s murder leads him to act in such an ill-mannered way toward Ophelia.
Hamlet treats his mother in a similar manner to the way he treats Ophelia – with disrespect and dishonor. His mother, Queen Gertrude, recognizes his insolence and questions, “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue In noise so rude against me?” (3.4.47-48). Since Hamlet does not treat his own mother with respect, it comes as no surprise that he treats his girlfriend poorly.
During his discussion with his mother, Hamlet hears a person behind the arras and kills him on impulse, without a second thought. Such an action reveals a considerable change in Hamlet from the beginning of the play to the end. In the beginning of the play, Hamlet carefully avoids carrying forth actions until he knows their consequences. On the other hand, by the end, he rashly fails to consider the outcome of an action before responding.
Whether using the “antic disposition” for avoiding blame, or for simply finding out the truth about events revolving around King Hamlet’s death, Prince Hamlet’s madness fails its purpose. Rather than simply getting rid of Claudius, Hamlet’s antic disposition has, in essence, a domino effect on the plot. Hamlet has his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed because they become a nuisance to him. Shortly before their deaths, Hamlet murders Polonius, which upsets Ophelia even more. Ophelia falls in a brook and gives up and dies. Hamlet’s slaughter of Polonius also upsets Laertes, who plots with Claudius against Hamlet. Laertes’ plot gets Hamlet, Laertes, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius killed. If Hamlet had never put on the “antic disposition,” he may not have gotten revenge, but the play would not have ended in tragedy – Hamlet, himself, as well as those he loved, would not have died.
Hamlet’s situation with his madness has reversed completely. That which Hamlet created and controlled from the start now possesses power over him. This, though, does not excuse Hamlet’s actions. Though Hamlet’s “antic disposition” and his rage may have eased the carrying forth of his actions, both are creations of Hamlet – both are things over which he initially has control, but which he gradually allows to take control over him.