If we are to take his own statement of the case at face value, Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is a disguise for real feelings and intentions, a mere act, something to be assumed and cast off at will, or so he tells Horatio and Marcellus:
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on….(I, v, 170)
Every audience is bound to be taken aback by this, in the light of all that Hamlet has stood for up to now. He has made a point of asserting his truth, his anxiety to be what he looks like, to embody the perfect equation of appearance and reality: ‘Seems, madam! Nay it is; I know not seems’ (I, ii, 76). Now, only a few scenes later, he is preparing to employ the same ‘ambiguous giving out’ as he has so lucidly deplored in his mother and uncle.
There are various ways of looking at his assumption of the ‘antic disposition’. One may regard it as a useful weapon in the coming struggle with Claudius and his associates; this, apparently, is why Hamlet assumes it in the first place. It may also be explained as a legacy from the sources used by Shakespeare: in these sources (e.g. Thomas Kyd) the central figure feigned madness in order to allay the suspicions of his enemies while he plotted and executed his revenge. Again, we may regard the assumption of a mask as evidence that Hamlet has begun to succumb to the general contamination which the fateful crime of Claudius has spread like a poison through the realm (‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’). This interpretation is in tune with the idea, found in all the tragedies, that overwhelming evil, engulfing most of the participants, issues from the initial breach in nature (in this case a brother’s murder).
Once Hamlet has begun to make use of his ‘antic disposition’, we find a pronounced disintegration in his character. It is possible to speak after this of three Hamlets, or at least of three selves in the one Hamlet, one quite normal, the other two abnormal. The ‘normal’ Hamlet is found in conversation with Horatio, with the gravediggers or with the players, and in the soliloquies. Hamlet’s two ‘abnormal’ personalities are fairly easily distinguishable. The first one is, in keeping with his declaration to Horatio and Marcellus, put on and taken off as the occasion requires. Polonius is the most obvious victim. Most of his conversations with Polonius are attempts to make the old man as ridiculous as possible; he uses apparently nonsensical statements to fool and embarrass Polonius and to comment on his dubious behaviour. When he calls him a fishmonger (11, ii, 174) he is using a slang term for a pander (pimp), and thus describing the reprehensible use being made of Ophelia. We find the same kind of thing later when Hamlet pretends not to recognise Polonius, but pointedly refers to a daughter, that of ‘old Jephtah’ (11, ii, 406), the name he calls Polonius. This clowning reference embodies one of the grimmer ironies of the play. Jephtah was a Hebrew judge who rashly sacrificed his only daughter. Polonius will, in his own words, ‘loose his daughter’ to Hamlet, and she, too, will be sacrificed, the victim of the machinations of guilty men. Hamlet also makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bear the weight of his ’antic disposition’ after the Play Scene, to the extent that Guildenstern has to call him to order: ‘Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame, and start not so wildly from my affair’ (111, iii, 297).
The other ‘abnormal’ Hamlet is a much more disturbed, disturbing and menacing figure. The explosive irrational side of his nature is exposed and provoked by contrast with those with whom he is involved emotionally. Here there is no question of an antic disposition easily assumed and as easily discarded. The passion is genuine, the behaviour unselfconscious and beyond control. When he is engaged with Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia or Laertes, for example, or reflects on their dealings with him, he is frequently moved to passionate, raging outbursts of feeling, as in the scene with Ophelia (the ‘Nunnery Scene’- 111, i), and in the fight with Laertes over Ophelia’s grave, which draws the comment, ‘O, he is mad, Laertes’ (V, i, 269) from the King. It is Gertrude who most powerfully affects his emotional stability from the start of the play. What he sees as her criminal marriage to Claudius is the obsession that destroys his balance and which is liable to turn him into a slave of passion, whatever the prompting of his rational self may suggest; another is his rage against Gertrude in the Closet Scene (111, iv.). This is not, as he points out to her, the result of madness (‘My pulse as yours doth temperately beat time’), but of righteous anger at what he sees as her degenerate behaviour with Claudius, and her infidelity to the memory of his father.
It must be said that there are times when Hamlet himself realises how readily he can slide into an unpremeditated and unpredictable rage. On his way to his mother’s closet he asks himself for self-control (‘O heart, lose not thy nature’). His comment to Horatio explaining his behaviour towards Laertes tells a good deal about his mercurial temperament: ‘But sure the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a towering passion’ (V, ii, 79). One of his acts (the killing of Polonius) during a spell of abnormal passion is destined to have fatal consequences for him. It leaves him open to the same treatment at Laertes’ hands as he is in honour required to mete out to Claudius. He recognises the logic of this position when he says of Laertes that, ‘by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his’ (V, ii 77).
If Hamlet’s basic purpose in assuming his ‘antic disposition’ is to divert suspicion while he plots his uncle’s downfall, it must be said that it is not particularly successful stratagem. Indeed, his pranks and clowning make Claudius extremely suspicious. Even before such things become obvious, the King asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet in order, as he puts it, to, ‘glean whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus’ (11, ii, 17). Until the climax, much of the King’s attention is focused on attempts to fathom the meaning of the ‘antic disposition’. Polonius proposed Ophelia as a reason, but after the ‘Nunnery Scene’, Claudius is satisfied that Hamlet’s condition does not originate with her. Indeed, he wonders whether what he has witnessed has been a display of madness at all: ‘Love / His affections do not that way tend / Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little / Was not like madness’ (111, i, 165). Another odd feature of Hamlet’s assumption of his ‘antic disposition’ is that having decided to use it as a stratagem, he does not seem particularly concerned whether Claudius sees through it or not. He knows well that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to spy on him, and that they will accurately report his remarks and responses to Claudius, yet he assures them he is ‘but mad north-north-west’ (11, ii 375), meaning that he is quite sane except on one point. He also assures Gertrude, whom he can scarcely trust to keep his disclosure from Claudius, that ‘I essentially am not in madness / But mad in craft’ (111, iv, 187).
Madness is frequently ascribed to Hamlet in the course of the play, from the offer of Polonius to reveal the cause of his ‘lunacy’ to Claudius, to the latter’s various expressions of determination to deal with it: ‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go’ (III, i, 189); ‘Not stands it safe with us / To let his madness range’ (III, iii, 1). We find the dangers of madness stressed by Horatio in his warnings to Hamlet against the Ghost, ‘Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness’ (I, iv, 73) and by Hamlet himself, rather implausibly, when he excuses himself to Laertes by declaring that ‘His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy’ (V, ii, 231). A man who can discuss his own ‘madness’ as objectively as Hamlet can here is not a lunatic, nor is the man who can tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that his ‘wit’s diseased’ (III, ii, 310).
Harry Levin proposes a useful formula when he suggests that Hamlet is ‘thoughtsick rather than brainsick – neurotic rather than psychotic, to state the matter in more clinical terms’ (The Question of Hamlet, p. 113). Levin’s distinction is useful. In the neurotic, his emotional or intellectual disorders do not deprive him of contact with reality; the psychotic, on the other hand, is divorced from objective reality. The psychotic lives in a world of fantasy; the neurotic still lives in the real world. Most neurotics suffer from some deep-rooted obsession. Levin takes Hamlet’s confession that he is ‘mad north-north-west’ to mean that his ‘madness’ is liable to come upon him only in response to a particular issue. He can speak as normally as the next man on almost any theme but one; he is so obsessed with his mother’s remarriage and his hatred of her new husband that he cannot think or speak rationally on these subjects. This explains much of his odd behaviour towards Ophelia. Gertrude’s conduct has given him an extreme sense of female frailty: when he denounces this in the Nunnery Scene he has before him not his real and appropriate target, Gertrude, but an innocent victim, Ophelia, to whose ears his torrent of abuse sounds quite mad. There is irony in the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship here. The soliloquy he has spoken a few moments before (‘To be or not to be’) shows his rational powers at their highest. Ophelia’s comment on his behaviour (‘O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown – 111, i, 50) will soon prove appropriate to her own condition, not to his, since it is she who will lose her reason after her father’s death at Hamlet’s hands.
An interesting and plausible explanation of the ‘antic disposition’ is that it is a safety-valve for Hamlet’s melancholy, hysteria and seething, pent-up emotions. One editor has pointed out that just before he assumes his feigned madness he is ’in a state of extreme emotional instability, and with an intellect tottering on its seat’. The great critic A. C. Bradley suggested that the ‘antic disposition’ is the means Hamlet employs ‘to give some utterance to the load that presses on his heart and brain’. His mother’s sudden remarriage has plunged him into a profound melancholy, which causes him to see life and the world as absurd and disgusting, possessed only by things ‘rank and gross in nature’ (1, ii, 136). Then come the startling revelations of the Ghost and the command to revenge. He must in some way communicate his sense of shocked horror and disillusionment. Feigning madness gives him a freedom and scope in this direction which would otherwise be denied to him.
No account of Hamlet’s behaviour can be compete without some reference to a central Elizabethan and Jacobean term: melancholy. Shakespeare was familiar with some of the contemporary literature on this subject, and there is evidence that he made use of this in Hamlet. Claudius makes explicit reference to the condition: ‘There’s something in his soul/O’er which his melancholy sits on brood’ (111, i, 167). One of the obvious symptoms of the melancholy man was his mercurial temperament, ‘some times furious and sometimes merry’. Hamlet certainly embodies these extremes; his astonishing and sudden changes of mood are a marked feature of his character. Gertrude accurately defines this feature: ‘And thus awhile the fit will work on him/Anon as patient as the female dove’ (V, i, 283). She speaks from first-hand experience of her son’s unstable nature, which finds its most extended outlet in his tremendous performance in the ‘Closet Scene’. Contemporary audiences would not have been surprised at such behaviour; they would have known from many sources, learned and popular, that ‘melancholy is the nurse of frenzy’.
Essay Preparation: The Case For and Against
You might use the following points for an essay on ‘Hamlet’s madness’ or ‘antic-disposition’. Back up your arguments with suitable quotation from the text.
Yes, he was mad:
- Hamlet appears to act mad when he hears of his father’s murder. At the time he speaks ‘wild and whirling words’. Later on in Act V, Horatio had warned him about losing ‘his sovereignty of reason’.
- Hamlet’s behaviour throughout towards Ophelia is very erratic. He professes to be the only one who truly loves her in Act V, Scene I, during the fight with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave, but in the Nunnery scene he had told her that he never loved her, when she returns his letters and gifts (signs of when he did).
- His mood changes abruptly throughout the play e.g. Act I Scene ii and Act II Scene ii.
- He plays hide and seek with the corpse of a courtier he murdered.
- He jumps aboard a pirate ship without anyone to back him up.
- He jumps into Ophelia’s grave, and fights with Laertes.
- He has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, even though they were not part of his revenge-against-his-father’s-murder plan.
- He alone sees his father’s ghost in his mother’s chamber. Every other time the ghost appeared someone else has seen it. During this scene he finally shows his madness, because his mother does not see the ghost (Act III scene iv – line 105).
- He has violent outbursts towards his mother.
- Hamlet tells Laertes that he killed Polonius in a ‘fit of madness’. (Act V Scene ii – lines 236 – 250).
- He kills Polonius and immediately turns to addressing his mother’s sex life.
No, he was sane:
- Hamlet tells Horatio that he is going to feign madness, and that if Horatio notices any strange behaviour from Hamlet, it is because he is putting on ‘an antic disposition’. (Act I Scene v – lines 166 – 180).
- Hamlet’s madness only manifests itself when he is in the presence of certain characters. When Hamlet is around Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he behaves irrationally. When Hamlet is around Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, The Players and the Gravediggers, he behaves rationally.
- Claudius confesses that Hamlet’s ‘actions although strange, do not appear to stem from madness’ (Act III Scene I – lines 165-167), and there are other quotes about his ‘transformation’.
- Polonius admits that Hamlet’s actions and words have a ‘method’ to them; there appears to be a reason behind them, ‘pregnant’, they are logical in nature (Act II, Scene ii, lines 206-207).
- Hamlet’s madness in no way reflects Ophelia’s true madness, he doesn’t become a singer!
- He informs the spies that he is ‘mad, north-northwest’ – a controlled insanity! He tells his mother that he is not mad, ‘but mad in craft’ (Act III, Scene iv, lines 188-199).
- Hamlet believes in his sanity at all times. He never doubts his control over his psyche. He speaks maturely of a ‘divinity that shapes our ends’ in Act V, shows physical composure at the fencing bout, and has enough self-possession when dying to name a successor.
I think it is safe to say that Hamlet is aware of what he is doing most of the time, though in some situations it could be argued that he acts irrationally.
At the start of the play, when Hamlet has met the ghost of his father, he plots to prove Claudius is the old king's murderer. (In fact, Old Hamlet has charged Hamlet with the task of avenging his death.) With this is mind,...
I think it is safe to say that Hamlet is aware of what he is doing most of the time, though in some situations it could be argued that he acts irrationally.
At the start of the play, when Hamlet has met the ghost of his father, he plots to prove Claudius is the old king's murderer. (In fact, Old Hamlet has charged Hamlet with the task of avenging his death.) With this is mind, Hamlet says he will pretend madness, expecting that people will let their guard down if they believe Hamlet is insane. He insists that he acts crazy only to discover the truth of his father's murder, but really knows what is going on.
I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. (II, ii, 272)
Hamlet acts crazy with everyone, even poor Ophelia. He is extremely unsure who he can trust, so he puts on "an antic disposition" in order to throw everyone off. He cannot trust Ophelia as she is a dutiful daughter, and Polonius is beyond loyal to the new king, Claudius. Ophelia has no part in the scheming. She is an innocent caught up in the deceit and evil that permeates the castle. Hamlet's pretended insanity, and then her father's death, ultimately drive Ophelia insane.
It could be argued, however, that when Hamlet finds someone behind the arras (curtain) in his mother's room, thinking it is his step-father, he lunges forward and stabs the man there, though it is, in truth, Polonius, Ophelia's father.
His "impetuous" act, as his mother calls it, could be seen as a blind, passionate action that would probably be classified today as manslaughter. It is not premeditated in that moment (though Hamlet is trying to avenge his father's death at some point).
Hamlet seizes this moment, believing that Claudius has been having "incestuous" sex with Gertrude, and will die with sins upon his soul if he dies right then. Hamlet acts rashly, and commits murder.
Bottom line: I believe Hamlet knows what he is doing, though it would be easily argued that he loses control temporarily, mistakenly killing Polonius.