Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.
– Polonius, from Hamlet (2.2.201-202)
Where to begin after reading the “The Tragedie of Hamlet: Prince of Denamarke?” Throughout the whole of the play, I must be honest. I was a bit confused and muddled over the ideas and thoughts presented. But the one that haunted me the most was Hamlet’s sanity. Many of his fellows, even the fair Ophelia, dubs him mad. And “yet there is method in ‘t.” Shakespeare’s question, thus, is proposed.
Is Hamlet mad?
Literary scholars have debated this question over the centuries, and it still remains undecided by the vast majority.
I decided to stop staying undecided and wanted to come up with my own opinions regarding Hamlet’s mental health. In fact, I don’t think Hamlet is mad. I doubted for a while, but after examining my sources and stopping to think, I decided that Hamlet was not mad. This may or may not have been Shakespeare’s intent, but (reminder, there are not right or wrong opinions in literature) in my eyes, I see Hamlet as a man who is completely misunderstood by the world around him. He is viewed as mad, insane, and a mental infirm, but really, the ones around him have the problem; Hamlet is perfectly sane, while those around him are distorted, ridiculous thinkers. Hamlet is a deep thinker, philosopher, and a man overcome with the weight of what he must achieve.
In this post, I’m going to highlight two moments from the play, since this is a pretty hefty piece of literature. First off, I’m going to break down Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy as best I can and explain it in favor of my argument: Hamlet is not mad. To follow, I’ll look at a word that is mentioned twice in the play: “custom.” In the way Shakespeare meant it, “custom” means “habitual acts,” suggesting the evil behind routine and ordinariness. This also supports my argument that Hamlet is not mad.
If you haven’t read the play, be wary as this post will contain potential spoilers.
Before I get into this, I want to just say one thing: Hamlet is considered mad only after he sees the ghost of his father. He begins to act strange following his conversation with the ghost of his father. Is the ghost a figure of his imagination? I think not. All that changes is Hamlet’s course of action. His attitude changes because his mission changes. He is strategic in his thinking, he needs to be either pitied, despised, or hated to achieve his goal of revenge. His mental health remains sane.
Furthermore, Aristotle highlighted what every tragic hero needs to be a tragic hero. Hamlet is undoubtedly a tragic hero, but to make him an Aristotelian tragic hero, he needs to have a few essential traits: one of which is a tragic flaw. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is indecisiveness. His moments of perfect sanity versus ridiculously odd insanity reflect his nature of not deciding (to act insane or not?). Just as in the “To Be or Not To Be” monologue he is clearly undecided about whether or not to kill himself (which he decides not to).
Let’s begin then, shall we?
[Claudius and Polonius hide]
To be or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
From Hamlet, (3.1.55-68)
Let’s look at the context first. Before Hamlet enters, Claudius (the evil king who murdered Hamlet’s father) and Polonius (the father of Ophelia who is obsessed over and adored by Hamlet) have just been discussing his new interesting habits and attitude.
Think about Hamlet’s words for a moment. His question is obvious: will he exist? To be, or not to be? The “be” is existence. “To exist, or not to exist?—that is the question.”
He knows what he has to do: murder his uncle and avenge his father. Naturally, he very much wants to do so. The strategy Hamlet takes is one that forces him to change his attitude to appear different than he truly is. His moments of madness are simply covers for his true motives and emotions. This idea frightens him, and he finds himself wondering if it’s better to die than to live. He feels anger at his mother for marrying his uncle, anger at his uncle for killing his father, and he feels as though the whole world has been put on his shoulders.
Now, consider this moment in the play: the to be or not to be monologue. Hamlet is having a difficult time deciding which is better: to exist or not to exist? He is indecisive about killing himself at this moment…. To see whether death is sweeter than life. This also exhibits his tragic flaw beautifully.
If Hamlet isn’t mad, then this speech is simply him feeling the weight of his burdens and questioning if its really worth it at all. Should he just end it all? Ahh, to sleep. “To take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.”
To sleep. To dream.
But then, if he dies, what will he be haunted with? What dreams will come as he sleeps in death? It’s truly a delicious metaphor Shakespeare uses here. It’s almost as if Hamlet is thinking of his father…a ghost.
Will I be as haunted as he is?
Hamlet is not mad. He is simply a deep thinker, a troubled soul, and a man afraid of failure.
I think what we can learn from Hamlet’s moment of supreme despair here is his ability to arise from it. Although he journeys to the depths of depression, fear, and self-doubt, he can be applauded for fulfilling his objective, no matter how flawed his attempt was. Despised, hated, and desperately afraid, he did not let his own feelings intrude upon his duty and his goal.
And this moment—just as with all the others—makes him stronger. Hamlet shows us that it is human to be sad. It is human to cry out in desperation and weep. Despair is a teaching tool; do not despise it.
The greatest hero agonized before His death, and it made him stronger to face it. He begged for another way, cried tears of blood, and he feared the pain. And yet, Christ still rose to face his destiny (just as our little hero Hamlet did).
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Hamlet, it’s that one should never be afraid to show one’s emotion…no matter how insane it looks!
Before we move on to the next bit, here are two marvelous performances of Hamlet’s monologue by two of my favorite actors: Bennyboy Cumbersome (I think we all know who that is 😛 ) and David Tennant. My favorite of the two is the first, but David Tennant is still a great Hamlet. Be sure to check them out and just listen to the words. It’s the full monologue (keep in mind I didn’t copy the whole monologue at the top).
Now, let’s talk about “that monster, custom, who all sense doth eat…”
To start, what does Shakespeare mean by “custom?”
Well, Shakespeare means “routine” and “habitual behavior” as it is put by my Shakespearean footnotes. Just for the record, my copy of Hamlet is Barnes & Noble Shakespeare. Edited by Jeff Dolven.
For credit. Must cite my sources…even if it’s not perfect MLA.
To start, I would like to point out how many times this word “custom” is used in the play. In fact, it is used a mere two times, but both at very important moments. Although the word only appears twice, it is hinted at many times as well.
For now, we’ll just stick with the two parts where it shows up.
The first time we hear “custom” is after Hamlet scolds his mother, Gertrude, for having married his uncle so soon after her husband’s death. The queen has just proclaimed that by Hamlet’s too true accusations, he has “cleft my heart in twain.” Twain is Shakespearean for two. She is repentant, and while she still believes her son to be a madman, she sees the truth in his charges.
Hamlet, after seeing his mother’s contrition, says the following (for words that are sticky, I’ve put in the word suggested by my footnotes in brackets ):
Oh Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.
Oh, throw away the worser part of it
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night—but go not to my uncle’s bed.
Assume [put on] a virtue if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this:
That to the use [practice] of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly [quickly] is put on. Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence, the next more easy.
For use almost can change the stamp [imprint] of nature,
And either house the devil or throw him out
With wondrous potency. Once more, good night,
And when you are desirous to be blessed,
I’ll blessing beg of you.
From Hamlet (3.4.156-172)
Now, I’m going to be honest here. I did have to use “No Fear Shakespeare” to understand this portion about what Hamlet meant about “custom.” But, that’s what learning is all about, right? And believe, me, I’m actually glad I did.
According to No Fear Shakespeare, here’s what Hamlet meant by the lines I bolded:
Habit is a terrible thing, in that it’s easy to get used to doing evil without feeling bad about it. But it’s also a good thing, in that being good can also become a habit.
Click HERE for the rest of that analysis on No Fear Shakespeare.
Hamlet accuses habit of being a terrible thing, because it makes one feel fine about doing terrible things. Now, you may be asking how this supports my argument for Hamlet’s sanity, but just keep reading.
The second instance where “custom” is mentioned in the play is when Hamlet and Horatio are observing the gravedigger singing songs whilst digging a grave. Hamlet is shocked at how joyful the clown seems as he digs the grave. Horatio and Hamlet exclaim:
Enter Hamlet and Horatio
Has this fellow no feeling of his business? ‘A sings in
Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.
From Hamlet (5.1.60-62)
Once again, custom is exhibited, as it was in the earlier scene with Hamlet and his mother, as a vice which makes horrible things feel fine. Habit makes sinful, evil, and odd things feel holy, right, and perfectly normal. And it also makes good things look evil.
Now, let’s look back at Hamlet.
In the play, Hamlet is viewed as a madman by virtually everybody. He acts irate, says disturbing things, feels little sympathies, and comes off as someone who belongs in an asylum. But what if this monster, custom, has really just warped the minds of his companions to see a good, strategic, cunning, and devoted young man as a monster.
This is going to sound like poppycock to millions of people, but I see Hamlet as the voice of reason in this play.
When in the presence of his mother, Hamlet is the only one who can see the ghost. Not because he is seeing a fancy of his imagination, but because he alone has the eyes to see. Custom has not tainted his reality as it has everyone else’s.
To me, Hamlet is one of the most misunderstood protagonists in English Literature. Sigmund Freud said he was a psychopath, others think he was a schizophrenic, and even some go as far as to say Hamlet’s that sexual preferences were confused and this drove him mad.
To all of these arguments I turn my head.
Hamlet is the different one. He’s odd. He’s weird. He’s strange. And yet, he still achieved his goal in the end. He murdered his uncle and his father was avenged. Sometimes being different has its advantages. Hamlet acted mad at certain times to gain an air of disregard from his superiors, and he used his reasoning to finally avenge his father’s murder.
And Hamlet says in reassurance to his mother, “I must be cruel only to be kind.”
In short, “I know I’m acting ridiculous, but my actions are for the good of us all.
Finally, before we close, Hamlet’s sanity is surely affirmed at his reaction over the death of Ophelia. He shows true emotion that he contained at the death of Polonius. He truly loved Ophelia, and her death brought out the true colors he was hiding for so long.
Hamlet was not mad. He was gifted. He was cunning. He was different.
Well, there it is, my friends! Another spotlight post under my belt. This will be archived probably tomorrow since it’s nearly midnight where I am in my little corner of this world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and I’d like to see some discussion here! What do you think? Was Hamlet truly mad, or was he pretending? Did Hamlet really love Ophelia? Did Ophelia drown, or did she commit suicide? These are all interesting questions to which Shakespeare, sadly, left us no answer.
I’ve already finished Agnes Grey, so be expecting a post on that soon as well.
Be sure to drop a like and subscribe!
Until next time,
Emily: Princess of Denmark
P.S. I might try doing a “Hamlette” cosplay – a female version of Hamlet! Stay tuned…
5 thoughts on “Literature Spotlight: Hamlet”
Great job on your post as usual, Emily! I loved your take on Hamlet. It is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays! I would recommend “Much Ado About Nothing” especially the version with David Tennant and Catherine Tate!
Hi Emma! Thanks so much for your comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post; it was so very fun to write! “Much Ado About Nothing” is on my Shakespearean reading list, right after “Coriolanus” and “As You Like It!” Thanks again for your comment! I always love getting them…
This was a great post, Emily! I just watched David Tennant’s version of Hamlet and I have to admit, his Hamlet definitely seemed like he’d lost his marbles. But it was the good kind of crazy, not a psychopathic insanity. I completely agree with everything you said in your post and I want to congratulate you for getting so deep! I loved it!
Dankeschön for your sweet comment, Kate! Definitely: I see Hamlet as a perfect and sane crazy, not psychotic or schizophrenic! Maybe even misunderstood. He definitely has a “method to his madness!”