That is Hamlet’s famous question, and my question to you, dear reader, is whether you think Hamlet has lost his mind since the death of his father.
Okay, I’ll backtrack. Most of us know Shakespeare, and most of us know that he wrote Hamlet, but not everyone will have had the privilege of reading Hamlet in high school.
So, what is Hamlet about? To put it vaguely, because Hamlet is long, the play follows a man after the murder of his father while he contemplates revenge. The start of the play introduces the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who is also called Hamlet, who wishes for Hamlet to avenge him by killing Claudius, who poisoned Hamlet’s father to become the king. To add insult to injury, Claudius then marries Hamlet’s mother after murdering her previous husband. Also, Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, the brother of Hamlet senior.
My plan is this: walk through the play, and use Hamlet’s own words and interactions with the other characters to show that maybe Hamlet has had a significant mental break due to the death of his father.
Right off the bat in Act I Scene 2, we see Hamlet discuss how depressed he is over his father’s death. At this point, Hamlet just thinks his father was bitten by a snake, and he is still completely grief-stricken. Hamlet then says that he is upset that God made suicide a sin because he wishes he could simply be dead. The one and only time I will ever agree with Claudius is when he tells Hamlet that sons lose their fathers- that is the nature of things. Hamlet (obviously) has every right to be upset. Still, I think him jumping to wanting to kill himself after his father dies shows that Hamlet is not in the best state of mind, to begin with. Be it that he has a sensitive psyche or he already had suffered from some sort of mental illness, I think this is the main reason why he is so affected by learning that his father was murdered.
When Hamlet sees his father’s ghost for the first time, and the ghost beckons him to follow, his friend Horatio does not seem to believe that Hamlet should follow. When Hamlet is held back, he draws his sword on his friend. This is one of the first moments we see Hamlet make a rash and honestly quite an insane move- why does he pull a sword on a friend who is just trying to help him. Hamlet even said it himself, that the ghost could actually be a demon or the devil, playing tricks on him. It is not a far jump to imagine that Horatio could also feel the same way and that the ghost could be dangerous.
In act one, Hamlet’s mental state is rocky, but it seems to rapidly deteriorate in act two.
In Act II Scene one, Ophelia speaks with her father about Hamlet and stating all of the strange things he has been doing. She said that Hamlet went into her room practically naked save for his undergarments (Scandalous!), looking as though he had just been through hell. She said he then jerked his head up and down three times, heaved what sounded like a dying breath, and left the room with his head still turned toward her.
Hamlet’s behavior toward Ophelia when they are alone, I think, is the most significant indicator of his sanity. Some argue that Hamlet is acting this way to make it seem like he is insane while planning all of it. I say that the ways he has acted around people who are not directly involved with his uncle show his actual mentality.
I also argue that what would be the point of drawing all this attention to himself if he was contemplating killing his uncle? Would it not be better to just act sane and act as if nothing were wrong and quietly enact revenge? Would the best revenge not be served by robbing Claudius of his life and throne, as he did to Hamlet senior?
In act III, scene two, Hamlet speaks with Ophelia, and Hamlet says that his mother seems awfully cheerful when his father died just two hours ago. Ophelia says that his father has been dead for four months, and Hamlet seems shocked at that information. He is confused as to why he was still wearing his mourning clothes, as if he had not been aware of how much time has passed between his father’s death and the current time.
Later in act III, in scene four, Hamlet speaks to his mother, hears Polonius behind a tapestry, and kills him. A sane person, when faced with accidentally murdering an innocent person, would feel bad. Still, Hamlet instead just gets mad that Polonius was eavesdropping. Why does Hamlet feel no remorse for killing Polonius here? I think this further proves that Hamlet has lost his sanity because he should feel sadness and regret over killing Polonius, his girlfriend’s father. But he does not, and he even goes so far as to start berating his mother.
Later in this same scene, the ghost appears to Hamlet, and his mother cannot see the ghost, which I think is a signifier of just how lost Hamlet has become. First, we see that Hamlet coolly kills an innocent man and then sees a ghost that no one else can see. This hallucination is just another break-in Hamlet’s psyche, and one I posit that he never comes back from.
After that, Hamlet becomes all consumed with his revenge, and he goes as far as to say – entirely to himself, mind you – that if his thoughts are not about revenge, they are worthless.
In act V, scene one, Laertes and Hamlet fight in what would soon be the grave for Ophelia, both men, I think, completely stricken and mad with grief. Later, when apologizing for fighting, Hamlet starts going on about insanity and speaking of himself in the third person, which I think shows he has some sense of himself back, but not nearly enough to matter in the end.
At the end of the play, all of the main characters have died, and Hamlet is the one who killed Claudius by making him drink the poison he made for Gertrude.
The ending was a culmination of events, most of which were brought forth by Hamlet’s lack of judgment and lack of sanity. If he had not been so careless as to kill Polonius and feel no remorse, Hamlet himself would not be dead. All of the evidence provided from the play suggests that Hamlet’s own lack of sanity caused by his father’s death brought on his own demise.
From looking at the play from this perspective, I hope to have shown that there is a possibility that Hamlet was not faking his insanity but was really indeed suffering after his father’s death.
Muir, Alistair. “David Tennent As Hamlet” Theater Mania, 29 May 2000 https://www.theatermania.com/london-theater/news/rscs-hamlet-with-patrick-stewart-and-david-tennant_19364.html
Hamlet (2009) Bradfilm, 14 June 2011, http://bardfilm.blogspot.com/2011/06/fishmonger-scene-in-tennant-stewart.html
Hamlet (2009) David Tennent, 9 July 2020 http://www.david-tennant.co.uk/2020/07/david-tennant-pays-tribute-to-sir.html