Of Mad Hatters and Angry Hens Mark Zieg Dec 2, 1991 Shakespeare Survey Dr. Rutledge
One of the ambiguities that makes “Hamlet” such fascinating play is the issue of insanity, or more properly, madness. That small distinction, one frequently relegated to discussions of semantics, is what gives the play both its heart and, at times, its fearful alienation. Is, as the oscillating script sometimes suggests, Hamlet indeed mentally imbalanced? Alternately, is it possible to maintain such an elaborate charade in outward appearances without assuming an atypical but necessarily tumultuous internal state? And as is commonly asked of this and other Shakespearean plays, where does the threshold lie between acceptable individuality and antisocial psychosis?
Insanity, interestingly enough, is not a term officially recognized by professional mental health specialists. Instead, it is a legalistic phrase describing a provable lack of cognitive control, whose applicable context is primarily limited to courtrooms and their immediate environs. Madness, on the other hand, is a word evocative of the buried or unthinkable aspects of human nature; to most people, it connotes monstrosity, an unreasoning wildness, and a disposition which is not in general conducive to properly social behavior. That Hamlet displays some degree of control over his actions is fairly obvious, as in scenes like (III, iii) where he shows commendable restraint and cunning in his vengeful ploys. But is such cunning as he displays that of a manful intelligence, one fully possessed of Aristotelian reasoning, or that of a lowly beast, instinctive, and outwardly clever only when it serves to further his own devilish cause?
That would seem to be the pivotal question, pinpointing where, if ever, Hamlet exited the accepted theatre of deontological action to slip into the vulgar and darkly lit backstage realm of teleological ethic. What clues does Shakespeare leave us in the dialogue of the play? That Hamlet cascades through a delirious succession of masks before the other characters is clear, and could be taken as vindication of any opinion about his mental stability; as such, his social interactions render themselves useless as gauges of his true mindset. However, it is equally evident that Hamlet undulates similarly in his many asides and private monologues (I, ii, 129-159). Thus on the surface it may seem that Hamlet was simply intended to characterize the perennial paradox, the Prince of willow-reeds swaying in the wind. But a deeper inspection will surely confirm that never did Hamlet intend anything so simply, and nor was he himself designed!
Over the course of the play, a pattern emerges into the light even as its progenitor sinks further into his own scheming. Spurred into first thought by the sight of his father’s ghastly visage atop the castle walls, then quickened into firmest resolve by the ghost’s second admonition in his mother’s bedchamber, Hamlet moves steadily towards a course of action that breaks nearly every commonly held canon or belief. Within that plotting he becomes singularly consistent; but that motive force is itself such a wavering from the human norm that one is impelled to doubt his humanity, and as Hamlet himself acknowledges that possession of reason is a defining characteristic of humanity (IV, iv, 32-39), the question of his madness is resumed. He plans regicide; fratricide; despite his stated qualms regarding Nero, by his own argument he plots matricide (III, ii, 412; IV, ii, 53).
By now the danger of such ambivalent euphemisms as “madness” becomes clear. The line which once distinguished between purposeful and uncontrolled action, yet hinged on the assumption that everyone naturally desired the same basic outcomes, must be redrawn to account for differing expectations of moral behavior. Hamlet, by this new categorization, can be seen as an eminently reasonable fellow who logically purports the murder of his stepfather. As is often the case when traveling the roads of human interaction, a path appearing quite bent from traditional perspectives becomes perfectly straight once one steps foot upon it. That is the parallax Hamlet experiences when deciding on his final plan of action, the inevitable disorientation felt when differing world-views meet and each party walks away with distorted memories and perceptions of the other.
Seriously, can madness be so easily reduce to a simple difference of opinion? Maybe not, for madness by most any definition seeks to quantify the indescribable; attempts to label and in some way frame that sphere of action and thought which is beyond our native comprehension; and is by nature immune to rational analysis. But it is easily foreseeable that some differences of opinion might be overblown and compounded by a reactionary tendency to classify the misunderstood as incomprehensible; i.e., mad. This is a quality Shakespeare delves into fairly often and from a number of angles, from the King on the raging moor to the Moor who raged at the King, and all those regal ragabonds who moor’d in between. There is, in many of Shakespeare’s works, a notion of façade, of images disparate from reality, which takes berth and birth in a fit of “madness” seen in the protagonist. Were such seizures of a merely medical or circumstantial nature, of they would be of little interest to a human audience; for who goes to see plays about cancerous spleens or meteors that strike randomly and without discernible cause? Rather, the Shakespearean madness speaks more of a differing insight into the nature of reality, a hint of what rapt and horrifying faces might lie hidden beneath the tarp of social convention. It is into this latter category of enlightened madness that Hamlet falls, whose madness is not that of afflicted vision of one whose eyelids have been torn away into bleeding, unblinking awareness.
As a final note, it is an interesting coincidence that Ophelia, in the Greek literally wfelia (“to be of service”), dies in the play. If the same text which mentioned Niobe and Hyperion, Pyrrhus and Æneas, Hecate and Mt. Pelion, can withstand its Geek allusions being stretched even to the naming of its characters, then a most wonderful allegory falls thus forth. Hamlet, rightful heir to the throne of Denmark, drives the pristine figure of Public Service incarnate down into sickness and death, all in the name of his personal ambition and vengeance. He who should, by right of his blood and heritage, and according to common law and reasoning, place the general welfare ever above his own desires, instead follows his own inner sight and call. This is one more instance of his madness, which does not so much change his perception of responsibility, as consist of a change in his perception. By seeing his first duty as lying elsewhere than to his dependent people, for example to the specter of his dead father, his view of the world and reality shifts sufficiently far from that of the population to be classified as “mad.”
“Hamlet” is, undeniably, a deeply convoluted play, with as many thrusts and ripostes in meaning as in swordplay. However, there are important themes present, left lying amiss amidst the blood, as it were, for readers to come by and pick up as they will; this is Horatio’s legacy, one might suppose. Of these, one particular exchange of lunge-and-parry was the textual debate between varying definitions of madness. Whether Hamlet was, indeed, in complete possession of his faculties is not really the question; it is much more interesting, instead, to look into how his behavior and beliefs differed from those around him, and ask how such deviations might best be classified. As sickness? Possibly, but unenlightening and more to the point, boring. As perversion? A popular response, but one faulted with its own presumed bias. As simply a radically distinctive perspective, one brought about by situations and pressures rare and unpleasant, but perhaps bringing about an alternate and instructive view of reality, one with lessons to give as well as receive? Now that is a question which reaches to the heart of the story. Not necessarily to the facts, the data eternally sought to nail down Truth and force the world into some kind of sense, but to the tale, the legend running back to the tenth century and beyond, which has so caught the hearts and imaginations of generations. Yes, therein lies the story.