Madness and the Human Consciousness in Hamlet

William Shakespeare wrote the namesake character of his play Hamlet in a manner that subverts expectations via various grammatical, dictional, and narrative ploys, thus creating a chaotic, disorienting sense of madness that both, at differing times, obscures and conveys Hamlet’s true intentions and emotions, one which Shakespeare then uses to show that madness is not a lessening of human consciousness, but a new perspective of it.

The times at which Hamlet uses iambic pentameter are deliberately selected by Shakespeare to indicate Hamlet’s mental state and true feelings towards his listeners, thus revealing that the odd behavior and rupture of established norms associated with madness may, on close examination, reveal greater human expression than otherwise possible. In the first act, prior to meeting the Ghost, Hamlet speaks in regular iambic pentameter – for example, justifying his actions to the king and queen by saying, in perfect iambic pentameter, “For they are actions that a man might play” (1.2.87). However, after he meets the ghost, his speech patterns are fractured, speaking almost entirely in prose, primarily in short, unembellished remarks such as “Denmark’s a prison” (2.2.267), interspersed by manic, lengthy rants. The fracturing of his speech patterns is indicative of a simultaneous fracturing of his mental state, beginning when the Ghost overloads Hamlet with emotions and motivation. This of course, implies that the Ghost did something to drive him to insanity. Starting with the initial event, as he loses his ability to speak and act as everyone else does, descending into dictional oddities, he loses his sanity, descending into madness. However, there are exceptions to this rule – two listeners, Horatio and Gertrude, hear from Hamlet in iambic pentameter, even after he meets the Ghost. All others, Hamlet speaks to in prose – there is a striking, immediate change between Hamlet describing to Horatio in iambic pentameter how, in the play, “One scene of it comes near the circumstance” (3.2.81) of Claudius killing King Hamlet, and mere moments later, when Claudius enters, and Hamlet declares in prose he feels “Excellent, i’ faith, of the chameleon’s dish” (3.3.99). Hamlet speaks to Horatio in iambic pentameter, and to the king in prose, clearly implying a difference in how he regards the two. Iambic pentameter may be interpreted as a show of respect – Hamlet treats Horatio with respect, but speaks to Claudius just as he does to a gravedigger. In the events prior to meeting the Ghost, a similar disparity in his feelings towards them is implied. As a result, it is clear that he retained his original feelings into his madness.

Hamlet’s witty dialogue is a self-defensive measure to distance himself from his feelings, and hide them from others, thus expressing the idea that a new perspective, especially of the self, leads to discoveries that many would rather go unseen. A classic example of such witty dialogue may be seen in the brief exchange moments before the performance, when Hamlet rhetorically asks Ophelia, “What should a man do, but be merry?” (3.2.132-33), declaring that his mother looks happy when his “father died within ‘s two hours” (3.2.134-35). Hamlet is clearly using scathing irony and wit, his words absolutely dripping with sarcasm. He turns genuine woes of his into jokes and japes, and satirizes his own feelings to distance himself from them, likely because of the emotional pain they cause him. And furthermore, when others seek to discover them, he uses the same wit to hide the feelings from others, most notably when Polonius makes the initial attempt to interrogate him and discover his feelings, whereupon Hamlet gives the classic vague reply of “Words, words, words” (2.2.210). His vague, witty, uncooperative replies are indicative of vested interest in concealing his feelings, his intentions, and his perspective. His new perspective is the cause of his madness, at least indirectly, clearly indicated by the fact that the Ghost gave it to him. With it came so large a burden, so much emotion, so much motivation, that it drove him to insanity. And yet, his madness is the driving force of his progress towards vengeance, and so, at this point, he feels his perspective must be protected above all else. The madness also causes him great emotional pain, which engineers a need for jokes and wit, to distance himself and all others from his feelings, and his perspective. Of course, this puts additional weight and necessity on the times when Hamlet speaks and feels freely – that is, when he becomes human, once again.

Through his soliloquies, Hamlet provides a view into exactly the way he thinks, including the biases of madness, expressing the idea that madness is entirely rational when examined through a lens other than that of “normality.” For example, in his first soliloquy after meeting the ghost, Hamlet becomes angered when realizing that he has borne little intensity in avenging his father, and so commits to putting on a play to arouse Claudius’s guilt, with the idea that “If he do blench, I’ll know my course” (2.2.625-26). This seems a silly, roundabout manner of going about a course intended to carry increased intensity – highly illogical and irrational. However, this begins to make sense when one realizes that Hamlet’s madness is brought about by a conflict between his patient, calculating original self, and his newfound impatient determination to avenge his father. This seemingly silly course finds new meaning as a compromise between the two conflicting sides – a calculating, observant manner of making progress through establishing guilt. This internal conflict between thinking and acting reaches a climax expressed in his final soliloquy when, after lamenting that, despite the passage of so much time, and a supposed increase in determination, he’s made little progress towards his goal, he commits to the determined, impatient side of the conflict, declaring that from then on, his thoughts shall “be bloody, or be nothing worth” (4.4.69). Here, the madness reaches the end of its arc – Hamlet fully commits to the new impatient, determined side of himself, and this brings the madness to rest. And because the madness is at rest, he has no further need for the moments of peace and clarity that his soliloquies bring, making this the final one.

Hamlet, upon meeting the Ghost, received a new perspective, one which both terrified and inspired him. It engendered a new side of himself, and the old and new clashed, driving him mad. They both sought to act on his own interests and feelings, in the manner they each thought best. Eventually, one side won, and the madness passed, and Hamlet’s internal conflict was no more. This, of course, explains why there is no joy in Hamlet’s victory over the king – he’d already won the battle.

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