Method in Madness: Hamlet’s Curious Behavior


by Thoithoi O’Cottage

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Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most prominent tragic characters, is one of the most famous characters in the literatures of the whole world. After having written so much about Hamlet and his behavior (madness?), it is still something impossible to stop the flow of critical insights into his character traits, though any new book or article on the same topic is surely approached with some trepidation.

Irrespective of the tragic stuff fate fleshes out his life with, Hamlet, not because he is a student of philosophy, is a pensive and thinking soul. His behavior, his outlook on life and the whole world is the result of the many fundamental spiritual and moral questions that confuse him. Questions of sin, damnation and salvation always hang over his mental landscape obsessed with the concern of after-life, heaven, hell and purgatory.

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!

Doubt about what the ghost of his father said remains resounding in his mind ever since Hamlet met the ghost resulting in the consistent haunting of the unanswered question whether the ghost is ‘a spirit of health, or a goblin damned’ throughout his life. Such unanswered questions keep his life hanging in the air, unlived, time painfully passing through his breast rendering him hopelessly invalid.

He cannot take any problem of life and human relationship as a temporal bubble that will come up, break and vanish into thin air; a knot to be cut with an unthinking sword. Any problem in life, big or small, is a problem, a moth in the eye; and it has a spiritual significance which has to be found out and solved. He wants to put an end to the miseries of life. How? This is his inner concern which disquiets and discomposes his mind. His soliloquies are projection of the currents and undercurrents of thoughts ruffling his restless mind overclouded with unanswered questions. Whether he is alone or with people, he thinks and feels the rush of the turbulent ebb and flow of thought in his unsettled mind. As anybody is pushed by his or her thought, these wild and tumultuous thoughts waft him like flotsam and jetsam. In spite of this, he is clever and intelligent enough to play any person who speaks to him very easily like a pipe, a musical instrument – be it Rosencrantz, Guildenstern or Claudius.

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that’s the end.

Hamlet is too good to be put in the world among erring human beings. He is tired of living. He loves truth, but truth is soiled with sinful undertaking of human beings. In his polluted environment, he cannot think clearly, be who he is, and live purely, the way he feels is ideal. He cannot even manage to sustain communication with his fellow beings. There is nobody he shares ideal with, no language to communicate through. He is lonely in the crowded court. This disposition is what puts him apart from the common run.

He longs for peace, if not in life, in life after death. As peace in life is something he never believes to be attainable he is hungry for the peace that the end of life alone can bring. At the same time he regrets suicide is forbidden. Even if what religion says and other people say about suicide is put aside, he does not have a clear vision of what follows death. In fact, Hamlet considers committing suicide, but his learning and his ignorance contraindicate it brandishing Fear before his eyes:

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 up arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep –
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there is the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled of this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills that we have
Than fly to others we know not of?

If Hamlet had the mind of Polonius he might have rubbed his eyes and ignored the moth. Macbeth or Othello would have managed the same moth in their eyes differently. If he had the mind of Alexander the Great, he would have easily cut King Claudius’ knot.

His father’s death and his mother’s marriage to his uncle may have sparked off Hamlet’s melancholy, and his inaction, slowness in taking revenge psychologically hurts his ego as a man. However, the murder of his beloved father, and the disgrace and psychological bruise made by his mother’s marriage and his slowness in taking revenge are not the real problem with Hamlet at the bottom: there is another aspect of his despondency.

Hamlet is cognizant of the miseries tormenting human existence and is tossed by his own miseries and distrust in life as a result of what is happening in his family. He is obsessed with thinking about a sort of salvation in life. Will he be pleased by taking revenge on his uncle for the murder of his father? Will vengeance restore his lost trust in life to him? No! If it was the case life would not have been something he would give away so easily as he says to Polonius:

You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will
more willingly part withal: except my life, except
my life, except my life…

and as he laid it down so meaninglessly; because, it is not a difficult thing for him to take revenge on his uncle. He is a pure soul to live in a world where there is no murder, no lechery and no retaliation at all; and so long as there are such curses in life, there would be no peace for any Hamlet. Thus Hamlet’s problem, his obsession is not ‘revenge’, but ‘escape from life’ and which does not incur ‘damnation’, i.e. ‘salvation’ after death, if not in life, because life is so cumbersome.

Forced by the social environment he lives in to shed his ideal, Hamlet helplessly slips into a moral and spiritual morass he never ever imagined he would be caught in. With its murder, dishonesty, immorality, greed and other deadly sins, this morass stifles him. However, stubbornly hateful and dismissive of the value system of the morass, he makes ground for keeping his personal integrity, keeping himself to himself helplessly apart from the society by donning a mask of madness (antique disposition as he confides to Horatio) thereby committing suicide socially.

How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’
Or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear.

With this starts Hamlets abnormality. But here it is important to question ‘Who or what is the standard with respect to which the morality or behavior of one is to be judged?’ The question is ‘Who will say Hamlet is mad? Claudius, Coleridge, you or Hamlet? The society, the pack of the majority (which is not necessarily always right though carries the vote as was evidenced by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ) interprets it to be insanity if one avoids the pack. Of course, Hamlet finds the world he is thrown into insane, immoral and unthinking and he does not want to identify himself with it which he is rather impatient to dissociate himself from.

Another question which demands being addressed is ‘Is it madness to feign mad?’ Hamlet pretends to be mad: he speaks wildly, apparently incoherently (though there is method in madness, as Polonius says), and behaves wildly.

Though this be madness, yet there is method
in ‘t …

He becomes a desperado who hurts nobody but himself. The fact is that the milieu is not the ideal one he wants to find himself in; it is rather one disposed to spoil him, decompose him. He cannot keep it in his rein, and he does not want him to be bent by it in its whim: there is clearly no adaptation to occur, by him or by his milieu. Therefore he keeps himself aloof from the milieu he himself is in alive, no matter how it may be interpreted – stubbornness, challenge, insanity or foolhardiness. This is how Hamlet can live at his best, indecisive between himself and an antagonistic force making society.

There are also other factors which contribute to Hamlet’s behaving in such a peculiar way. The only child of his parents, Hamlet, after his father’s death and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle (the suspect in his father’s murder) is all the more lonely when he needs emotional support, especially of his mother. At the same time, distracted by her father, Ophelia, his beloved, seems to turn away from him at the very moment when Hamlet feels his utmost need for her in his life. At a crucial moment when women could have mended his broken heart and consoled his shocked heart and when they could have restored his trust in life to him, they move far away from him, making him feel that women are unreliable. Ultimately this unattended and overcooked, unrequited hunger for love and care by the opposite sex (women) gets itself turned into a sort of hatred associated with angry longing for the unattained (misogyny).

Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–

One cause of melancholy piled upon another, that is what overburdens Hamlet’s emotional life while his moral and spiritual life is bogged down in the mud of doubts and unanswered questions rendering him heavily inactive, which is a big tragedy. What happens to a man with all aspects of his life (spiritual, social and emotional) fitting nowhere? Is he mad or just off the track?

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