Hamlet In Detail

In both Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare incorporates a theme of madness with
two characters: one truly mad, and one only acting mad to serve a motive. The
madness of Hamlet is frequently disputed. This paper argues that the
contrapuntal character in each play, namely Ophelia in Hamlet and Edgar in King

Lear, acts as a balancing argument to the other character’s madness or sanity.

King Lear’s more decisive distinction between Lear’s frailty of mind and

Edgar’s contrived madness works to better define the relationship between

Ophelia’s breakdown and Hamlet’s "north-north-west" brand of
insanity. Both plays offer a character on each side of sanity, but in Hamlet the
distinction is not as clear as it is in King Lear. Using the more explicit
relationship in King Lear, one finds a better understanding of the relationship
in Hamlet. While Shakespeare does not directly pit Ophelia’s insanity (or
breakdown) against Hamlet’s madness, there is instead a clear definitiveness
in Ophelia’s condition and a clear uncertainty in Hamlet’s madness.

Obviously, Hamlet’s character offers more evidence, while Ophelia’s
breakdown is quick, but more conclusive in its precision. Shakespeare offers
clear evidence pointing to Hamlet’s sanity beginning with the first scene of
the play. Hamlet begins with guards whose main importance in the play is to give
credibility to the ghost. If Hamlet were to see his father’s ghost in private,
the argument for his madness would greatly improve. Yet, not one, but three men
together witness the ghost before even thinking to notify Hamlet. As Horatio
says, being the only of the guards to play a significant role in the rest of the
play, "Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and
true avouch / Of mine own eyes. (I.i.56-8)" Horatio, who appears frequently
throughout the play, acts as an unquestionably sane alibi to Hamlet again when
framing the King with his reaction to the play. That Hamlet speaks to the ghost
alone detracts somewhat from its credibility, but all the men are witness to the
ghost demanding they speak alone. Horatio offers an insightful warning: What if
it tempts you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff

That beetles o’er his base into the sea, And there assume some other horrible
form Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness?

Think of it. (I.iv.69-74) Horatio’s comment may be where Hamlet gets the idea
to use a plea of insanity to work out his plan. The important fact is that the
ghost does not change form, but rather remains as the King and speaks to Hamlet
rationally. There is also good reason for the ghost not to want the guards to
know what he tells Hamlet, as the play could not proceed as it does if the
guards were to hear what Hamlet did. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father who
tells him, "but howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind.
(I.v.84-5)" Later, when Hamlet sees the ghost again in his mothers room,
her amazement at his madness is quite convincing. Yet one must take into
consideration the careful planning of the ghost’s credibility earlier in the
play. After his first meeting with the ghost, Hamlet greets his friends
cheerfully and acts as if the news is good rather than the devastation it really
is. Horatio: What news, my lord? Hamlet: O, wonderful! Horatio: Good my lord,
tell it. Hamlet: No, you will reveal it. (I.v.118-21) This is the first glimpse
of Hamlet’s ability and inclination to manipulate his behavior to achieve
effect. Clearly Hamlet is not feeling cheerful at this moment, but if he lets
the guards know the severity of the news, they might suspect its nature. Another
instance of Hamlet’s behavior manipulation is his meeting with Ophelia while
his uncle and Polonius are hiding behind a curtain. Hamlet’s affection for

Ophelia has already been established in I.iii., and his complete rejection of
her and what has transpired between them is clearly a hoax. Hamlet somehow
suspects the eavesdroppers, just as he guesses that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz
are sent by the King and Queen to question him and investigate the cause of his
supposed madness in II.ii. Hamlet’s actions in the play after meeting the
ghost lead everyone except Horatio to believe he is crazy, yet that madness is
continuously checked by an ever-present consciousness of action which never lets
him lose control. For example, Hamlet questions his conduct in his soliloquy at
the end of II.ii, but after careful consideration decides to go with his
instinct and prove to himself without