Hamlet Madness
"I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk
from a handsaw" (II.ii.376-7). This is a classic example of the "wild
and whirling words" (I.v.134) with which Hamlet hopes to persuade people to
believe that he is mad. These words, however, prove that beneath his "antic
disposition," Hamlet is very sane indeed. Beneath his strange choice of
imagery involving points of the compass, the weather, and hunting birds, he is
announcing that he is calculatedly choosing the times when to appear mad. Hamlet
is saying that he knows a hunting hawk from a hunted "handsaw" or
heron, in other words, that, very far form being mad, he is perfectly capable of
recognizing his enemies. Hamlet\'s madness was faked for a purpose. He warned his
friends he intended to fake madness, but Gertrude as well as Claudius saw
through it, and even the slightly dull-witted Polonius was suspicious. His
public face is one of insanity but, in his private moments of soliloquy, through
his confidences to Horatio, and in his careful plans of action, we see that his
madness is assumed. After the Ghost\'s first appearance to Hamlet, Hamlet decides
that when he finds it suitable or advantageous to him, he will put on a mask of
madness so to speak. He confides to Horatio that when he finds the occasion
appropriate, he will "put an antic disposition on" (I.v.173). This
strategy gives Hamlet a chance to find proof of Claudius\'s guilt and to
contemplate his revenge tactic. Although he has sworn to avenge his father\'s
murder, he is not sure of the Ghost\'s origins: "The spirit that I have seen
/ May be the devil" (II.ii.596-7). He uses his apparent madness as a
delaying tactic to buy time in which to discover whether the Ghost\'s tale of
murder is true and to decide how to handle the situation. At the same time, he
wants to appear unthreatening and harmless so that people will divulge
information to him, much in the same way that an adult will talk about an
important secret in the presence of a young child. To convince everyone of his
madness, Hamlet spends many hours walking back and forth alone in the lobby,
speaking those "wild and whirling words" which make little sense on
the surface but in fact carry a meaningful subtext. When asked if he recognizes

Polonius, Hamlet promptly replies, "Excellent well; you are a
fishmonger" (II.ii.172). Although the response seems crazy since a
fish-seller would look completely unlike the expensively dressed lord Polonius,

Hamlet is actually criticizing Polonius for his management of Ophelia, since
"fishmonger" is Elizabethan slang for "pimp." He plays
mind-games with Polonius, getting him in crazy talk to agree first that a cloud
looks like a camel, then a weasel and finally a whale, and in a very sane aside,
he then comments that "[t]hey fool me to the top of my bent"
(III.ii.375). Although he appears to have lost touch with reality, he keeps
reminding us that he is not at all "far gone, far gone" (II.ii.187) as

Polonius claims, but is in fact very much in command of himself and the
situation. With his rantings and ravings and his seemingly useless pacing of the
lobby, Hamlet manages to appear quite mad. The naïve and trusting Ophelia
believes in and is devastated by what she sees as his downfall: " O, what a
noble mind is here o\'erthrown! / . . . The expectancy and rose of the fair state
/ . . . quite, quite down!" (III.i.152,4,6). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are also fully convinced. They are Hamlet\'s equals in age but are far inferior
in intellect and therefore don\'t understand that he is faking. However, although

Hamlet manages to convince these simple friends and Ophelia of his insanity,
other characters in the play such as Claudius, Gertrude and even Polonius
eventually see through his behavior. Claudius is constantly on his guard because
of his guilty conscience and he therefore recognizes that Hamlet is faking. The
king is suspicious of Hamlet from the very beginning. He denies Hamlet
permission to return to university so that he can keep an eye on him close by.

When Hamlet starts acting strangely, Claudius gets all the more suspicious and
sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Their instructions are to
discover why Hamlet is pretending to be mad: " And can you, by no drift of
circumstance, / Get from him why he puts on this confusion, [my italics] /

Grating so harshly all his days of quiet / With turbulent and dangerous
lunacy" (III.i.1-4). The reason