To What Extent Is Hamlet’s Madness Feigned?


One of the central issues in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is madness. The focus of my essay revolves around Young Hamlet and the questions posed by this character in respect of his sanity. Firstly, is Hamlet’s madness entirely feigned, as he initially leads us, the audience, to believe? To what extent is Hamlet’s madness an act? Does Hamlet’s feigned madness shield him from actually going mad? Or, an opposing proposition would be, does Hamlet’s feigned madness result in him becoming mad? My essay is an exploration of these key queries. I will conduct almost an enquiry into the sanity of Young Hamlet. Furthermore, I intend to incorporate into my study a psychological perspective.


Primarily, I must put this investigation into historical context. “Hamlet” was written, and first performed, in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, around the 1600’s. We are aware Shakespeare’s writing was influenced immensely by his audience. He knew, as all great writers do, that his play would only be a success if he could capture their attention. This is clearly depicted by the introduction of the play. Set in the gloom on a spooky battlement of a Danish Castle, Shakespeare certainly introduces the play with a bang so to speak, or, more to the point, a ghost! Having attracted the attention of his audience Shakespeare’s following challenge was to retain it. This is where the theme of madness plays its part. The Elizabethans were fascinated by madness.


During the 1600’s the mentally ill were tortured and chained in dungeons. “Mad” persons were publicly beaten and tortured for entertainment of visitors of London, at the hospital of Saint Mary’s of Bethlehem, later known as Bedlam. Those who carried out the flogging were exempt from legal punishment.


Harsh as this may seem, the Elizabethans knew little better. In fact the common belief of the time, reflected in Shakespeare’s plays was derived from the doctrines of Hippocrates and Galen which stated illnesses were caused by an excess or deficiency of one of the 4 humours within the body: blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, a 13th century monk, suggested that excessive amounts of choler could give rise to madness. However, others suggested excess melancholy was the cause. I think in respect to Hamlet there is undoubtedly an excess of melancholy to account for any apparent madness!


There are several texts thought to have influenced Shakespeare in his creation of Hamlet. The most obvious is The Spanish Tragedy (1589) by Thomas Kydd, which was still being performed during the Elizabethan period, incorporating the themes of revenge, murder and feigned madness to avoid suspicion. A 12th century Danish chronicler, collecting information about his country’s past, wrote down the story of Amleth, this too includes the themes of revenge, treacherous murder, and the marriage of a mother to the assassin.


Shakespeare’ s plays include a great deal of psychological accuracy. In fact it could be said that, in relation to Sigmund Freud, Shakespeare figured out the human mind before the father of psychology was even born! Freud’s vision of psychology is derived, not altogether unconsciously, from his reading of Shakespeare’s plays. Freud developed the concept of how unconscious forces could disrupt a person’s mental health. Emil Krapelin in the 1890’s later classified this as Schizophrenia, which is a common type of psychosis, characterised by hallucinations, delusions, personality changes, withdrawal and serious thought and speech disturbances; linked to depression, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, thoughts of suicide and concentration problems. Typically it develops between late teens to early 30’s.


Freud’s suggestion leads on to the concept that Hamlet’s mind has both a conscious and sub-conscious level. Freud understood dreams, like jokes and slips of the tongue, concealed conflicting desires. An example of an indication of these secret urges is when Hamlet says to the king in his final rage, Act 5 sc.ii 318-19, “Here thou incestuous, murd’rous, damnèd Dane, drink off this potion”. He mentions incest, which has nothing to do with the King and Queen, but does relate to him and his mother.


From this I make an exceptionally provocative proposition. The Oedipus complex is according to Freud and later Earnest Jones (1949) the boy fated to kill his father and marry his mother. This controversial point is echoed by one raised by Thomas