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Hamlet Essay: Is Hamlet Sane

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Hamlet Essay: Is Hamlet Sane

With the coming of Freudian theory in the first half of this century and the subsequent emergence of psychoanalytically-oriented literary criticism in the 1960s, the question of Hamlet's underlying sanity has become a major issue in the interpretation of Hamlet. While related concern with the Prince's inability to take action had already directed scholarly attention toward the uncertainty of Hamlet's mental state, modern psychological views of the play have challenged his sanity at a deeper, sub-conscious level, typically citing self-destructive and, most pointedly, sexual drives to explain his behavior, his words, and the mental processes beneath them. In a play with undertones of incest and heavy doses of sexual word-play, critics using diverse psychoanalytical approaches to Hamlet have generated new (and sometimes plausible) readings of Shakespeare's best-know tragedy. But even if we forego this maze, the issue of Hamlet's basic sanity is worth re-examining from a modern perspective.

There is a distinct division of opinion among the other characters of the play about Hamlet's sanity and the split is along gender lines. Ophelia (Act II, scene i.) and Gertrude (Act III, scene iv.) both state that Hamlet is "mad," Ophelia reporting his dishevelment to her father, the Queen being unable to see or hear her son's final exchange with the Ghost of her husband. The major male characters, on the other hand, see with Polonius (II, ii.) that there is "method" in Hamlet's "madness," that his insanity is a surface mask to shield him as he plans the darker purpose of revenge.

Since Hamlet is understandably disturbed by the sudden death of his father and his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, King Claudius, the abnormality of his behavior to some extent also understandable. Hamlet is naturally withdrawn, dark, and morose in the wake of these traumatic events. And, by the same token, when he gives vent to his abject mood with lines like "How (weary), stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seems to me all the uses of this world!" (I, ii.ll.133-134). His self-exile and his self-reproach are essentially normal reactions to a series of events that he must avenge at his dead father's grave command but without further direction against a powerful adversary in the guilty King.

Moreover, Hamlet plainly does use the guise of madness toward tactical ends. He keeps Claudius, Polonius, and the other males of the play (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) off balance, unsure of the specific threat he poses but themselves an unable to act quickly because of it. It is under cover of madness that Hamlet presents his customized "mousetrap," his "play-within-a play," to successfully "capture the conscience" of the King. He sees

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